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All Things New Again

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Merlin unloads stacks of freshly washed linen onto the counter of the nurses’ station, his mind disengaged. Nearby, an old woman rolls her wheelchair past, mumbling to herself about butterbeans and waving a fly swatter. Merlin notices her in time to dip his knees, just avoiding a swat to the bum.

“Ha, ha, Georgie! I almost got you! Next time you won’t be so lucky!” the woman cackles as she wheels past.

“That you did, Mrs. Benson, but I saw you coming!” Merlin winks, watching the woman scoot away, body scrunched down in her chair, gnarled feet crammed into canvas shoes determinedly paddling the linoleum.  He sighs, mind blanking out again as he begins counting the sheets and separating them by the names etched onto their insides with black marker.

“What?” Merlin asks when he finally looks up from his task, coming out of his fog to find three of his colleagues staring at him with various expressions of concern or bemusement.

Gwen frowns, tucking a strand of curly dark hair behind her ear and shaking her head. “You were in your own world.”

“He always is these days,” Elena says tightly as she applies another label to a file and smooths it down with a fingertip.

Lance continues filling medication bottles and replies calmly, “Ignore them, Merlin. You’re fine.”

Merlin gives them all an irritated look, back stiffening a little. “Don’t you lot have something better to do than to pick on me? You’d think as nurses you’d be busy taking care of the patients!”

Elena immediately swivels about in her chair and slides open a drawer of the filing cabinet. Her long fingers pick through the tabs, occasionally holding them apart so she can slip a file in between them.

Gwen’s large brown eyes soften and her dimples make an appearance as she bites her bottom lip. “Don’t be angry, Merlin. We just worry about you, that’s all.”

“I’m tired of everyone worrying about me; I’m fine!” Merlin’s dismayed to feel tears pricking the backs of his eyes, and he closes them, bringing a hand to his face. He knows his friends are exchanging glances over him and suddenly wishes he could disappear.

 “Room 317 requested an extra blanket, Merlin, would you take it, please?” Gwen asks suddenly. “I almost forgot about it.”

Merlin clears his throat and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Mr. Pendragon?” he asks. He wouldn’t normally be so sensitive, but just last night he’d suffered through a lecture long distance from his mum on not being such a recluse, accompanied by a threat to come all the way from Ireland to the States to check on him if she didn’t hear that he’d started getting out more.

“Yes. His son’s recently flown in from London,” Elena supplies from her spot hovering over the files. “Bit of a prat, that one.”

“But very fit,” Gwen puts in, smiling.

Merlin glances at Lance where he’s moved off to help Mr. Freeman rise from his chair, and Gwen laughs.

“Very fit but gay, not that I’d cheat on Lance, mind you.”

“How could you possibly know he’s gay?” Merlin asks, pulling a blanket out of the cupboard and trying to tamp down the uncomfortable feeling rising in his chest.

“Vivian’s done her worst, and no reaction,” Elena’s eyes twinkle. “She pronounced him thoroughly bent this morning.”

Merlin rolls his eyes. “Well, it’s not as though I’m looking for someone,” he mutters, and doesn’t miss the glances exchanged as he turns away. He thinks by now his friends must be thoroughly brilliant at talking about him without speaking.

He strides down the hall and around the corner to the suite of rooms that Uther Pendragon has occupied since he fell in his daughter’s Nashville home a week previously, breaking several ribs and hurting his back. The man is only in his mid-fifties and tragically suffers from early on-set Alzheimer’s disease; his daughter and her husband are his caregivers, having remodeled a wing of their house into a suite of rooms for him. Merlin wonders about the son in from London and Vivian’s speculations that he’s bent. It rankles a bit that Merlin’s friends are obviously hinting that it’s time for Merlin to move on.

As though orchestrated by said friends, when Merlin steps into the room he is immediately confronted by a very fine male arse pushed high into the air, expensive trousers pulled tight and emphasizing every enticing line, as the man it belongs to bends over the bed to adjust something on the other side.

“There, Father, is that better?” a cultured, very British voice asks.

“Yes, yes,” the man in the bed answers. “Tell those people at the window to stop dallying about.”

The younger man sighs. “There’s no one at the window, Father.”

Merlin clears his throat, and the man straightens. Merlin jerks his eyes away from the guy’s arse and is immediately caught off guard at how very good-looking its owner’s face is---bright blond hair, blue eyes, patrician nose and lips the colour of raspberries that turn downward just a bit in what can only be termed a pout. The entire effect is ruined, however, when the man rudely snatches the blanket from Merlin and snaps at him.

“It’s about time! I asked for this twenty minutes ago.” He carefully unfolds it over his father’s supine body, scorn written all over his face.

“Sorry about that, but we’re understaffed,” Merlin keeps his voice pleasant, although he can feel his temper rising.

“Yes, well, for what we’re paying, the service here is atrocious.”

“It isn’t a hotel,” Merlin tells him, and the man turns, arching a blond brow.

“That’s obvious. If it were, I’d have you all fired. Do you know to whom you’re speaking?”

“Oh, let me hazard a guess…” Merlin puts his finger to his chin and pretends to ponder. “The most self-entitled prat ever to flaunt his family name and wealth?” he asks brightly, holding the finger up. He can’t help it; he’s never been one to rein in his tongue.

The younger Pendragon sputters for a moment and then both men turn in surprise at the sound of laughter.

“He’s got you there, Arthur,” Uther Pendragon says from the bed.

“Terrific, he picks this moment to become lucid,” Arthur grumbles under his breath, and Merlin breaks into a smile that seems to take Arthur off guard, making him wince as though slapped.

“Is there anything else I can do for you, Mr. Pendragon?” Merlin directs his question to Uther.

“No, Richard, that will be all, thank you.”

Merlin quirks an eyebrow at the name, and Arthur grudgingly supplies, “Richard was Father’s butler for years.”

“Oh.” Merlin nods.

“You can see how he might confuse you with his butler,” Arthur adds with a smirk. His eyes go to Merlin’s name tag. “Merlin? Really?” He squints, looking closer. “What’s a CNA?”

“Certified Nursing Assistant,” Merlin grits out between his teeth. He’s had about enough of this git and only wants to escape the room and his presence.

Arthur straightens. “Is that what you become when you can’t be a physician or a proper nurse?”

Merlin turns on his heel and walks to the door. “If that’s all your father needs…”

“Er…wait,” Arthur surprises Merlin by calling out. “Could you show me how to work the air? It’s a bit chilly in here.” Arthur still sounds like a prat, but his tone is a little less condescending.

“Sure,” Merlin stifles a huff and crosses the room to show Arthur the controls, which can be a little contrary. A stray lock of hair falls into Arthur’s eyes, and Merlin thinks it extremely sexy, in spite of the fact that Arthur is obviously an arsehole. A sharp stab of guilt has him abruptly turning away.

“Thank you,” Arthur surprises Merlin by murmuring as Merlin exits the room. Merlin doesn’t reply.

 ^^^^^^^

“So what’s the son doing here, anyway?” Merlin asks Gwen the next day as he helps her change the bed linen in Uther Pendragon’s room while the older man receives his physical therapy under Arthur’s watchful eye.

“Like him?” Gwen asks in a poor attempt at casual interest.

Merlin makes a face. “He’s awful. If you talked with him for more than a minute, you’d realise that.”

Gwen sighs. “The daughter’s been ordered on constant bed rest. She’s pregnant, you remember. So Arthur flew over to help.”

“Arthur, is it,” Merlin says. “You’ve got to know him, then? And you don’t think he’s a complete wanker?”

“He’s understandably upset and worried about his father,” Gwen replies, smoothing down the sheet and tucking in the corners. “The man’s so young to have this terrible disease. And I didn’t really get to know Arthur…We were mostly arguing over his father’s pain medication. He doesn’t want Uther to be in any pain, but the doctor says we can’t give him more morphine.” She sighs. “The family must hold quite a bit of weight in London, the way he was talking. Doesn’t do him much good here, though, obviously. Anyway, he’s a writer—I know that much. And he seems very devoted to his father.”

“I’ve noticed that, too.” Merlin fixes the top blanket and follows Gwen out of the room. “It’s his only redeeming quality, as far as I can tell.”

“Merlin,” Gwen stops before they part ways in the hall. “Lance and I would love it if you came for dinner this Friday night. Elena will be coming, too.”

Which means Gwaine will be there, because he’s visiting this week. And Merlin will be the only one without a partner. Of course, Merlin’s really missed Gwaine and would love to see him, but the thought of them all being together again, for the first time without Will…

“I don’t know, Gwen.”

“Merlin, please…It’s been six months. You can’t just hide away.”

“I’m not hiding!” Merlin’s voice rises, and several heads turn in the hallway. One of them belongs to Arthur Pendragon, who is struggling with his father’s wheelchair down the hall.

“Excuse me,” Merlin tells Gwen and strides off to help.

“I don’t want to sit…” Uther argues plaintively, trying to rise from the chair but hindered by the back brace he wears.

“Father, stop,” Arthur tells him, attempting to keep him in the chair. “You must sit. I’ll wheel you to your room.”

“Nonsense! I can walk!” Uther’s voice rises, and for a moment Merlin gets a glimpse of the authoritative man he must once have been. Uther moves to rise again and pain washes over his face. He sinks back into the chair, clutching at his side and breathing raggedly.

“Now, see, you’ve hurt your ribs,” Arthur clenches his fists at his sides in obvious frustration. Merlin imagines a man like Arthur’s not accustomed to feeling useless.

“Let’s get you back to your room, Mr. Pendragon,” Merlin calmly takes over for Arthur, pushing the chair over the threshold of room 317. He bustles about, getting Uther into his bed and as comfortable as possible. The man is moaning now, and it’s obvious that it discomfits his son, who agitatedly paces the room much like a caged animal.

“Can’t you give him some pain medication?” Arthur growls, underscoring the analogy.

“I’ll ask, but I don’t think it’s time for that.” Merlin begins checking Uther’s vital signs.

“There’s smoke coming out of your head,” Uther tells Arthur, and Arthur lifts worried eyes to Merlin.

“Why’s he saying that? He’s never said anything like that before.”

“Mr. Pendragon, can you tell me your first name?” Merlin asks Uther quietly.

Uther scrunches up his face.

“Do you know what year this is?”

“1995,” Uther answers. “Turn that siren off-- it hurts my ears.”

“Father, are you feeling all right?” Arthur walks around the bed and puts his hand on Uther’s shoulder.

“Two tablespoons of vinegar will fix that right up,” Uther says, eyes darting about the room. “That’s what Mother always said.”

Merlin picks up the buzzer by the bed and presses it.

“What’s wrong?” Arthur demands.

“My guess is his oxygen levels are low,” Merlin tells him. “It can cause this type of confusion.”

Vivian enters the room, Lance just behind her. As they assess Uther, Merlin pours Arthur a glass of water and hands it to him.

Gwen rolls in an oxygen tank and fits the tubes into Uther’s nose.

“There, you see?” Merlin tells Arthur, who looks stricken. “That’s all it was. The broken ribs make it difficult for him to take deep breaths, so his oxygen got a bit low. He’ll be better in a tick.”

Arthur runs a shaky hand through his hair. “I’m not any good at this,” he says. “I’m not cut out for taking care of someone.”

“Could have fooled me,” Merlin tells him. “You seem to be doing a pretty good job of it.”

Arthur looks at Merlin in surprise. “I haven’t done anything…I just sit here.”

“That’s more than you can say for a lot of people. Many of the patients here don’t have anyone to sit by their bed and worry.” He pats Arthur’s arm before leaving the room.

Later that night, as Merlin’s leaving for home, he peeks into room 317. Uther’s asleep, as is Arthur, sitting in the reclining chair beside the bed, the book which he’d been reading to his father open on his lap. Relaxed in slumber, Arthur's face looks young and innocent, lips slightly parted. He’s the first man Merlin’s taken any notice of since Will, and Merlin can’t help but feel he’s betraying Will somehow. But it’s only physical attraction…something his body can’t help. He really isn’t being disloyal to Will—after all, didn’t the two of them used to laugh and point out fit blokes on the street all the time? Merlin walks into the room and dims the light, unfolding a blanket from the bottom of Uther’s bed and covering Arthur’s legs with it before leaving.

At home, Merlin’s small house is hot because Merlin never keeps the air conditioning on, and he slips off his scrubs, tossing them in the laundry basket. He neglected to go shopping that week, because why shop for just himself? As he looks through his almost empty cabinets, he realises it may have been longer than just a week. He grabs a bag of tuna and cuts it open, forking out the contents onto a plate and eating it with crackers in front of the telly. The news is depressing, as always, and Merlin soon tires of it and turns it off. He walks through the silent house, turning the lights off, and switches on the fan before crawling into his empty bed and stretching out for another night alone. For the first time in months, the face that comes to his mind isn’t Will’s, but Arthur Pendragon’s.

Merlin stares at the dark ceiling over his bed and wonders if that means he’s moving on.

He turns his head and looks at the framed picture on his nightstand, visible in the moonlight pouring in from the window. Merlin and Will stand together in front of the house just after they purchased it. Will has his arms wrapped around Merlin’s waist, his chin tucked into Merlin’s shoulder. They look happy. They were happy.

Merlin picks up the photo and holds it tightly to his chest, a single tear making its way down his cheek and onto the pillow.

^^^^^^

“You could come to Ireland,” Hunith says, her voice wheedling.

“Mum, I don’t want to move there,” Merlin tells her gently, cradling the phone on his shoulder as he ties his trainers.

“You could move back to Wales. You only went to the States because Will got accepted to that nursing programme with his mates.”

“They’re my mates, too, and I like it here, Mum. Listen, I’m going to be late for dinner at Gwen’s. I’ll call you sometime this weekend. I love you.”

Merlin finds that talking to his mother gets more and more trying as she amps up the pressure to move back across the pond. It makes him not want to talk to her at all; and that, in turn, makes Merlin feel guilty. As he locks his front door and gets into the Honda Civic that still smells of Will’s cologne, he tries to push all thoughts of her out of his mind so he might be able to at least fake enjoying the evening.

The drive to Gwen’s and Lance’s duplex is short, and when Merlin arrives, everyone’s in the parking area hugging Gwaine, who’s just arrived with Elena.

Merlin gets out of the car, fortifying himself for what might be a scene that will turn him into an emotional mess, but he needn’t have worried; Gwaine only pounds him good-naturedly on the back before pulling him in for a quick hug, teasing him about his hair cut and still pale skin until Merlin loses the stiffness in his shoulders and the uncomfortable feeling in his stomach.

Gwen’s made spaghetti and there’s lots of wine, and Merlin finds himself gratefully sinking into the comfort of friendship, listening to Elena chatter about Gwaine’s reactions to Opryland. After they eat, Elena drapes herself over Gwaine on the couch, and Merlin props himself against some pillows on the floor, sipping at his tea while Gwen curls up in the over-sized chair.

“You only had one glass of wine, mate,” Lance says, glancing at Merlin as he tops off Gwaine’s glass.

“I have a late shift tonight,” Merlin tells him, stretching his long legs out and crossing his feet at the ankles. He catches Elena and Gwen exchanging a look.

“What?”

Elena shakes her head. “Nothing.”

“No,” Merlin feels the beginning of annoyance creeping in, “what’s wrong with my working a late shift?”

Gwen bites her lip, obviously not wanting to anger him. “Nothing’s wrong with it; you just work a lot, that’s all. We worry about your health.”

Merlin sighs. “I am not overworking myself.”

“You’re trying to hold onto that house,” Elena says quietly.

“Of course I am-- it’s my house!” Merlin says a little louder than he means to. Tea sloshes over onto his hand, and he curses. Lance hands him a napkin.

“Maybe it’s too much---“ Gwen looks around at the others, her eyes glancing off Gwaine and landing accusingly on Lance. “You know you two agree, but you never say anything. You leave it to Elena and me to be the bad guys.” She looks at Merlin, her eyes softening.

“We’re your friends, and we love you. We know you bought that place with Will and had so many plans…”

Merlin’s heart beats loudly in his ears. He gets to his feet and puts the cup on the table. He doesn’t have to listen to this. He doesn’t.

“Merlin!” Gwen stands, too. “You came here with Will, but you’re on your own now. Maybe it’s time you think about what’s best for you, yeah?”

Gwen looks up at Merlin, her face sweet and caring, and Merlin can’t stand it; he knows he’s going to cry if he stays a moment longer. It was a mistake to come here and think he could just have a normal evening.

“I have to go,” he croaks and heads for the door. “Thanks for dinner.”

Blindly, he yanks the door open and walks out into the humid darkness, crickets and katydids and all manner of other bugs singing a chorus around him in the black night. Off to the left an artic lorry rocks the highway as it speeds past, and Merlin takes a gulp of damp, hot air, a chill running through him in spite of the heat. When he reaches the car, he hears the door to the duplex close behind him, footsteps crunching on the gravel announcing that one of his friends has followed him.

“She means well, mate,” Lance says. “We all do.”

Merlin nods a bit jerkily, but doesn’t turn around.

“Are you okay?” Lance asks. If it had been anyone else, Merlin thinks he might try to cover with anger or bravado, but it’s Lance, who doesn’t push or prod or tell Merlin what he needs to do. Merlin shrugs, looking down at the car keys in his hand, eyes swimming with unshed tears. He feels the weight of Lance’s hand on his shoulder, comforting.

“This has been a shite year for you.”

Merlin lets out a watery laugh. “Understatement.”

“Yeah.” Lance squeezes his shoulder, fingers curling around Merlin’s bare neck. “I’m glad you came tonight. We all are—we don’t see enough of you outside work these days. I’m just sorry it ended like this.”

Merlin sniffles. “I just can’t take talking about it. I want to be treated normally.” He stares off over Lance’s shoulder at the dark trees behind the duplex.

“You want to pretend it didn’t happen.”

“Yeah. No…I don’t know.” Merlin turns around and leans against the passenger door of his car. Lance shoves his hands into the pockets of his jeans and waits, and Merlin thinks he can really do this…he can really unwind the knot in his chest a little bit, maybe.  He takes a breath.

“I’ve accepted it; I really have. It was so sudden, though. Sometimes it seems like it never happened at all, and…and Will’s going to walk through our front door any minute with that stupid grin on his face.” Merlin pulls his bottom lip in and holds it between his teeth to stop it trembling.

Lance nods, his face barely visible in the shadow cast by the porch light behind him. “I can understand that. I feel like that, too. I keep expecting him to pounce on me from around a corner like he used to—trying to scare me.”

Merlin can’t help but laugh. “He always said you scream like a girl.”

Lance smiles. “Yeah.”

After a moment of silence, Merlin says, “I don’t want to sell our house.”

“Are you about to lose it?”

Merlin shakes his head. “I’m okay. Will had an insurance policy in my name.” A lump forms in his throat. “I didn’t even know about it, the git. It wasn’t a lot, but it’s really helped.”

“That’s good to know. We’ve been worried, but we didn’t want to broach the subject with you. We’ve really tried to give you your space.”

Merlin nods; he knows it’s true.

“If you’re okay financially, why all the extra work?” Lance asks.

“I like to keep busy,” Merlin answers. “I can’t stand to be alone with my thoughts, and being with you guys is hard right now, too.” He puts his hand out and touches Lance on the arm. “Sorry, mate. You’re great, but I just need some time, I guess. I know you think six months should be enough, but it isn’t. I don’t know how long it’s going to take. Sometimes it feels like I’ll never feel okay again.”

“You will,” Lance promises. “You need time. I’ll tell Gwen to back off.”

The door to the flat opens and Gwen comes outside, shutting it behind her. Merlin straightens up, giving her a tentative smile as she makes her way slowly over to them.

“I’m sorry, Merlin,” she says unhappily.

Merlin pulls her into a tight hug that she eagerly returns.

“I just love you so much.” She begins to cry, and Merlin squeezes his eyes shut, unwilling to do the same. Instead he begins counting backward from one hundred, and when Gwen pulls away, he’s able to smile and tell her he’s sorry, too.

 ^^^^^^

For the most part, Merlin enjoys working with the elderly. Some of them have interesting stories to tell. Others need and deserve the attention. He doesn’t mind working at night, when it’s quiet except for the snores and occasional cries for assistance. The radio’s on low at the nurses’ station playing country songs, and Vivian’s on duty, as well as Austin and Beth.

“Mr. Pendragon’s restless tonight,” Vivian tells Merlin when he stops at the desk. “He seems to be in a lot of pain with his ribs. He can’t get comfortable. I’ve been in there four times in the past hour.”

“I’ll check on him,” Merlin says, heading that way.

The room is dark except for the dim light from the bathroom. Uther’s muttering from his bed. When he catches sight of Merlin, he begins to moan plaintively.

“Richard…Richard, get me some brandy.”

“It’s Merlin, Mr. Pendragon,” Merlin goes to sit by him and pats the man’s hand. It’s difficult to adjust to how young Uther is when the dementia patients Merlin normally deals with are much older. Uther stares at Merlin, blinking up at him like an owl.

“Merlin, who’s Merlin? Are you a friend of Arthur’s?”

“You could say that, I suppose,” Merlin replies. “You need your rest, sir. Can I get you anything? Some water?”

“My side hurts.”

“You’ve broken your ribs.”

“I have?”

Merlin nods. “Yes. Five of them. You fell in your daughter’s house.”

“Morgana.”

“That’s right.”

“Where’s Arthur?” Uther looks about the room agitatedly. “Where’s my son?”

“He went back to your daughter’s, I’m sure, to get some sleep. He’s here all the time,” Merlin says, pouring some water into the plastic cup on the table and offering the straw to Uther.

Uther takes a sip, then makes a face. “Bah, he hasn’t been to see me at all!”

“He’s been here so much, we’ve sent him home,” Merlin corrects gently. “He’s a good son.”

“He’s never been worth anything,” Uther grumbles. “Not Pendragon material, that one.”

For some reason, Merlin hates to hear the man disparaging his son, even though he knows Uther’s out of his mind and couldn’t possibly mean what he says. Arthur Pendragon truly has doted on his father since he’s been there.

“Would you like to try lying on your side?” Merlin asks. “The one that’s not hurt?”

Uther continues grumbling while Merlin carefully helps him position himself on his left side where he hasn’t any broken ribs.

“I have to use the bathroom,” Uther mutters once he’s settled.

Merlin tries not to sigh as he helps the man to sit up, fetching his back brace and putting it on him.

“I despise that thing! I don’t want to…to…” he seems to forget what he was going to say. He feebly tries to push the brace away.

“I’m sorry, but you have to wear it because you’ve sustained a back injury,” Merlin tells him patiently as he fits the contraption around Uther’s middle section.

“Need any help, Merlin?” Chris, a burly orderly who often works the night shift, pokes his head in the door.

Merlin smiles in relief. “Yeah, Chris, thanks, mate.” Between the two of them, they get Uther to the bathroom and back.

“Where’s Igraine? Where’s my wife?” Uther shouts as they cover him up again.

This is the first Merlin’s heard of a wife. He explains again to Uther where he is and that Arthur will be there in the morning to have breakfast with him.

“He should be running the business,” Uther grunts, “not having breakfast with me.”

Chris and Merlin exchange looks, and Merlin knows that, like him, Chris is thinking of all the residents who haven’t got a son willing to even call and check on them, much less eat breakfast with them every day. Of course, it’s probably the Alzheimer’s talking, not the man.

“Where’s my wife?” Uther asks again.

“I don’t know, Mr. Pendragon,” Merlin says.

Uther’s face falls. “She’s dead. Arthur killed her.”

Merlin tuts and straightens Uther’s pillows.

“You don’t believe me, do you?” Uther accuses. “Well, he did!”

“Goodnight, Mr. Pendragon,” Merlin tells him kindly, leaving the room.

“Wonder what he was like in his right mind?” Chris says in the corridor. “It’s Alzheimer’s, isn’t it?”

Merlin nods. “I don’t know. He could have been very docile. It can completely change their personality.”

Merlin has an hour left of his shift when Arthur arrives to have breakfast with his father, stopping at the nurses’ station to inquire about his night. When Vivian informs him that Uther hasn’t slept well, Arthur demands to speak to his attending physician.

“I’ll let him know,” Vivian promises, knocking her foot into Merlin’s under the desk to convey her irritation at Arthur’s pompous attitude. Merlin thinks Arthur looks like he hasn’t slept much either. He watches him make his way down the hall until he realizes that his gaze has settled on the man’s arse and jerks his eyes back to his paperwork. Not before Vivian gives him a knowing look, though. Fortunately, a call from a patient’s room keeps her from commenting.

Before Merlin leaves, he can’t help but look into room 317. Chris is coming out the door, a sour look on his face.

“I went for the breakfast tray, but the son says his dad won’t eat, and he wants to keep trying.” Chris bends toward Merlin and whispers, “The son’s a real ass. Told me to ‘run along and collect some bed pans like a good lad.’” Chris rolls his eyes and continues down the hallway, mumbling, “’like a good lad.’ Who talks like that?”

Merlin’s lips twitch, and he looks around the door into the room to find Arthur standing by the bed, his back to him.

“Get Richard to bring me my crumpets the way I like them, and I’ll eat,” Uther pouts, pushing away the toast Arthur’s offering him.

“Father, they don’t make crumpets here,” Arthur says wearily, turning to put the toast on the tray, worry plainly etched on his tired face. “Please…you didn’t touch your dinner last night, either. Don’t you want to recover and go back to Morgana’s? It won’t be long until the baby arrives.”

“You just want me to get better so you can jet back to London,” Uther accuses in a moment of clarity, and before Merlin can back out of the room, he clearly sees the hurt on Arthur’s face. Shaking his head, Merlin heads for the cafeteria.

Ten minutes later, he’s back at the door of room 317 where he finds both men fairly quiet—Arthur brooding by the window and Uther pouting in bed. Merlin is pretty sure there’s a jelly stain on Arthur’s shirt that hadn’t been there before, and since the tray is now gone, thinks it’s likely Uther’s in one of his food-throwing moods.

He sets the tray he brought up on a table and smiles brightly as he fully enters the room.

“Good morning, Mr. Pendragon! How are you doing today?”

Uther scowls at Merlin. “Just peachy, Richard.”

“Have you had your breakfast?”

“No, I’ve had it, as you can see,” Arthur waves a hand at his stained shirt before turning toward the window to look out, back stiff.

“I heard you called for crumpets and tea, sir,” Merlin says with a small bow to Uther. He elevates his bed a bit and produces a linen napkin, laying it over Uther’s lap.

Uther frowns, unsure. “Crumpets, did you say, Richard?”

“Yes, sir. And tea.”

Arthur turns from the window. “What are you on about…”

Merlin fetches the tray from the table by the door. He’s gotten the cafeteria chef to make him a few English muffins, which were the closest things they had to crumpets, and to brew some Earl Grey. Merlin nabbed a china cup and saucer from the dining room, too. He serves all this to Uther in style. The older man sniffs, and for a moment, Merlin thinks he’s going to reject it all.

Then Uther gives a curt nod and takes a sip of the tea. Pronouncing it acceptable, he begins eating his ‘crumpet.’

Merlin smiles, eyes rising to meet Arthur’s. Arthur opens his mouth, but nothing comes out.

“Have a good day,” Merlin says, smiling wider at having left Arthur speechless, and leaves for home.

 ^^^^

Merlin could be wrong, but after that he thinks Arthur softens towards him a bit. His glare is a bit less frosty, and he doesn’t bother to insult how Merlin does things much anymore.

Merlin often finds Arthur reading to his father from a novel or the BBC News website when he’s not accompanying him to physical therapy. While Uther seems to be doing all right, Arthur looks increasingly peaked and exhausted.

“You need a day off,” Merlin tells him one morning after bathing Uther and pulling the curtain surrounding his bed open again.

As though to prove his point, Arthur jolts in his chair at the sound of the scrape of the curtain, having fallen into a semi-doze with his eyes partly open.

“And you need to…grow a brain or…something,” Arthur falters, rubbing his reddened eyes.

Merlin chuckles. “See? Even your insults are suffering. Really, one day isn’t going to matter, and it’ll do wonders for you. I’ll look after him.” When Arthur doesn’t reply, Merlin sits down opposite him and looks directly into Arthur’s eyes. “Seriously. You look knackered. Don’t you have anyone to help with your father at all, other than your sister?”

“Only her husband, and he has to take care of the children,” Arthur replies in a rather zombie-like fashion that makes Merlin’s heart go out to him. “There’s only me.” He rubs his eyes. “It’s just the traveling back and forth—Morgana lives forty-five minutes away—and I’m not sleeping well. When I’m away from here, I keep thinking, what if something were to happen?” He clears his throat and straightens up in the chair, as though just realizing his vulnerability. “I’ll be fine.”

Merlin knows from experience how wearing it is for caretakers to feel that they always need to be with their loved one, even though they feel essentially useless when they’re there. It eats up their time and their health.

Arthur leans his head back, glazed eyes looking up at the ceiling and long stretch of pale neck displayed.  Merlin finds his gaze focused on the prominent Adam’s apple. “And it’s not as though there’s a decent hotel within a fifty mile radius of this place…” Arthur says after a moment.

“Price you pay for privacy and a glimpse of the mountains,” Merlin grins. “But listen.” He doesn’t know what makes him offer, unless it’s those sleepy blue eyes, pouty red lips, and long lean legs sprawled out in such an uncharacteristically casual manner. “I have a place very close by. You could go sleep there and be here in five minutes if you need to be.”

Arthur looks taken aback. He jerks his head up and blinks at Merlin like he’s trying to focus.

“Oh, I couldn’t do that.”

“Why not? No one’s there, and I have the key right here.” Merlin digs in his pocket and pries the house key off the ring.

“You don’t even know me; I could steal everything you own!” Arthur objects, staring at Merlin like he’s grown another head.

“I know you well enough, and believe me, I have nothing worth stealing.” That’s not really true; Merlin has a few things worth taking, but he sincerely doubts Arthur Pendragon would want them. He still can’t believe he’s doing this and doesn’t stop to reconsider; instead he presses the key into Arthur’s warm palm. “Put the address into your GPS, although I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it.”

Arthur appears to be at war with himself. He glances from the key back to Merlin before weariness wins out and his shoulders sag. With a brief nod of thanks, he hands Merlin his phone to enter his address into the GPS. Arthur glances at his father’s sleeping figure before rising from his chair and heading for the door. When he pauses, Merlin smiles encouragingly.

“We have your number. I’ll call you if anything at all happens. Have a good rest.”

And then Arthur’s gone, and the panic sets in.

 

 

^^^^^^

By the time Merlin gets off at six AM, he’s a wreck, whatever crazy impulse that prompted him to allow a stranger into his house having long faded to be replaced by anxiety, increasing a hundredfold with every hour that passes. By the time Merlin gets off work, he thinks he must have been crazy with fatigue to do such an impulsive thing. His limbs are heavy as they carry him to the parking lot, the early morning sun just peaking over the horizon, ready to burn off the layer of mist settled over the valley and ridge of rounded mountains beyond.

Home is his refuge, where he can go at the end of a long day and close himself up. And now he’s let someone into it----

The drive takes Merlin no time at all, and when he turns into the narrow wooded lane leading to his tiny cottage, he feels his heart rate pick up at the thought of someone being in the space he once shared with Will.

“You’re an idiot,” he murmurs to himself as he parks next to what must be Pendragon’s rental car, a red Cadillac ATS that gleams in the morning sun, and gets out. The front door to the house has been left unlocked, and Merlin enters the darkened, quiet interior, its familiar scent of oak, beeswax, and cinnamon shavings welcoming him.

Merlin slips off his shoes and pads in stocking feet toward the back of the house and into the bedroom. He hadn’t told Arthur where to sleep, but there really isn’t much of a choice, as the sofa is too short and there’s only one bed. He finds Arthur sprawled on it, face down, wearing only a pair of navy pants, his clothes folded neatly on the chair in the corner. Merlin’s eyes run over him, from his tousled blond hair, down his broad, strong back to the dip just before the tantalizingly round globes of his arse, and then the long, lightly furred legs and elegant bare feet. Merlin finds his eyes drawn to the two lateral lumbar indentations, or back dimples, above Arthur’s arse—something he’s always found to be incredibly sexy on a man. His cock twitches in his pants.

He pulls his eyes away, squeezing them shut a moment before looking back again.

Arthur’s breathing is even, his back rising and falling in deep slumber. Merlin hates to wake him, knowing he’s catching up on much-needed sleep. It seems so odd to see him lying there in Merlin’s bed. Merlin and Will’s bed. Merlin’s heart contracts painfully and he turns and heads for the kitchen, pulling some eggs, butter, and bacon out of the refrigerator and turning on the stove eye. His stomach rumbles as the bacon begins to sizzle in the pan. He plugs up the toaster, thinking about how he and Will purchased the larger four-slice variety because Will favoured toast so much in the morning and how recently it’s been just a waste of space because Merlin rarely eats more than one piece at a sitting. It comes in handy now, though, as Merlin anticipates Arthur’s hunger upon waking and fills all four openings with bread.

The small house soon brims with the delicious aroma of cooking bacon, and Merlin’s cracking eggs into a pan when he hears a mobile phone go off in the bedroom. A moment later Arthur’s tired voice murmurs and he appears in the bedroom doorway, mobile to his ear, shoulder against the frame, squinting in the bright morning sunlight.

Merlin tries not to stare at the vision Arthur makes, as he’s obviously not fully awake and probably doesn’t realize that he’s half-naked and sporting an impressive morning woody. With blond hair rumpled and face creased from the sheets, he looks utterably shaggable. Merlin turns away and concentrates on not burning the eggs.

From the sound of it, Arthur’s talking to his sister. Merlin gets out the juice and butters the toast.

“God, is that coffee?” Arthur asks several moments later. He’s dressed and his hair’s damp and finger-combed. “I didn’t mean to sleep so long.”

Merlin presses a cup into Arthur’s hand. “Cream and sugar’s on the table. I’ve made breakfast. Please join me,” Merlin smiles, placing two plates on the table.

Arthur takes a seat. He looks well-rested.

“Thank you. This is…very kind of you.”

“No problem.” Merlin begins eating. When he swallows, he gestures for Arthur to eat. “Your father was sleeping when I left, and I told Gwen to call if there’s a problem.”

Arthur nods his head and digs in.

“You look better,” Merlin tells him.

“Your bed’s comfortable,” Arthur replies. “I barely remember lying down.”

Merlin chuckles. “Yeah. It’s a very good mattress. Will insisted on it.” A knot forms in his stomach.

“Will’s your...boyfriend?” Arthur inquires, taking a sip of coffee, eyes narrowing in the sunlight from the kitchen window. Two birds chirp excitedly at the feeder outside the glass pane.

Merlin nods. Then, because he can’t just leave it at that no matter how much he wants to, “He was. He…passed away.”

Arthur winces slightly. “Oh. Oh, I’m sorry.”

It’s Merlin’s turn to nod. He continues eating, eyes glued to his plate.

“You’re obviously not from here,” Arthur says after a moment. “Was …Will…from here?”

“No,” Merlin replies, finding that it really isn’t so difficult to talk to Arthur about Will because Arthur didn’t know him. “We came over for a nursing programme that he and some friends were involved in. In the meantime, I became a CNA here. I’ve been here three years, but my mum never stops hoping I’ll move back to England, or even better…Ireland.”

Arthur smiles, and it looks good on him. “I thought I detected an Irish lilt.”

“Rather muted by now, I hope,” Merlin says with a grin.

Arthur finishes his eggs. “You’re a good cook.”

“Thanks,” Merlin smiles. “More?”

“No, I’m fine.” Arthur leans back in the chair and sips his coffee. “So, if you don’t mind me asking…how long ago did you lose your boyfriend?” Arthur’s eyes are just the right combination of removed and sympathetic, and Merlin doesn’t have too much trouble answering.

“About six months ago. Just after Christmas.”

“I’m sorry,” Arthur says. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Merlin schools his features, shrugging. “You didn’t.”

He hears the chair scrape. “I’d better get back to my father. Thanks for the use of the bed. Shall I strip the sheets before I go?”

“No,” Merlin says, turning to look at him. “That’s not necessary.”

“Well, thanks again, Merlin. It’s not often that someone’s been so kind to me.” He starts for the door. “I left your keys on the bureau in the bedroom,” he adds.

“Arthur,” Merlin says before he can properly think it out. “What happened to your mother? Your father mentions her occasionally.”

Arthur looks over his shoulder, hand on the doorknob, eyes two pools of fathomless blue. “She died. Giving birth to me.”

Merlin watches Arthur go, teeth worrying the inside of his lower lip.

In his bedroom, Merlin strips and draws the curtains more tightly closed so that the early morning sun can’t penetrate. He crawls into bed, pressing his face into the pillow. Remembering how Arthur looked sprawled there just an hour earlier, Merlin feels himself hardening against the mattress, and he groans, turning his head to gaze at the framed picture of him and Will. Closing his eyes, he tries to conjure up the last time they made love—a hurried shag in the shower at a motel in Nashville—but the memory is elusive and keeps turning into Arthur Pendragon’s pert arse and titillating back dimples. Squeezing his eyes shut, Merlin ruts up against the mattress, body burning and mind reaching for an image to bring him off—the faint memory of Will’s hands on his skin or the more recent one of Arthur stretched out on his bed—he isn’t sure which finally finishes him, and he falls asleep, exhausted, the faint, musky aroma of Arthur’s cologne mixing with the more salty scent of his release in his nose.

 ^^^^^

Merlin is surprised the following afternoon when he arrives on shift to find a message to call Morgana Pendragon.

“Has there been a change in her father’s condition?” he asks Lance before dialing the number.

“No. Everything’s fine.” Lance rushes off to administer medication, and Merlin listens to the phone ring on the other end.

Morgana’s voice is smooth, cultured, and a bit clipped and business-like. Merlin’s met her in person only once and remembers her to be quite striking in appearance with long, dark hair and light-coloured eyes---very different looking from her brother.

“This is the Merlin who allowed my brother the use of his bed yesterday?” she asks in a way that makes Merlin start scrambling to think what could possibly have been wrong with that.

“Er, yes…”

Morgana’s breath gushes out all out once, and her tone of voice changes completely, becoming suddenly warm and gracious. “I just wanted to thank you, Merlin, for somehow getting that clunk-head of a brother of mine to get some sleep! You must be something else to have managed to get him into your bed!” She chuckles a little lasciviously. “Even if it was just to sleep.”

“You didn’t have to call to thank me; it was nothing,” Merlin says, bowled over and blushing at the same time.

“I did, I really did, Merlin! You don’t know what you’ve accomplished. And I really must thank you in person. I want to invite you over for dinner. Can you make it tonight?”

“But that’s not necessary…”

“But you’d be doing me a favour. You see, I’m stuck here on bed rest, unable to hear a thing about my father except what my brother chooses to tell me. I’ll pay you for your time. I insist!”

Merlin can feel his face growing warm. “Honestly, dinner would be more than payment enough…”

“Then you agree?” Morgana sounds delighted, and what just happened here?

“Um, I have to work tonight.”

“Tomorrow, perhaps?”

Merlin lets out a breath. “I suppose that would work.”

“Splendid! Arthur can bring you. I’m sure you have competent enough people there to watch Father for one evening, although Arthur insists on being a terrible mother hen. Unless Arthur isn’t being straight with me about his condition…”

“Oh, no,” Merlin rushes to assure her, “your father’s fine. Elena’s working tomorrow night, and she’s wonderful.”

“That’s brilliant then. I can’t wait to talk with you, Merlin. Ta.”

Merlin hangs up the phone feeling as though a hurricane just swept through the room.

“What did she want?” Lance asks, pausing at the desk with his medicine tray and looking at Merlin curiously.

“To invite me to dinner,” Merlin replies. “Long story.” He gets up and grabs his cart to begin his rounds, knowing he’s leaving Lance standing with his mouth open.

He doesn’t see Arthur until dinner time when he finds him coaxing Uther to eat his turkey.

“This is rubbish,” Uther sneers. “Why aren’t you at work, Arthur? You aren’t letting the business go to ruin, are you?”

The look on Arthur’s face is definitely strained. “Uncle Agravaine runs the company now, Father.”

“What? But that’s ridiculous! Why aren’t you doing it?”

Arthur runs a hand over his face, and Merlin taps lightly on the door.

“How are we doing today, Mr. Pendragon? Enjoying your dinner?”

“How can I possibly enjoy this swaddle, Richard? What’s happened to Cook?”

“Why, I believe she’s come down with something, sir. Under the weather, you know. Wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings…can you take a bite or two before I take the tray?”

Arthur looks at Merlin with amazed disbelief mixed with indignation and possibly even anger, but Merlin just stands at attention by Uther’s bed, brow raised in query.

Uther grunts, looking down at his untouched plate of food before finally picking up his fork and beginning to eat.

“Arthur, may I see you in the hall a moment?” Merlin asks.

“Richard, have you forgotten your place?” Uther barks, and Merlin hesitates before amending his question.

“Sorry, sir.  Mister Arthur, may I speak with you in the hall?”

Uther looks mollified, and an exasperated Arthur heads for the corridor.

“What the fuck are you doing—confusing him more?” Arthur turns on Merlin as soon as Merlin shuts the door to Uther’s room behind him.

Merlin shrugs. “It doesn’t work that way, Arthur. Your father’s Alzheimer’s isn’t going to get better. He’s been on medication for a long time, and its progression is steady. Sometimes it’s just easier to go with it.”

“Go with it?” Arthur looks appalled.

“I couldn’t help overhearing what he said just before I knocked-- about you running the business. It sounded as though he’s asked before.”

“Many times,” Arthur admits tightly. “It’s a subject of contention between us that I chose not to take over the company upon his forced retirement, and I’m stuck in this hell of having to explain it to him over and over again…”

“Then don’t.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t explain it to him. Why put yourself through it, Arthur? What possible good does it do? Tell your Father what he wants to hear; it’ll make you both feel better. He isn’t going to remember thirty minutes from now. It’s an unfortunate fact, but a fact all the same.”

Arthur screws up his face in disbelief. “Is this legitimate medical advice?”

Merlin puts a hand on Arthur’s arm. “It’s legitimate friendly advice. I’ve seen a lot of this kind of thing. What’s the point of upsetting your father and having him berate you over and over again? Just tell him the business is running perfectly. It’s just like me pretending to be his butler so he’ll eat. What harm is it doing?”

“It deludes him into to thinking he’s in another time and another place!” Arthur objects.

“He thinks that most of the time anyway. We can’t make him unthink it for more than a few moments, which only serves to confuse and frighten him. This is kinder, really. And as far as medical advice goes, on the whole, doctors tend to agree.”

Arthur sighs, running a hand through his hair. “It seems cruel to lie to him. He would hate being patronised like this.”

Merlin shakes his head. “He isn’t really himself anymore. He would hate all of this, I’m sure. Who wouldn’t? It’s a devastating disease.”

Arthur looks at Merlin with sad eyes and doesn’t reply.

“Um, your sister rang me…” Merlin ventures after a moment.

“She demands your presence at dinner, I know,” Arthur replies. “She’s impossible to turn down. When?”

“Tomorrow night.”

“You may as well pack a bag and ride back with me the next morning. There are plenty of rooms.”

“All right, but I’ll drive. My car’s always stocked for medical emergencies, and it will make me feel better.”

Arthur agrees, and Merlin gives Arthur’s shoulder a supportive squeeze before continuing his rounds.

“Hang in there.”

^^^

Merlin expects to feel anxiety spending the night in a strange home, but it’s easier on him than he thought it would be. Although Morgana is a strong personality, her very large baby bump and the fact that the entire family has to eat picnic-style on her California-king bed immediately puts Merlin at ease.

Leon, in comparison to his wife, is a calm, quiet presence in an otherwise rambunctious household, with a soft, gentle laugh and easy manner that seems to take the rough edges off any uncomfortable situation. Arthur seems to get on well with him and even to unwind a bit. Merlin learned on the drive there that Arthur and Leon attended university together and were friends long before Leon began dating Arthur’s sister.

Their seven-year-old son, Mordred, is quiet and bookish and takes to Merlin immediately, showing him his entire collection of Harry Potter novels and figurines that his uncle has given him over the years. Their four-year-old daughter, Morgause, is loud and boisterous and the cause of most of the calamity in the house.

“I wish she would disappear,” Mordred confides to Merlin after dinner is over and Morgause is devouring her uncle’s attention. “If I were Harry Potter, that’s the first magic I’d do.”

Merlin ruffles the boy’s dark hair. “She’ll improve as she gets older; I promise.”

Mordred doesn’t look as though he believes him, but he doesn’t say anything more.

“Merlin, would you mind staying and talking with me for a bit?” Morgana asks, patting her bed. “Sorry we have to lounge about like this—I know it’s strange.”

“Not at all… remember where I work,” Merlin says, crawling up beside her. He’d already taken off his shoes for the odd picnic. He watches Arthur piggyback Mordred out of the room, Morgause attempting to attach herself to his leg. Leon shuts the door behind them.

Morgana smiles. “I like you, Merlin,” she says. “You’re different.”

“Thanks,” he says. “I think.”

She chuckles. “Oh, it’s definitely a compliment. I couldn’t believe it when Arthur told me he slept at your house.”

Merlin looks at her sideways. “You do know he just slept, right?”

“Yes,” she nods. “But that in itself is a miracle. Arthur is so good at closing himself off to people. Making sure he’s so obnoxious they’ll never want to get close to him.”

“Ah,” Merlin grins. “Good to know he’s not just an enormous git.”

Morgana’s eyes twinkle. “Yet you offered your home to him… you must be a very special person.”

Merlin shrugs. “Oh, I don’t know. Arthur’s not so bad. He’s been really knackered, trying so hard to be there for your father. I could see him just unraveling before my eyes. The rehab center is no place to get any rest, and I live just a few minutes away. The house sits empty all day…” he shrugs again.

He finds Morgana’s watching him carefully, and he clears his throat. “You have a lovely home.”

“Thank you,” she says softly. She moves her hand to cover Merlin’s on the bed. “For the compliment and for watching out for my brother, as well as my father.”

Merlin nods and smiles.

 ^^^

By breakfast, Merlin feels as though he’s known them all much longer than one night. The door to Morgana’s bedroom sits open so she can call comments and orders into the dining room as the others eat.

“Mordred, do not eat any of that sugary cereal!”

Mordred’s on his summer holiday and dressed in Harry Potter pyjamas, feet bare.

“It’s the nasty shredded stuff, Mum!” he yells back, making Merlin, whose ear is very close to Mordred, wince in reaction.

Morgause has jam all over her face and frilly white nightgown and makes hand prints on the table.

“Look, Daddy, lipstick!” she says, globbing some of the strawberry jam on her lips and smearing it in.

“Beautiful, darling,” Leon says distractedly as he sorts through a pile of mail.

“Look, Uncle Arfur!” Morgause demands. Arthur eyes her over the morning paper.

“Charming, sweetheart.” He sips his tea, keeping one eye on her messy hands and their proximity to his pristine blue shirt.

Leon pushes the mail away and chats with Merlin about Americans and their odd habits, and Merlin finds he really likes the easy-going man with his gentle smile. He and Arthur verbally jab at one another in what sounds to Merlin like a lifetime of private jokes, and as soon as Leon can get Merlin’s ear for a moment, he thanks Merlin for being a friend to Arthur.

“I wish people would stop thanking me,” Merlin smiles. “It isn’t a hardship.”

Leon raises a brow, then laughs, and Merlin chuckles along with him.

“It took me well over a year to break down his walls and become friendly with him,” Leon tells Merlin. “You’ve done it in less than a week.”

“We don’t want Merlin to be late for work,” Arthur breezes in from Morgana’s room, where he’d been saying goodbye.

“Take me with you, Uncle Arfur!” Morgause stands up in her chair, waving her jammy hands about.

“Not today, Little Miss,” Arthur tells her, bringing a wet flannel over and wiping her hands and face in an act of domesticity that frankly surprises Merlin.

“But I wanna see Gran-da!” She pouts. “Hey, you’re wiping off my lipstick!”

“Another time. I’ll see you tonight, if you’re still up.”

“I’ll be up,” she promises as Arthur sweeps her off the chair and onto the floor.

“See you tonight, Mordred,” Arthur tells his nephew, who nods solemnly. “We’ll read that chapter I promised.” Mordred’s face morphs into a delighted smile that shows the space where his two front baby teeth have recently fallen out.

Merlin gives his thanks and goodbyes, and Morgana kisses him on the cheek as he leans over her bed. “Please come back again. We’ll have you over as soon as the baby’s born and settled.”

“That will be lovely,” Merlin tells her, meaning it. He squeezes her hand and follows Arthur outside where it’s already getting hot and muggy, the bugs churning up a chorus in the hedge lining the driveway. Merlin’s dressed comfortably in his short-sleeved red scrubs, but he still has to turn the air in the car on high as soon as they get underway.

Arthur slips a pair of Ray Bans over his eyes and takes out his mobile, thumb sliding over the screen.

“Thanks for that,” he says after they’re on the main road.

“What?” Merlin asks, distracted as he tries to maneuver into the lane he needs in order to merge onto the expressway.

“Dealing with my family. I know it was overwhelming.”

Merlin glances over at Arthur, but he’s still staring at his phone.

“I didn’t mind. It was nice.” And he means it. Those people didn’t look at him with pity or like they expected him to break at any moment.

Arthur gives a nod, and they settle into a comfortable silence.

Maybe it’s the complete state of ease Merlin’s fallen into that makes him so unprepared for the panic that sets in moments after they hit the interstate, but it takes a few ragged beats of his heart to realise that’s what’s happening to him. And Merlin knows why-- of course he does. He hasn’t been this route in all this time, after all.

Swallowing, he takes a deep breath and reaches to turn the radio on, finding a soothing station. Arthur still appears engrossed in going through his phone messages, and Merlin tells himself he can do this.

He concentrates on the lyrics of the song playing, eyes on the road ahead, loosening his fingers on the steering wheel which he realises he’s got in a death grip. Don’t think about it, he tells himself. It’s as easy as that.

And for a while it seems that it is.

Until the inconceivable happens.

First a roaring noise drowns out the radio and the blast of air blowing through the vents, and then the car begins to wobble dangerously. Merlin stiffens in his seat, cursing, and takes hold of the steering wheel, pulling it to the right. He directs the car off the road and onto the side, his heart pounding in his ears.

“…flat tyre…do you have a spare?” Arthur’s saying, and Merlin blinks, panic rising to a fever pitch as

Arthur reaches for the door handle.

Unable to stop himself, Merlin yells out, “No!” causing Arthur to freeze in place, a look of pure alarm on his face.

“Don’t move,” Merlin directs, breathing hard, sweat beading along his hairline. Adrenaline courses through his veins, setting his body on full alert. “Don’t you fucking dare put a foot out that door!”

“Okay.” Arthur slowly leans back into the seat, hand coming off the door handle and settling in his lap, the other hand reaching to remove his sunglasses. Merlin can feel Arthur’s eyes on him and he knows, he knows he looks like a lunatic.  Merlin carefully puts the car in park and reaches to lock the doors.

“Merlin, I know how to change a tyre,” Arthur says calmly. “It’s no big…”

“Don’t you fucking even think about getting out of this car to change the tyre!” Merlin’s voice shakes. “I don’t have a fucking spare tyre.” He throws his mobile into Arthur’s lap. “Call AAA. They’ll take care of it.”

Arthur shoots Merlin a strange look before lifting Merlin’s mobile and scrolling through his contacts for AAA.

Merlin sits, rigid, trying to breathe through his panic, feeding Arthur the information he needs to give the person on the other line. He watches as Arthur sets the phone on the console and turns in his seat.

“Want to tell me what this is all about?” Arthur asks in the calm, low voice people reserve for wild animals or the mentally insane.

Merlin shakes his head, mouth dry. He stares out the window at the cars speeding by, wincing when the momentum of a lorry rocks the car. Arthur reaches over and turns on the emergency flashers.

“Merlin,” Arthur says softly, gently removing Merlin’s right hand from where it’s clutching the steering wheel. He squeezes Merlin’s fingers. “You’re ice cold. Tell me.”

Tears prickle the backs of Merlin’s eyes, and to his horror, he begins to shake. “Don’t…don’t make me,” he whispers, the words a plea.

Arthur rubs Merlin’s hand with his thumb, silence welling up in the car like something alive. “Okay. It’s okay. You don’t have to,” Arthur finally says, and Merlin relaxes a little. They wait for the garage to come, Merlin’s breathing slowing down as Arthur continues to hold his hand.

When the small lorry arrives, Merlin realises they are expected to get out of the car and looks at Arthur in panic. Arthur rolls down the window and speaks to the man outside.

“He’s going to do it with us in the car,” Arthur tells Merlin, and Merlin lets out the breath he’d been holding.

“Thanks.” His nose stings and his eyes are wet. He turns away, staring out the window and willing himself to get under control. This is unacceptable, Emrys.

The car tilts and there are sounds of tools clanking together. Merlin cringes at every car that whizzes by. The whole thing takes only a few moments, and Merlin snaps out of his thoughts to find Arthur tipping the man from the garage. Merlin mumbles that he’ll pay Arthur back and starts the car, carefully pulling back onto the interstate and driving the rest of the way in silence.

The road leading to the rehab center is steep and winding, and Merlin struggles during those last few moments to pull himself together. By the time the building comes into sight, he knows he’s going to have to call in sick. There’s no way possible he can concentrate, the way he feels. He pulls up in front and turns to look at Arthur.

“I’m going to get someone to cover for me today,” he says, staring past Arthur at the window pane behind his head.

Arthur nods. “You should. You don’t look very good.” He reaches to open the door and finds it locked.

“Sorry.” Merlin reaches behind him to press the automatic door lock button. “Listen, Arthur…” He forces himself to look at the man.

“You don’t have to explain anything to me,” Arthur tells him. “It’s all right. Really.” Arthur’s blue eyes meet Merlin’s steadily, and Merlin relaxes a little.

“Thanks.” He smiles a bit wobbly and watches Arthur walk through the automatic doors. Picking up his mobile, Merlin rings his supervisor.

^^^

The sick day combines with Merlin’s regular day off to give him two at home. He spends them puttering around the house, weeding the garden, and in an emergency appointment with his therapist, whom he’d stopped seeing regularly over two months ago. He paces about her office, telling her how embarrassed he is to have lost it in front of Arthur, and how he can’t believe he was triggered like that, and when the hell is he ever going to be normal again?

Mithian smiles at him and toys with her pencil, letting him rant until he tires himself out. Finally, Merlin plops down onto the brown leather sofa and stares moodily at the pale yellow walls graced with soft watercolour paintings.

“It may not feel like it, Merlin, but you’re coming along,” Mithian tells him.

Merlin’s mouth drops open, and he looks at her where she leans back in her large, leather chair, her trainer-clad feet propped on the corner of a humungous, paper-strewn desk.

“How can you say that after what happened?”

“You haven’t faced a trigger like that since Will died. Give yourself a break.” Mithian straightens in her seat, bringing her feet to the floor. “Do you like this Arthur fellow?”

Merlin frowns. “He’s nice enough.”

“Don’t close off,” Mithian tells him. “Merlin, it’s okay to be attracted to someone again.”

“I haven’t said anything about being attracted to him.”

Mithian smiles.

Merlin grunts, arms crossed protectively over his chest.

“Ask yourself if you imagine, as most people do after a loved one passes on, that to feel anything for someone else is a betrayal to the one you lost. Do you really think Will would begrudge you another chance at love?”

Merlin looks away, concentrating hard on the vase of flowers on Mithian’s desk.

“Merlin,” Mithian prods softly. “Why are you holding it all in?”

Merlin shakes his head. “I don’t really know.”

Mithian is quiet for a moment before saying quietly, “Be good to yourself, Merlin. That’s the advice you give other people, after all.”

Merlin knows she’s right, but it isn’t that easy.

“I feel like such an idiot after what happened in the car,” he admits.

“How did Arthur react?”

Merlin makes a face. He doesn’t want to think about it. He’s tried not to ever since it happened.

“Remember back —try not to colour it with your perceptions too much,” Mithian urges.

Merlin lets out a long breath and fiddles with the hem of his shirt.

“He was nice about it. Calm. He didn’t push me to talk about what was wrong. It must have looked crazy, when I think about it now, the way I yelled at him not to get out of the car.” Merlin shakes his head, embarrassed all over again.

“He sounds like a lovely person,” Mithian replies.

“He can be. When he’s not being a complete git,” Merlin finds himself smiling a little at the memory of the two of them sitting in the car while the man from the garage changed the tyre; Arthur acting as though nothing at all was amiss in this.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, at any rate. You can’t expect to get over it so easily.”

Merlin keeps reminding himself of Mithian’s words over the remainder of his time off, but when he sees Arthur again at the rehab centre, he thinks he’s not going to be able to look him in the eye. He can feel the tips of his ears turning red as he enters Uther’s room, only to find an incensed Arthur berating an orderly named John, who immediately gives Merlin a beseeching look and makes his escape.

“What’s wrong?” Merlin asks, completely forgetting his embarrassment as Arthur launches into a diatribe against the centre’s staff and the fact that his father’s things keep disappearing overnight.

“Surely one can rely on theft not being a problem in a place this expensive!” Arthur flourishes a hand to encompass the room, wrapping up his long–winded tirade and standing, hand on hip, patrician features etched with disdain. The lock of blond hair that insists on falling in Arthur’s eyes is the only thing that mars the picture of the uppity, entitled rich man. Merlin continues to find it adorable, but he still has to take a deep breath to steady his temper.

“No, not among the employees, anyway,” Merlin pulls his cart toward the bed and picks up the blood pressure cuff. “I suspect it’s one of the other Alzheimer’s patients…sometimes they wander into other rooms and take things, mistaking them for theirs. Just give me a detailed list of what your father’s missing, and I’ll see if I can hunt it all up.”

Arthur huffs and sits down with his gold pen and a notepad and mutters to himself as he writes. Merlin begins taking Uther’s vital signs.

“Those belong in your nose,” he tells Uther, indicating the nostril tubes that give him oxygen. Uther currently has them between his lips, which looks a bit ludicrous. He helps Uther to adjust them back inside his nose and takes a peek at Uther’s chart. He’s been needing oxygen a lot lately, which is not a good thing. Merlin will have to remember to question Lance about it—he’s been on shift the last eighteen hours.

When Merlin finishes with Uther, he turns to find Arthur staring off into space.

“Finished with the list?” Merlin asks. He has to walk over and nudge Arthur’s arm to get his attention.

“What? Oh. Yeah.” Arthur hands him the piece of paper. He seems to be over his snit and looks past Merlin at his father, who’s dozing.

“He wouldn’t do his PT this morning.”

“He wouldn’t? Do you know why?”

Arthur rubs his eyes. “He complained about his ribs. Yelled a lot. Threw a cup of water across the room. Called me a worthless son.”

Ah. Most likely the source of Arthur’s frustrated rage, rather than the disappearance of a few items. “It’s just the disease talking,” Merlin says softly.

Arthur’s laugh is mirthless. “Oh, no. That was all Father; he’s been telling me that for years.”

He stands abruptly and continues before Merlin can comment. “I just don’t feel he’s making progress, Merlin.”

“Skipping one session isn’t the end of the world. Did his PT say anything about it to you?”

“No,” Arthur admits grudgingly.

“Well, then. Don’t worry if you don’t have to.” Merlin smiles at Arthur and pats him on the shoulder before wheeling his cart out of the room.

“Merlin…”

Merlin turns around, surprised to find Arthur looking so discomfited.

“I hate to ask you this, but—would it be possible for me to borrow your bed again for a few hours? I haven’t slept properly in two nights, and I really don’t want to drive back to Morgana’s.“

Arthur looks as though it pains him greatly to ask this of Merlin. He’s quick to add, “If you don’t want me to, I understand.”

“Sure,” Merlin says, pulling his keys out. “It’s no problem; I told you before.” He gives the key to Arthur, who nods, obviously relieved.

“I really appreciate it. I want to be back here in time for his dinner, and Morgana’s is so far…and the kids. They want my attention every moment.”

“You don’t have to explain, Arthur,” Merlin smiles at him.

Arthur nods curtly. “I’ll set my alarm on my mobile.”

Merlin watches him go, strangely happy that Arthur will be sleeping in his bed again. Merlin wonders if he’s that lonely—that just the thought of another person occupying his space for a while makes him feel better, even though just days ago he couldn’t stand the thought of someone else being there. Somehow, he finds he doesn’t want to examine it too closely.

***

Merlin has already got Uther started on his dinner when Arthur barrels into the room, blond hair uncharacteristically mussed.

“I didn’t mean to be late!”

“It’s fine,” Merlin assures him. “Your father is enjoying his peas. Aren’t you, Mr. Pendragon?”

“They’re horrid, Richard.” Uther obediently opens his mouth for another bite.

Merlin hides a smile. “He’s been feeding himself, but I just wanted to get these last few bites in him.”

“Arthur, have you left work early?” Uther asks his son imperiously.  “As CEO, you should always be the last to leave; I’ve told you this.”

“Er,” Arthur’s eyes slide to meet Merlin’s. “It’s a holiday, Father. Businesses are closed.”

Uther grunts and takes the fork from Merlin, who gives Arthur a brilliant smile.

After that, Merlin makes sure he offers Arthur the key frequently so he can get in a good nap every few days. After having been to Morgana’s house, Merlin can see why Arthur has a difficult time resting there. It’s chaotic at best, and the children are so fond of their uncle, they want to be with him during their every waking hour. Arthur admits that he finds Merlin’s little house in the woods charmingly peaceful, and Merlin can’t help but find pleasure in the days when he comes home to a dozing Arthur in his bed. On those days, the two men often share a meal before Arthur goes back to the rehab centre.

When Morgana’s best friend and her husband come to visit from New York with their toddler in tow, Arthur begins to appear frazzled as well as worn-out.

“Arthur, you can stay with me if you want until they leave,” Merlin offers impulsively as he watches Arthur sag into a chair and rub his eyes the day after the guests arrive.

“They’ll be here two weeks, Merlin,” Arthur says. “I couldn’t impose on you like that.”

“I work crazy shifts. I’m hardly at home,” Merlin reminds him. “I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t want you to.” And he really does, Merlin realises, want him to.

Gwen happens to be in Uther’s room with them, and the expression on her face is odd when Merlin glances at her, but he ignores it. She leaves picks up her charts and leaves.

“Why are you so nice?” Arthur asks in a way Merlin’s not certain is teasing or not.

“It’s a curse,” he replies, grinning.

Arthur slowly smiles back. “But is it your curse or mine?” he asks, the words barely out before he sighs in resignation. “Okay, if you’re sure. I just feel like it’s an imposition.”

“I’m sure. If you really feel like you need to do something for me, you can make yourself useful somehow. Fix something. Garden.” Merlin shrugs. “Cook. I dunno. What are you good at?”

Arthur scratches the back of his neck, wrinkling his nose up. “I give good foot massages.”

Merlin’s eyes widen. “Oh?”

Arthur colours. “I didn’t mean that like it sounded…it’s just that, well, I do. Everyone says so. Not that I give them to everyone…” he rushes to explain while Merlin gapes. “It’s just something… I mean Morgana–oh, never mind.”

Merlin can’t help but bark out a laugh at Arthur’s obvious discomfiture. “Pack a bag and I’ll see you when I see you. I’ll bring an extra key to make it easier.”

“Merlin, did I hear you right?” Gwen asks as soon as Merlin makes it back to the nurses’ station.

“What? About Arthur staying with me? Yeah.” He looks at her. “What’s wrong with that?”

Gwen frowns. “Nothing, just…he’s a complete stranger!”

Merlin chuckles. “No, he isn’t. I’ve been to his sister’s, and he’s been taking naps at my house for weeks.”

“What?” Gwen’s obviously shocked and maybe a little hurt, and Merlin suddenly realises how little he’s spoken to his friends lately. He puts a hand on her arm.

“Hey, I’m sorry. It’s just… sometimes it’s easier to be with people that don’t know. Can you understand that?”

Gwen presses her lips together, but she nods. “Yeah. I think so.” She takes a breath. “I want you to move on, Merlin, of course. I guess I just thought we’d all be a part of it.”

“You are!” Merlin rushes to tell her. “And I’m not moving on. Not like that, anyway.” He gives her a look. “Arthur’s a friend. Someone to talk to.”

“But not about important things,” Gwen looks like she wants to bite her own tongue off. “Sorry.”

Merlin suppresses a sigh. “I’ve told him about…Will.” He pushes the name out. “But not all about him. He hasn’t pushed me. Things are easy with Arthur, and I appreciate that right now.” He doesn’t say outright that they aren’t easy with her or the others, but Gwen seems to get that. She looks away.

“I’m sorry, Gwen. It isn’t always going to be like this. I hope not, anyway.” Merlin looks down at the files in his hands.

Gwen gives him a sidelong look, lips turning up a bit at the corners. “Well, with all this time you’ve had away from us, you’ve missed out on a few things.”

“Such as?” Merlin raises a brow, glad that the conversation is taking a lighter turn.

“First of all, Lance has applied to med-school.”

Merlin’s mouth drops open, and Gwen’s breaks out into a full-blown smile.

“That’s fantastic!” Merlin enthuses. They’d all been needling Lance to do so ever since he expressed a desire to be a doctor.

“I know!” Gwen nods. “Which brings me to my second announcement. Lance agreed he’d apply, so long as I agreed…to marry him!” she holds out her left hand and waggles it in front of Merlin’s face. He has to grab hold of it to be able to focus on the thin gold band with the half-carat diamond set on top.

“Oh, my God!” Merlin bounces on his feet before throwing his arms around his friend, face burying in her soft, dark curls. “I’m so happy for you!”

Gwen squeezes Merlin tightly. “I couldn’t believe it! I thought he was never going to ask, but it turns out he’s been making payments on the ring for ages!”

“He’s so sneaky,” Merlin says, letting her go. “Behind that quiet, calm exterior and those soulful eyes.”

“I know, right?” Gwen squeals, admiring her ring under the harsh fluorescent lighting.

“It’s lovely,” Merlin tells her truthfully.

“Thank you, Merlin,” Gwen raises sincere brown eyes to meet his and smiles.

Later that evening, Merlin gives the house a cursory cleaning before Arthur arrives. When he’s finished, he goes to sit on his bed, taking the picture of himself and Will off the nightstand and staring at it, tracing his fingertip lightly over the image of Will’s face.

“I miss you, you twat,” he whispers. “Every day.” Sighing, he lays the frame down and leans back on his pillows, staring at the ceiling, trying to recall what it had been like before when he’d come home to find a scruffy Will in bed waiting for him.

Their life together hadn’t been perfect by any means, but Merlin had been happy, and he knows Will had been, too. They’d had their occasional fights, because Will was a stubborn git who liked his space and often became annoyed by Merlin’s babbling; and Merlin frankly hated the way Will insisted on watching pro-wrestling on the telly and leaving beer bottles everywhere, including the bathroom. Will abhorred reading, and Merlin loved it, and Will made fun of Merlin’s penchant for gardening.

But they had similar senses of humour, and they’d had a pretty good sex life. Plus, they’d grown up together in a small town in Ireland and knew all the same people and just about everything about one another. In fact, Merlin’s mother and Will’s father had been married for a short time just out of high school. They’d liked to joke that, because of this, their own relationship could be considered a bit incestuous.

In fact, they’d played out a couple of hot fantasies along those lines a time or two just for kicks.

Merlin leans back on the pillows, his hand moving inside his track pants to cup his hardening cock, remembering Will throwing him against the wall and growling through gritted teeth, “I don’t care if you are my brother, I have to have you!”

And another memorable moment…”Do it, Merlin…come all over Mum and Dad’s bed…” as he enthusiastically rode Merlin’s arse.

Merlin moans, shimmying his pants down until they’re around his knees, physical need building inside him. He looks down to where his T-shirt rides up, his erection jutting stiffly toward the ceiling, a single drop of pre-cum leaking from the slit. He reaches down and pulls at his cock, slowly, the memories of that time with Will crowding his mind and driving him on. That too easy way it was to imagine Will really was his brother rather than his boyfriend, making what they were doing seem so wrong and dirty…

Merlin’s balls tingle, mind buzzing, and he’s almost there, his orgasm just peaking… sensations ready to pour over him like warm, tingling syrup; toes curling, knees beginning to tremble, when the sound of knocking breaks through his thoughts. Incessant knocking, as though it’s been going on for quite some time.

Merlin leaps off the bed, almost toppling the lamp from the nightstand, yanking his track pants up as he trips over his own feet.

“Coming!” he yells, righting himself and heading for the front door. He doesn’t want Arthur to think he’s unwelcome—Merlin’s spent enough time assuring the prat that he is. How fucking long has he been knocking while I’ve been wanking? Merlin wonders as he makes a lunge for the door knob.

Nerves on high alert, face flushed, balls still tight and sensitive cockhead brushing enticingly against the inside of his pants, Merlin flings open his front door to find Arthur in a pair of shorts, of all things—Merlin was beginning to think the man didn’t own anything but long trousers-- bent over on the front porch, his rounded arse once again turned Merlin’s way.

A glimpse of the perfect globes, satin running shorts stretched over them emphasizing the tantalizing cleft--with long, tanned legs, the last rays of the sun shining through the fine, blond hairs covering them-- is all Merlin needs for the image to flash in his already overly-stimulated mind’s eye: Merlin’s hand pressed to the center of Arthur’s bare back, keeping him still while he pushes between those perfect arse cheeks, fucking the breath out of Arthur… making him come undone.

With an unexpected, full-body shudder, Merlin’s impending orgasm hits—full force, buckling his legs so that he sags into the door frame with a gasp, barely registering as Arthur straightens and turns around, bag in hand. Merlin abruptly spins, staggering back the way he came, croaking something over his shoulder about Arthur making himself at home before locking himself in the bathroom, scrambling out of his pants, and milking the last bit of come out of his cock until the buzzing in his ears subsides and he can breathe again.

“Merlin? Is everything all right?” Arthur’s calls from the hallway.

“Yeah! Fine. I’ll be right out.” Merlin hopes he doesn’t sound as hoarse and weak as he thinks he does.

He reaches over and flushes the toilet, then washes himself off, head pounding from the sheer force of his release.

When he enters the kitchen a few minutes later, Arthur’s removing food from a take-out bag and placing it on the kitchen table.

“Sorry about that. Emergency,”  Merlin says, cheeks colouring with embarrassment, but he’d rather Arthur think his bowels are acting up than know he came in his pants at the sight of Arthur bent over on his porch.

Arthur only smiles. “I hope you like Italian.”

“Love it,” Merlin gets some wine out of the refrigerator, trying to shrug off the odd feeling that he just had sex with Arthur. The intensity of his orgasm has left his limbs loose and his mind numb. He busies himself by getting plates and silverware and setting the table.

They talk about Uther’s progress and something funny Mordred said that morning, and by the time they’ve finished eating, Merlin’s stomach is full and he’s a bit sleepy.

Arthur shoves the trash into a bag, turns toward the sink, and suddenly stills, eyes pinned to the back door. “Merlin…what is that on your back deck?”

“Hm?” Merlin moves his head to look. Outside the sliding glass door something moves about underneath the porch light.

“Oh…shh. Don’t move!” Slowly Merlin gets up out of his seat and stands beside Arthur, peering out into the darkness. “I’m going to turn this light out. Wait.” He flicks the switch on the wall, casting the room into darkness, making it easier to see outside.

“It’s a…what the hell is that?” Arthur whispers, nose crinkling up in distaste.

“It’s an opossum,” Merlin tells him, a smile spreading over his face. “With her babies. Her name’s Hazel.”

Arthur turns to Merlin, flabbergasted. “You named it?”

Merlin laughs. “Yeah! She’s sort of a pet. I feed her. See?” He points to the bowl the opossum noses into. “She’s eating the cat food I put out. Isn’t she cute?”

Arthur stares at the animal for a few drawn-out seconds before announcing, “She’s utterly hideous!”

Merlin lets out a puff of air. “Well, I know she isn’t as cute as a cat or dog, but…”

“No, I’m not joking, she’s atrocious!” Arthur insists.

“I wouldn’t go…”

“Absolutely revolting!”

“Arthur.”

“That’s the ugliest fucking animal I’ve ever laid eyes on!”

Merlin flips the light back on. “She’s not that bad.”

Arthur shudders. “If you say so.”

Merlin shakes his head, unable to keep himself from chuckling at Arthur’s over-the-top reaction.

“Did you see those teeth?” Arthur asks, obviously not quite over it as he follows Merlin out of the kitchen. “And you actually lure that thing onto your porch with food?”

Merlin stops in the hallway, turning around. “She’s cute, Arthur!”

“And I bet you also think those horrid little dogs are cute with the big ears and hardly any teeth, their tongues lolling out the sides of their mouths and practically no hair on their bodies,” Arthur accuses.

Merlin doesn’t say anything, because he kind of does. Arthur starts laughing. "I knew it!”

Merlin makes a noise of frustration as he walks down the back hall to the bedroom.

“I’ll bet you’re the type to have one of those awful, fluffy, standard poodles with the bows in their hair,” Merlin accuses over his shoulder.

Arthur snorts. ‘Hardly. Nothing beats a good greyhound…” he nearly bumps into Merlin when Merlin suddenly stops in the doorway to his bedroom.

“Shit.”

“What’s the matter?” Arthur asks, breath warm on Merlin’s neck before he backs up a step.

Merlin turns. “I, um…well,” he scratches his head, embarrassed. “I kind of forgot the fact that I only have one bed. The couch isn’t large enough to sleep on.” He hopes to God Arthur doesn’t think he did this on purpose.

Arthur looks past Merlin into the bedroom. “Oh. I guess…I could sleep on the floor.”

Merlin makes a face. “On the hard wood? No! I couldn’t let you do that; it would kill your back. But I know the couch is almost as bad, because one time Will and I had a fight, and I tried to sleep on it.” He shakes his head. "It was the main reason we never went to bed angry. No,” He looks at Arthur, “listen, I don’t mind sharing the bed if you don’t. It’s pretty big. Tomorrow I’ll ask Gwen if I can borrow her air mattress.”

When Arthur doesn’t immediately reply, he hurries to say, “but if it makes you uncomfortable, I guess…”

“No, no,” Arthur says, “of course not. That’s fine! I just hope my snoring doesn’t keep you awake.”

“Will snored like a freight train,” Merlin scoffs. “That’s no problem.” Merlin picks up the picture he’d left on the bed and puts it back on the nightstand, wondering for a moment what it will be like to share the bed with another man, no matter how innocently.

“I’m sure you miss him,” Arthur ventures into the silence that falls. “It must be difficult.”

Merlin nods, biting the inside of his lip.

“Having your friends here probably helps.”

Merlin turns and sighs, perching on the edge of the bed. “Not really, no. I mean…you’d think so, wouldn’t you? But it seems like,” he licks his lips, trying to put it into words. “It’s like they’re always expecting me to break down. And being with them is painful. It reminds me so much of Will, that I’m always expecting him to walk in the door, you know?” He looks at Arthur, who’s leaning against the door frame, blond hair falling into intense blue eyes.

Arthur nods.

“Will and I knew each other our whole lives.” Merlin explains. “It just seems so…wrong…that he’s gone.”

Arthur’s mobile rings and he gives Merlin an apologetic look before taking it out of his pocket.

Merlin listens to Arthur talk to someone about what sounds like business before getting up and going to take a shower. When he’s finished and dressed in an old T-shirt and a pair of sleep pants, he returns to the bedroom to find Arthur already in bed with his lap top open.

“Er, is there a particular side you sleep on?” Arthur asks, looking up at Merlin over a pair of wire-framed glasses. He wears a worn grey T-shirt and a pair of white sleep pants.

“You’re fine,” Merlin assures him, walking around and crawling under the sheet and light quilt. He grabs a pill off his nightstand and swallows it with a gulp of water from a bottle he keeps there.

“I just have to finish up an email,” Arthur quickly types, and Merlin doesn’t bother turning on the lamp beside him, just settles down and closes his eyes. He’s asleep before Arthur finishes.

Sometime in the night, Merlin opens his eyes to darkness. He blinks, wondering what awakened him. It takes a groggy moment to remember that the warmth he’s been feeling beside him for hours came from Arthur, and then he realises that Arthur is out of bed and standing by the window, looking out through a crack in the curtains.

“Arthur?” Merlin’s voice, hoarse with sleep, sounds loud in the quiet room. “What are you doing?”

“Shhh…I hear something,” Arthur says, holding up his hand.

Merlin sits up, rubbing his eyes.

“There…there! Did you hear that?” Arthur looks at Merlin, eyes wide.

Merlin frowns. “Arthur…”

“What the hell? Is it that thing on the porch?”

Merlin laughs; he can’t help it. “Have you never been in the country before? That’s an owl! They make all kinds of crazy noises.”

A barn owl calls again, and Merlin grins. He has to admit, they do sound odd, and he remembers he and Will wondering what the hell the noise was when they first moved there.

Arthur lets go of the curtain and stands a little uncertainly. “Are you sure? That doesn’t sound like a bird to me.”

Merlin flops back and curls onto his side, pulling the quilt up to his ears. “Yes, I’m sure. Did you really think it was the possum? Were you afraid it would get in?” He chuckles, then suddenly finds himself smacked with a pillow.

“Shut up, Merlin,” Arthur grumbles, crawling back into bed. “Just because I live in civilization and not out in the middle of nowhere like some Grizzly Adams type person…”

Merlin laughs outright. “How do you know about Grizzly Adams? Oh, my God!” He can’t stop laughing.

“Merlin!” Arthur sounds exasperated. “It’s on some oldies but goodies channel Mordred insists on watching!” He huffs and moves onto his stomach, taking much of the quilt with him.

“Hey!” Merlin yanks part of it back.

“Grizzly Adams,” he chuckles again a moment later, but Arthur’s already snoring beside him.

^^^

Somehow they never bother getting the air mattress from Gwen. Merlin forgets again, and then after that it seems silly to go to the trouble. Sleeping beside Arthur isn’t as weird as Merlin thought it might be; in fact, it’s extremely comfortable from the start. When he wakens fresh and rested for the third day in a row, Merlin realises he hasn’t had a really good night’s sleep since Will died.

Arthur has frequent arguments with his agent about what Merlin learns is a writing assignment the man thinks Arthur should take, but Arthur is unwilling to commit to it when his father’s health remains so uncertain. Unlike what Merlin assumed at first—that Arthur is a novelist—Arthur is in fact a freelance writer who, for a short time, worked for a well-known magazine in the UK. Evidently, Uther vehemently disapproves of his son’s chosen profession, and it’s been a subject of dispute between them for years.

“It’s only been since the onset of his disease that he’s been willing to speak to me again,” Arthur tells Merlin one evening when Merlin arrives home from his shift and updates Arthur on his father’s progress in rehab. Arthur left Uther late that afternoon in order to join Morgana and her guests for a dinner out, and Merlin finds Arthur on the back deck drinking a beer.

“That must have really hurt,” Merlin comments, sipping his own cold beer from the bottle.

Arthur doesn’t answer, just stares out into the dark woods. All around them the night fills with a cacophony of sound: insects buzzing in the trees, frogs croaking in a nearby creek, the rustling of underbrush as untold creatures scurry about just outside the circle of illumination cast by the porch lamp.

“Do you like it here?” Arthur asks after a moment.

Merlin regards Arthur’s profile, which is all noble lines—straight, patrician nose, sharp cheek bones, stark forehead—somewhat softened by full, pouty lips and soft, fair eyelashes. He suddenly realises he’s been staring far too long and blinks, looking away.

“Tennessee? Well enough. Why do you ask?”

Arthur shrugs. “It’s just…I don’t know. It’s none of my business.” Arthur takes a long swallow of beer.

Merlin shifts in his chair. “No, go ahead. I’m interested to hear someone’s point of view who isn’t involved. I’ve certainly heard enough from my friends and my mum.”

Arthur glances at Merlin as though to make certain he’s in earnest before saying, “The more I see of the area, the more it seems a little…close-minded here. They certainly aren’t open to gays.” He pauses, and Merlin nods.

“Will and I just kind of kept to ourselves,” he acknowledges.

“And you live out here in the woods,” Arthur adds. “You’re such a friendly, outgoing person, Merlin…”

Merlin can’t help the grin that slides over his face. “Why, Arthur, I’m surprised you noticed!”

“Shut up,” Arthur huffs, but his lips twitch with a suppressed smile. “Seriously, why are you hiding out here?” He lowers his voice, which has risen a bit. “Is it the…grief?”

Merlin looks away, and Arthur immediately apologises.

“See, it’s none of my business. I’m sorry, Merlin. Just forget I said it. Lord knows, I’ve done my share of hiding.”

Merlin shakes his head. “No, it’s okay. I told you to speak your mind. Yes, I’m hiding out here. I don’t want to face the world. I followed Will to the States, and I’ve stayed here because it’s easier.” He shrugs. “I’m still just taking it a day at a time.”

“Fair enough,” Arthur says quietly.

“So, what are you hiding from?” Merlin asks after several more sips of beer. A bat swoops down close to the porch before fluttering away into the darkness. Merlin props his bare foot up on the wooden rail in front of him. He’s changed out of his scrubs into a pair of lounge pants and a T-shirt, and he sinks gratefully into the cushions of the patio chair; it’s been a long day.

Arthur doesn’t answer right away. Finally, he utters one word so softly that Merlin almost doesn’t catch it.

“Happiness.”

“That’s supposed to be something you want, you know,” Merlin teases quietly. “Not something you hide from.”

“It frightens me,” Arthur mumbles before finishing off his beer. Merlin watches Arthur’s throat move as he leans back and swallows.

“Why?” Merlin asks, and Arthur looks stumped for a moment. He tilts his head, blond hair catching the light from the porch lamp.

“I guess…I guess because I’ve never really had it.”

“You’ve never been happy?” Merlin asks in disbelief. “Come on, look at you! Gorgeous, successful, rich…how can you not be happy?”

Arthur blinks rapidly, and Merlin is surprised at how uncharacteristically vulnerable Arthur looks.

“You…think I’m gorgeous?” Arthur asks, cheeks flushing. Unaccountably, Merlin finds this both adorable and irritating at once.

“Oh, for Pete’s—yes,” he scoffs, “You’re gorgeous, as though that could possibly be news to you-- blond, blue-eyed, incredibly fit as you are!” He shakes his head and downs the last bit of his beer. “Christ, Arthur, try growing up gangly with ears that stick out!” He stands, moving forward to lean against the railing.

Lightning bugs dot the woods with intermittent sparks of light, lending a magical quality to the darkness around them.

“I like your ears,” Arthur says from behind Merlin. “And you’re not gangly…”

“Yeah, well, I may have finally grown into my limbs,” Merlin mumbles, still annoyed, although he isn’t sure why.

“You’ve got great cheekbones,” Arthur says. “You're actually quite beautiful.”

A blush blooms over Merlin’s face, and he lowers his head, warmth at the compliment spreading through him. Lots of people have commented on his bone structure over the years, but somehow the fact that Arthur’s noticed and admires it pleases Merlin considerably.

Arthur comes to stand beside him, leaning his arms on the railing and staring out at the same dark nothingness that Merlin’s been watching so avidly.

“Just because I’m…privileged…doesn’t mean I necessarily have the confidence you seem to think I should have,” Arthur tells him. “I grew up being told I never quite met the standard, and being gay really did me in. My father had already picked out the woman he wanted me to marry.”

Merlin can’t imagine having this happen to him; his mother and father were always supportive of his sexuality. But, of course, he’s always known he’s been fortunate that way.

“And you refused?” Merlin asks, glancing at Arthur’s profile. “That must have taken a lot of courage.”

Arthur laughs, a scoffing sound. “Oh, I faked it for a long time. I tried to be what he wanted me to be, believe me. I courted Sofia. I tried to sleep with her. If I could’ve gotten it up with her, I might have gone ahead and married her, just to please my father. In the end, that’s what saved me. Since I couldn’t fake my way through a relationship with her, I had to admit my sexual preference to my father, and that led to the big blow-up and my leaving home and not taking over the family company as I’d been raised to do.”

Merlin winces. “That must have been tough.” He tries to imagine being with a girl and trying to fake it. “The only girl I’ve ever been with was when I was thirteen. Her name was Freya, and we only kissed. It didn’t do a thing for me.”

Arthur snorts, clasping his hands over the railing. “Imagine taking that further. I thought if I planned a romantic night at our cabin at the lake and really tried…it was horrendous. She did everything she could, even—well. You can imagine. And I stayed embarrassingly limp and uninterested. Then there was the long drive home in silence. Of course I had to tell her I’m gay, or she’d think it was just her…”

“Of course,” Merlin agrees. “How awful for the both of you.”

“Sofia was a nice girl, but not so nice that she didn’t tell her best friend, who then proceeded to tell everyone at the country club. Good thing I’d already told my father and made plans to leave.”

“Your father didn’t try to stop you from going?” Merlin asks, unable to grasp the thought.

Arthur’s mouth hardens. “He helped me pack.”

“Arthur, I’m sorry.”

Arthur turns to Merlin. “I don’t want your sympathy. I’m just telling you this so you’ll understand; my father always told me I was too soft and much too pretty. He made fun of my fair hair and ‘pretty blue eyes.’ He liked to call me ‘princess’ just to tick me off. I learned later from my uncle that it was because I look so much like my mother. Although my father loved her dearly, she cheated on him several times during their marriage. But that doesn’t lessen the hurt or change the fact that I couldn’t help but believe him all those years—and that I still believe it, deep down.”

Merlin stares at Arthur, dumbstruck. Impulsively, he reaches out and grabs one of Arthur’s hands, clasping it in his.

“Arthur, you are the most handsome man I’ve ever laid eyes on. Seriously. You belong on a magazine cover.” I once came at the sight of you, he adds in his head. "And there's certainly nothing feminine about you."

Arthur looks away. “I’m not fishing for compliments. I just want you to know I’m not a conceited git.”

“I never really thought that,” Merlin says. “Not for long, anyway. I just never imagined you’d suffer from insecurity over your looks, that’s all.”

“Well, you were wrong,” Arthur is actually pouting a little, and Merlin can’t help but find it charming. He tugs at Arthur’s hand.

“Come on; don’t be mad at me. Let’s have a hug.”

Alarm suffuses Arthur’s face, and Merlin smiles, tilting his head. “Sorry. Intimacy issues?”

Arthur makes a derisive noise and abruptly steps into Merlin’s arms. He feels warm and solid, and Merlin pulls him close, burying his nose into Arthur’s clean-smelling hair a moment before pulling back.

“My therapist would say we’ve done well tonight, cleansing ourselves of negativity. Now, how about a game of monopoly?”

Arthur smiles, shrugging. “Sure, why not?”

They head inside.

^^^

Several nights later, after a long shift, Merlin gets out of the shower to find Arthur returned from the rehab center and smiling widely. Uther’s ribs are healed, and he’s walking around a bit, and Arthur’s ecstatic, standing in the living room staring at his iPhone.

“I’m sending pictures that I took of Father today to Morgana,” he tells Merlin after explaining all Uther did that day with the PT.

“I’m sure she’ll be just as excited as you are at his progress," Merlin replies, heading for the bedroom.

“Come look, Merlin,” Arthur insists, and Merlin dutifully turns around and walks back to take a look at the outstretched phone.

“It shouldn’t be too long now until he can go home,” Merlin says after viewing several pictures of Uther doing various tasks, including a short video of him walking about the activity room. Arthur’s answering smile starts Merlin’s heart fluttering in his chest, and he’s suddenly aware that he’s wearing only a thin towel around his waist.  Arthur seems to realize it at the same moment, his eyes moving in a slow sweep over Merlin’s body, their scrutiny lighting a fire in Merlin’s loins.

Simultaneously, both men step apart, and Merlin heads for the bedroom, all too aware that the back of his towel is damp and probably revealing his bare arse. He flushes deeply.

While he’s dressing, the doorbell rings.

“Get that, would you?” he calls to Arthur, realising as he tosses the towel on the floor that Arthur must have stripped the bed and put clean sheets on it that morning after Merlin went to work. He reaches down and snatches up the towel, this time aiming for the hamper in the corner.

Merlin recognizes Gwen’s voice along with Lance’s drifting from the living room and hurries to pull his pants up and find a shirt and pair of jeans. When he enters the room a moment later, fingers running through damp hair, it’s to find his three friends standing by the couch making uncomfortable small talk.

“We were just on our way home from dinner,” Gwen tells Merlin, looking uncertain. “I hope we’re not interrupting anything…”

“Of course not,” Merlin laughs, “what would you be interrupting?” At the sudden image of what Gwen might possibly be thinking Merlin and Arthur could have been up to, Merlin becomes flustered and rattles off, “ Sit down! Arthur, you’ve met Gwen and Lance. Would you like something to drink? No? You sure? I have beer and sodas…”

They all sit as Merlin trails off, and after a loaded look from Gwen, Lance clears his throat and announces, “I’ve been accepted to Vanderbilt School of Medicine!” He smiles shyly at the burst of excitement from Merlin and the more subdued congratulations from Arthur.

Merlin jumps up and gets some beer from the refrigerator, insisting they make a toast in Lance’s honour.

The atmosphere eases a bit, and by the time Lance and Gwen are ready to go, an hour has passed and Arthur and Lance are arguing British football in the kitchen.

“He’s nice,” Gwen tells Merlin, squeezing his arm.

“Yes, I told you he is,” Merlin tugs at one of her curls.

“Merlin,” Gwen hesitates, “there’s something else I wanted to tell you." Her face becomes serious, and Merlin frowns.

“What is it?”

“Elena’s been trying to find time to talk with you, but you’ve been working opposite shifts lately.”

Merlin nods. “I haven’t seen her in a while.”

“And she’s been sleeping when you’re awake and vice versa,” Gwen continues. They step out the front door onto the porch where the humid air immediately engulfs them. A full moon sits high in the night sky, hundreds of stars surrounding it.

“Okay…what’s she want to talk to me about?” Merlin asks, leaning against the house, trepidation crawling up his spine.

Gwen bites her lip. “She’s moving back to London to be with Gwaine. Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow!” Merlin can’t say he’s exactly surprised that Elena’s decided she wants to move back home, particularly since the man she loves lives there, but tomorrow?

Gwen nods. “It’s all come about a bit suddenly. Gwaine was offered a promotion, and he found this great flat, and Elena was able to get a job at the nearby hospital…it all just fell into place all of a sudden. She’s been in a dither this past week. But she wanted to talk to you about it, and she’s really upset she hasn’t had a chance to see you. She’s working right now—she promised she would even though she’s leaving on a morning flight.” As Gwen’s words come out faster and faster, Merlin has to wonder if this is how he sounds when he gets worked up about something. He shakes his head, trying to process.

“Oh, my God,” he says.  True, he and Elena haven’t seen much of each other lately, but that’s been Merlin’s fault. There was a time when they were terrific mates. When Will was alive, Elena was a regular fixture at their place. Merlin realises with a fair amount of guilt just how much he’s neglected her in the past seven months.

Lance appears in the doorway.

“Ready, Gwen? Mum has texted that she’s going to call in twenty minutes. We’ll want to get home so we can tell her the news.”

Gwen nods, squeezing Merlin’s hand.

“Sorry, Merlin. I know this is sudden. She said she’ll ring you as soon as she’s settled. She just didn’t want you to feel abandoned by her.” Gwen stands on tip toe and kisses Merlin’s cheek.

“Goodbye, Arthur,” Gwen waves to Arthur, who’s appeared at the door.

Merlin watches his friends drive away, feeling suddenly bereft. He knows it’s ridiculous; rationally, he knows he’ll see Elena again, but right then it doesn’t feel that way at all; it just feels as though one more person in his life has vanished.

“All right, Merlin?” Arthur asks from behind him, and Merlin suddenly realizes how long he’s been standing on the porch staring into the darkness.

“Yeah,” Merlin nods, blinking back tears.

“Are you sure?” Arthur sounds uncertain.

Merlin shakes his head. “I just…need a minute, yeah?”

Arthur slowly retreats inside, and Merlin thinks if only he were a smoker, this is the moment he’d light one up, fortifying his frazzled nerves with nicotine. Since he isn’t, he sits down on the front step and swipes at the tears that begin to fall.

What a dumb moment to have your breakdown, Emrys, he chides himself.  Elena isn’t dead, you twat; she’s moving to London. Be happy for her!

A horn from the far away interstate breaks the silence of the night, and Merlin shivers, a sob lodging in his throat. Get a hold of yourself, you idiot! But he can’t stop the images that invade his mind, fast and furious—the interstate, Will’s smiling face, that horrible sound

“Oh, God!” Merlin clutches his head in his hands, trying to make them stop. “Ohgodohgodohgodohgod!” He doesn’t want to think about it, doesn’t want to remember, doesn’t want to relive that moment ever, goddammit, it’s so fucking unfair!

 “Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck!” Merlin’s unraveling, and he can’t stop himself. His chest tightens, and he struggles to take a deep breath of air.

“Hey, hey!” Strong arms suddenly wrap around Merlin, pulling him close to a warm body, a strong heartbeat. “It’s okay,” Arthur says quietly in Merlin’s ear. “Everything’s okay. Go ahead and let it out.”

The feeling of imminent eruption climaxes as a sob escaping Merlin’s throat, his voice growing hoarse with each subsequent wail, half-angry, half-anguished, stomach coiling into a tight knot that hurts. Somewhere in the back of his mind he’s aware that it’s embarrassing, falling completely apart like this with Arthur, of all people. But it also feels right and good somehow, and there’s just so much fucking relief in it, he simply can’t spare the energy to be ashamed.

Merlin clutches Arthur’s arms, which are locked around him as Arthur sits on the stair behind, mouth pressed to the top of Merlin’s head, murmuring things Merlin can’t quite make out over the shuddering cries that still rack his body. The look on Will’s face just before he got out of the car—Merlin can’t get it out of his mind---so happy and carefree, neither of them expecting what would happen in the next few seconds. And then the awful sound—like the thump when a bird hits the window of a speeding car, but so much louder, amplified in Merlin’s brain until he just wants to claw the memory out with his bare hands, digging his fingers into his hair as he covers his ears.

 “Christ, make it stop!” Merlin begs through his tears. “I just want to forget.” He squeezes his eyes shut, tears washing over his cheeks, and he feels Arthur humming softly into Merlin’s hair as hands run gently over Merlin’s back and exposed right arm, the left curled against Arthur’s body.

Merlin doesn’t know what he says as he cries, only that Arthur’s arms tighten around him, and he rocks Merlin gently between his knees in a comforting embrace.

Slowly the images invading Merlin’s mind fade, and the terrible anxiety lessens a bit to be replaced with the familiar, overwhelming pain at losing Will.

“What happened, Merlin?” Arthur asks softly when Merlin quiets a little. “What happened to Will?”

Merlin shudders. He doesn’t want to say it, but he wants Arthur to know.

“He—We were on our way home from Nashville.” He swallows his tears. “We’d spent the weekend there. A fun, romantic weekend.” Merlin sniffs and lifts his head, staring out into the dense woods that surround the house. Arthur begins stroking Merlin’s hair, silently supportive. It does help, somehow, Merlin thinks. He takes a shuddery breath and continues.

“We got a…a flat tyre.”

Arthur’s hand stills a moment before resuming its monotonous trail through Merlin’s hair.

“Will pulled over. He…got out of the car to change it.” Merlin’s voice tenses, throat clogging with tears, body shaking, the scene from seven months ago too vivid in his mind. He can both hear and feel Arthur’s even breathing against his side.

“An artic lorry—“ Merlin begins talking very quickly, pushing the words past his lips. He wants to say it, now—get it all out. “It happened so fast…there was this horrible sound. A smack or thud—really loud; I can still hear it.” He winces.

“I saw…I saw—Will fly through the air—yards, and then hit the ground, like a ragdoll—over on the other side of the car. It all happened as soon as he’d shut the door, or I’m sure the door would have come off, and maybe the car would have spun…I might’ve been killed. Sometimes I wish--wish I had…” Merlin can’t hold in the sobs after that, and he’s thankful for Arthur’s firm grip around him as long pent-up grief slices through him like a knife.

The hand that still cards through Merlin’s hair trembles a little, and Merlin can sense Arthur’s emotion. Somehow, knowing that Arthur empathises helps Merlin to relax a little. The telling of the event is like a weight lifted, something he hasn’t felt since he related the events of that awful day to Mithian on the first day of therapy. He relaxes into Arthur’s embrace, body going slack and still. Merlin can hear the steady thump of Arthur’s heartbeat against his ear.

The sounds of the night gradually seep into Merlin’s consciousness and presently, Arthur asks, “What happened after that?”

Another bout of hot tears cascade down Merlin’s cheeks and he sniffles, sinking into Arthur’s warmth. It takes Merlin a few long seconds to gather himself together enough to speak again.

“I---I’m not sure. People stopped. Someone called the police. I didn’t move for a long time.” He swallows, throat tight. “I’m always thinking, why didn’t I go to him?”

“It’s probably better that you didn’t,” Arthur says softly, and Merlin nods against Arthur’s shoulder.

“Dead on impact,” Merlin tonelessly repeats the words the police officer told him, a sudden tremor running through his body.

“I’m going to be sick.” Merlin abruptly lunges forward, pushing away from Arthur and staggering over to the edge of the yard, vomiting violently into the grass.

He empties the contents of his stomach, eyes and throat raw and burning, and Arthur’s suddenly there with a wet cloth. Merlin thinks he’d like to just topple face-first into the grass and sleep for a week, but Arthur gently prods him to his feet, leading him inside and helping him undress and get into bed.

Merlin’s limbs are like lead, and his mind foggy. A headache begins to pound behind his right eye. He’s utterly drained.

“Are these pills for sleeping?” Arthur holds up the bottle that Merlin left by the bed. Merlin nods, and Arthur gives him one with a glass of water.

Merlin welcomes the heaviness of slumber and couldn’t say if it is two minutes or two hours later when he registers Arthur crawling into bed beside him. The following morning he wonders if he imagined that Arthur took his hand gently in his before falling asleep.

***

At Merlin’s next appointment with Mithian, he marvels at how much better he feels.

“A cathartic cry can do that for you,” Mithian smiles. “I’m glad you finally got it all out.”

“It’s as though I vomited up the horrible feelings that night,” Merlin says, amazed. “I mean, it’s not like I don’t still feel it—the experience haunts me, and there’s all the grief—but it’s like a weight’s been lifted, as they say. It’s hard to explain.”

Mithian nods. “You needed it. How did you feel about having Arthur there with you while it happened, though?”

Merlin sighs, rubbing his forehead. “Embarrassed. Grateful. I didn’t really want to be alone.” He looks at Mithian.

“And it was good having someone there who was objective, you know? I just don’t think I could’ve handled Gwen or Lance with all the pity and their own grief. Does that make sense?”

Mithian nods. “Of course it does. How have you been doing lately?”

“Much better,” Merlin replies. “I feel stronger, somehow. Arthur is back at his sister’s.”

“Do you miss having Arthur there?” Mithian asks.

Merlin smiles. “A bit. He’s been a good friend, and that seems crazy because we’ve hardly known each other long. Sometimes it feels as though I’ve known Arthur forever.” He gazes off, a memory from a recent night coming to him.

“What are you thinking?” Mithian breaks the silence.

Merlin blinks. “Oh, just the other night. I had a nightmare. The usual one of that day. I just remember waking to the feel of a hand on my stomach. I guess Arthur heard me and reached over in his sleep to comfort me. I was able to fall back asleep without dreaming again.”

“Are you still having trouble sleeping?”

Merlin shrugs. “I don’t always take a pill, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Mithian writes for a few moments on her notepad before inquiring, “How do you feel about being alone again in the house?”

Merlin shrugs, staring at his denim-clad knees. “Okay. It was kind of nice to make other memories in the house besides the ones I had with Will.” He frowns.

“But you feel guilty for that?” Mithian prods, grey eyes meeting Merlin's.

“A bit," he admits. "Disloyal, maybe.”

“Merlin, you do have a right to go on living your life.”

Merlin nods; he knows this.

“I think I feel most guilty about the way I miss having Arthur around.” He bites his lip.

“Will hasn’t been gone that long.” He looks at Mithian. “How can I have an …attraction to someone else already? It doesn’t seem right.” He feels like a heel.

“So, you are attracted to Arthur?”

Merlin folds his arms over his chest and leans his head back, staring at the ceiling. He doesn’t answer.

“You can’t control your heart, Merlin. You’re lonely, and no one wants that for you, least of all the people who love you. Feeling guilty doesn’t accomplish a thing except to make you miserable. It certainly won’t bring Will back or change the past.” Mithian tilts her head in the way she does when she’s latched onto something Merlin would rather she hadn’t.

“What else is bothering you?”

Merlin sighs, fidgeting with the small pillow in his lap.

“It’s different,” he admits.

“What is?”

Merlin knows that saying it out loud isn’t any worse than just thinking it, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. “With Arthur. I feel…” he shakes his head. “Different.” He shrugs.

Mithian slides her pen between slim fingers. “Are you saying that the excitement of a possible relationship with Arthur makes you feel guilty, Merlin? Because you and Will were in a settled relationship that lacked those titillating feelings that come with something new and uncharted?”

Merlin makes a wry face. “Yeah, I guess I am. But....”

“What is it?” Mithian asks softly when Merlin doesn’t continue.

“Sometimes I wonder if they’re even the same feelings I had with Will.”

Mithian purses her lips. “You and Will knew each other all your lives and were like brothers. There wasn’t much about him you didn’t know. And now here’s Arthur, all new and mysterious…of course you’re going to have butterflies in your stomach and sweaty palms! All relationships are different, Merlin. All kinds of love are different.” She holds up a hand. “Not trying to imply you’re in love with Arthur, so don’t even bother snapping at me.”

Merlin allows himself a smile. “How did you get so smart?”

“Twelve years of schooling,” Mithian grins.

Merlin suddenly sobers. “I’m scared.”

“That’s okay, too,” Mithian says softly. “Just remember…there’s no hurry. Don’t rush yourself.”

***

The more Uther’s body heals, the more difficult it becomes to handle him.

“I want to get out of this place!” he says for what Merlin thinks must be the fiftieth time that day.

“Where’s my son? He’ll take me home.”

“Arthur’s with Morgana—who at this moment is having your grandchild, Mr. Pendragon,” Merlin explains. Again.

Uther seems to take this information in, and Merlin readies himself to remind him that Morgana is no longer a teenager living at home, but a grown woman, married with three children.

But Uther doesn’t go that route this time; rather he slowly paces about his room grumbling about this and that until Merlin insists that he sit down and eat his lunch.

“I promised Arthur you’d eat,” he tells him.

“Richard, you are being entirely too presumptuous for a servant. Mind your tongue.”

Merlin sighs, a little tired of humouring the older man but determined to keep his word to Arthur.

“Come sit, sir. Cook made one of your favourites.”

Uther looks over with disdain at the meal set up on the table, and in that surreal second Merlin almost feels as though he really is the man’s butler. He holds the chair out and smiles encouragingly until Uther finally relents and slowly makes his way over to have a seat.

“You really must do something about those garishly red clothes,” Uther mutters before taking a bite of chopped turkey.

“Yes, sir,” Merlin smiles.

Later that day, Arthur appears behind Merlin where’s he’s helping Mrs. Benson put her slippers back on in the common room. She manages to get a good swipe at Merlin’s arse with her fly swatter, causing him to jump as he turns around to greet Arthur.

“Got you that time, Georgie!” she cackles, winking at him.

Merlin flushes, watching her creep away in her chair before turning back to Arthur, whose eyebrow has risen to meet his fringe.

“Got yourself a girlfriend there, Georgie?” he asks teasingly, and Merlin chuckles, flicking Arthur on the arm.

“Come on…I know you have them. Let’s see the pictures!”

Arthur grins and pulls out his phone to show Merlin, scrolling through an array of photos of a wrinkly red baby.

“A girl,” Arthur tells him. “Samantha Angelina, after Leon’s mum.”

“She’s beautiful,” Merlin says, and Arthur laughs.

“You’re a horrible liar, Merlin. She’s weird-looking, but she will be beautiful; I’m sure of it. No spawn of Morgana’s would dare be otherwise.”

“Did you show these to your father?” Merlin asks.

Arthur’s face sobers. “Yes, but…” he shakes his head. “He just doesn’t comprehend the situation.”

“I’m sorry,” Merlin tells him. “He did eat all his lunch today.”

“Thank you.” Arthur slides his phone back into his pocket and looks about the room, face sobering. “Morgana and I spoke today about putting Father into Morning Ridge.”

“The home for Alzheimer’s patients? That’s a good place, Arthur. Truly. I know some of the people who work there; they are caring and devoted to the residents.”

Arthur sighs, shifting to lean against the wall, bright sun shining through the glass doors leading to the patio casting a warm glow over him. “It just felt good knowing he was at Morgana’s and with family.”

“I’m sure it’s getting difficult for her,” Merlin replies. “And now with a new baby…”

Arthur looks down at his feet. “That’s what Leon said. He also pointed out that it’s selfish of me to say otherwise, and I’d better not do anything but back up Morgana on this.”

Merlin remains silent, unsure what to say.

Arthur’s eyes meet Merlin’s, the dark blue irises stormy. “My agent wants me to take an assignment in the states while I’m here. It sounds interesting, but…” His gaze moves to look over Merlin’s shoulder at the now almost empty room. One of the orderlies leads the last resident from the craft table toward the cafeteria for dinner.

“Your father’s going to be fine, Arthur. He may even like it at Morning Ridge. Have you seen it? They have their own rooms, and it’s rather small--intimate. If Morgana got Uther a place, she’s actually rather lucky.”

“She’s had his name on a list for a while, evidently,” Arthur replies, his tone slightly bitter.

“It’s very difficult for the caregiver of an Alzheimer’s patient,” Merlin tells him. “Morgana and Leon have to think about the safety of the children, as well as that of your father. As his mental condition worsens and he’s more likely to wander, it may be better for him to be somewhere he can be watched.”

Arthur brings a hand to his face, pinching the bridge of his nose between finger and thumb and squeezing his eyes shut.

“I know all this; I just feel so fucking helpless.”

Merlin reaches out and touches Arthur’s arm.

“You’re all doing the best you can for him.”

“Are we? Am I?” Arthur jerks his head up and stares into Merlin’s eyes, mouth grim. “I’m only here because Morgana was desperate. I’m usually never around.”

“Arthur,” Merlin says softly. “You’ve been here constantly. And a lesser man might have refused.”

“I had no choice,” Arthur argues.

“Horsefeathers! There’s always a choice. Morgana could have hired someone to be here with your father, or Leon could have made the trip every day after work. You did it because you love them and you love your father. Now stop bashing yourself, or I’m going to get angry—I stick up for my friends.”

Arthur blinks, smiling softly. “Thanks.” His smile widens. “And…horsefeathers? Really, Merlin?”

“My mum always says that,” Merlin laughs. “And no need to thank me. Now, when do I get to see the charming Samantha Angelina in person?”

“Morgana will be home tomorrow, so how about this weekend? Are you working Saturday?”

“I’m off, actually. I don’t want to impose so soon, though.”

“She’s already ordered me to bring you by,” Arthur tells him. His phone chimes, and he pulls it from his pocket, glancing at the screen. “It’s my agent-- I’d better take this.”

Merlin nods, and Arthur turns the handle of the door and walks out onto the patio, phone pressed to his ear. He stands, feet apart, head ducked, listening intently to the person on the other line. One hand rests on his hip, and Merlin’s eyes are drawn to the length of Arthur’s legs and his pert, round arse before he realizes what he’s doing and jerks himself away to make his rounds.

It takes fifteen minutes for his erection to completely subside.

That night, Merlin sits on his couch surrounded by photo albums and empty bottles of beer. In the last few hours, he’s gone through pictures spanning over two decades of him and Will during various stages of their lives together; from pre-school days with colourful paint on their faces and hands, to care-free adolescent fishing outings, to rebellious teens years with Will’s pierced septum and Merlin’s tattoo. Merlin can’t seem to find a particular place marking the change in their relationship from friendship to romance—they always look the same together.

Leaning his head back on the couch, he thinks back to their first kiss. Merlin’s pretty sure they were around fifteen and had been looking at dirty magazines that Will’s older brother had hidden in his guitar case, underneath all the music books. Will’s brother, Gray, is heterosexual, so Merlin and Will weren’t exactly impressed with what they were looking at, and they began discussing how much sexier the male body is compared to the female body, and then they realized they were both hard. Suddenly, Will was kissing Merlin and Merlin thought it was pretty brilliant, and things just escalated from there.

All of Merlin’s firsts, with a man at least, were with Will, which means that all of Merlin’s experience that matters up to this point in his life happened with Will. (He’s not counting the kiss with Freya or a bit of a fondle with another girl on a dare.) He thinks of Arthur and what it might be like to touch him, to kiss him…

Merlin sits up on the couch, pushing those thoughts away. Staring down at the picture of Will in front of him—taken at the last Christmas party at the rehab center so close to the time of Will’s death—Merlin runs a finger over the well-known features.

“Miss you,” he tells the picture. “I’m not forgetting you. I’ll never forget you.”

***
That Saturday, Arthur comes and picks Merlin up to go out to Morgana’s. Merlin’s spent his day off out in the garden, pulling weeds and making some space for some bulbs he wants to plant that autumn. He’s had to scrub his nails extra hard to get the dirt out from beneath them, and his knees and back are sore from so much kneeling, but he accomplished a lot, and it feels good.

“I even got a bit of sun on my arms,” he tells Arthur.

“I can’t believe you didn’t burn, with that pasty white skin of yours,” Arthur says, sliding on his Ray Bans as they head into the late afternoon sun.

“I prefer to think of it as alabaster,” Merlin says with a sniff, and Arthur laughs. "Besides, I seem to recall someone saying I'm beautiful." Merlin gives Arthur a purposefully coy look.

The lingering look Arthur gives Merlin in return sends a tingle straight down Merlin's pants. He coughs, looking at his hands, before blurting out how difficult it had been to get them clean of dirt.

Surprisingly, Arthur knows a bit about gardening, and even has his own little plot outside his London flat, and they discuss plants as they head toward Nashville.

Before Merlin knows it, they’re pulling up to Morgana’s house.

Mordred runs outside to meet them, hopping about in the grass in excitement.

“Hey, you’re barefoot!” Arthur says, hugging Mordred and swinging him up under his arm. “You’ll step on something and cut yourself.”

“Naw, I go barefoot all the time,” Mordred says, laughing as his uncle carries him like a bundle of laundry. “Hi, Merlin!”

“Hey, Mordred. Are you going to show us your new sister?”

“Yeah, but she’s not very interesting,” Mordred answers.

Once in the house, Morgause jumps up and launches herself toward Merlin.

“You came back!” she squeals.

“Of course, I said I would,” Merlin smiles, hugging her.

“I bet you want to see Sam. She’s our new baby,” Morgause says. “She’s not any fun, though. All she does is sleep and cry. I can do lots more than that.”

“Yes, they are amazingly boring at this age,” Merlin whispers, winking at the obviously jealous little girl, “but we’ll be polite and exclaim over her anyway, yeah?”

Morgause grins and nods, taking Merlin’s hand and dragging him toward the living room, leaving Arthur and Mordred in the entryway.

“Hello! Good to see you again, Merlin,” Leon greets him, rising from where he’s been hovering over the bassinet and somehow managing to look relaxed in a room that appears to have exploded with baby paraphernalia. An infant’s lusty cries begin from the bassinet, and Leon turns and scoops her up.

“Morgana’s napping,” Leon says, “but let me introduce Samantha Angelina.”

Merlin is taken off guard when Leon suddenly places the newborn in Merlin's arms.

“Oh!” he exclaims, looking down at the pink, wrinkly face. “Well, hello there,” he coos. “Aren’t you tiny?”

“Six pounds, three ounces, 19 inches long,” Leon tells him proudly. “Where’s Arthur?”

Merlin glances behind him.

“He must be doing something with Mordred.” Merlin looks back down at the baby. She really isn’t so unattractive…her tiny mouth looks like a perfect bow.

A bell rings from the other room, and Leon heads for the door, Morgause racing ahead of him.

“That’ll be Morgana,” Leon tells Merlin over his shoulder. “She’s laid up with an infection, and I told her not to get out of bed. Be right back.” Leon exits before Merlin can say anything, and Merlin’s left holding the new baby and wondering what he’ll do if she starts to cry again.

“You look good with her,” Arthur’s voice startles Merlin as he’s contemplating how very tiny yet perfect the baby’s fingernails are. “A real natural.”

Merlin chuckles. “I don’t know about that.”

“No, really.” Arthur comes from where he’s been leaning against the door frame to stand close to Merlin, peering over his shoulder at the now-sleeping infant. “Do you want to have children someday?”

Merlin thinks about that a moment. “I don’t know. Maybe.” Will had never been that excited about the idea of raising a family, or even getting married for that matter, so Merlin’s never given it a lot of consideration, but he finds himself warming to the notion the more he thinks about it.

“I’d like at least one,” Arthur says, so close that Merlin can smell his spicy cologne—the scent that still lingers on the pillowcase at home that Merlin hasn’t brought himself to wash since Arthur left. Arthur always smells wonderful.

Merlin glances up at him. “You’ll make a good father.”

Arthur looks surprised. “Do you really think so?”

“Of course. Your niece and nephew adore you.”

Arthur’s eyes lock with Merlin’s a moment, and Merlin feels that tingle in the depths of his belly he's grown accustomed to around Arthur.

“Merlin,” Leon interrupts, striding into the room and heading straight for his daughter, “Morgana wants to see you.”

Arthur rolls his eyes. “You’ve been summoned.”

Merlin grins, handing the baby back to Leon, and walks through the double doors down the hallway to the side entrance of the master bedroom.

“Merlin!” Morgana’s smile is bright and welcoming. She wears a bed jacket of a deep purple, and a red head band keeps her long, dark hair out of her face. “I’m so glad you came. What do you think of her? Isn’t she something?”

“Absolutely gorgeous,” Merlin tells Morgana, bowing to kiss her on the cheek. “And you look amazing, too, for having gone through childbirth so recently.”

Morgana’s laughter trills throughout the room. It’s rather enchanting, and Merlin can imagine that men must really fall at her feet when she chooses to lay on the charm.

“You’re a liar on both counts. I’m hideous without any makeup on, and while I’m sure my daughter will be a beauty one day, at the moment she looks a bit like a turnip.”

Merlin chuckles. “Not a turnip!” he protests, and when Morgana gives him a look, he tries, “Maybe a…summer squash?”

Morgana bursts out laughing, and Merlin has to join in.

“Come, sit,” Morgana pats the bed, moving her legs to give Merlin room.

“Has Arthur told you about our plans for Father?”

Merlin nods. “Morning Ridge is a nice place. They’ll take wonderful care of him.”

Morgana looks down at her hands. “I can’t help but feel guilty doing it--like the baby’s usurped him here.”

Merlin covers her hands with one of his. “You have to do what’s best for your family. Don’t feel guilty about that. Uther will be happy at Morning Ridge, and it’s not as though you’ll be abandoning him.”

“No, but how often will we be able to get there? It’s a twenty minute drive, and we have so much going on all the time…” She worries a loose thread on the bedspread.

“Have you toured the facilities?” Merlin asks. “Arthur didn’t say.”

Morgana shakes her head. “Not yet.”

“You’ll love it. There are plenty of caretakers there, and they have a barber shop, a gym, an activity room, a library, a media room…I wouldn’t mind living there myself! Your father will have plenty to keep him busy.”

Morgana squeezes Merlin’s hand, eyes tearing up. “Thank you, Merlin.”

Merlin pulls back, suddenly embarrassed. “I haven’t done anything. I just don’t want you to feel guilty.”

“You’ve done a lot,” Morgana tells him firmly. “Your reassurances mean so much, and you’ve been there for Arthur when I haven’t been able to be. I can’t thank you enough for that. He’s grown quite fond of you, you know.”

Merlin can feel the blood spreading up his neck. Morgause chooses that moment to pop out of her mother’s bathroom, face covered in lipstick.

“Don’t I look pretty, Mummy?”

“Oh, my God…yes, precious, but that’s one of my best lipsticks!” Morgana grabs the bell by the bed and jangles it loudly.

Mordred appears, Xbox controller in his hands. “Daddy’s out back with Uncle Arthur.”

Morgana groans and starts to get out of bed.

“It’s okay,” Merlin says, getting up and leading Morgause into the bathroom. “I’ll take care of it.”

He’s just finished washing the last bit of fuchsia lipstick off the little girl’s face when Arthur comes looking for him.

“There you are—has Morgana put you to work?” Arthur regards Merlin washing out the flannel and his niece’s pink-tinged, shining face.

“Just helping her out a bit,” Merlin replies cheerfully.

“Well, I hope you’re hungry,” Arthur tells him. “Leon’s got steaks out on the grill.”

“Famished,” Merlin replies, helping Morgause off the stool.

“I looked pretty in Mummy’s lipstick, Uncle Arfur!’ Morgause grabs her uncle’s hand and pulls him from the bathroom.

Morgana, dressed in robe and slippers, waits for them by the bedroom door .

“Should you be out of bed?” Arthur asks, frowning.

“I can sit out on the patio just as well as I can sit in here,” Morgana tells him. “I’ve been in bed for a month, Arthur. The antibiotic’s working, and I feel good.” She takes the hand that Morgause isn’t tugging on and smiles over her shoulder at Merlin.

“Ready? Leon grills killer steaks.”

Dinner is pleasant out on the covered patio, the children running out onto the grass to play between bites of food, low music playing over the speaker by the back door, and a pleasant breeze blowing. When everyone’s finished eating, Leon breaks out some wine, and Morgana settles into a lounge chair to nurse the baby.

“I’m going to make an appointment to tour Morning Ridge later this week,” Morgana tells Arthur. “I should be fine by then, and I want everything to be ready when Father’s able to leave the rehab facility.”

“God, Morgana, can you do that somewhere else, please?” Arthur looks away from her.

“Stop being such a prude, Arthur! They’re only breasts, and I’ve got this blanket! Besides, Merlin’s in the medical profession, for Christ’s sake! Plus he’s gay!”

Merlin blushes, and Arthur rolls his eyes.

“All the more reason he doesn’t want to see your...upper bits!”

Arthur’s mobile rings, and he sighs resignedly before answering.

“Yes, Jack.” Arthur leans back in his chair.

Morgana flicks a bug off her leg. “His agent. Again.”

“He’s really keen on Arthur taking this assignment in New York,” Leon notes, leaning over to kiss the baby’s head. “Wanted him to leave last week.”

Merlin shifts in his chair, disappointment at the thought of Arthur going away washing over him, effectively dampening his mood. He turns to find Morgana’s eyes on him and quickly takes a sip of his wine.

Merlin gazes off into the yard where Mordred and Morgause run about catching fireflies. Conversation turns to a novel Leon recently read.

“I had a friend who read that,” Merlin says, thinking of Will, then wonders why he hadn’t said my boyfriend. But then he would have had to add “deceased” or “former,” and things would have gotten complicated.

“Did he enjoy it?” Leon asks, interested.

Merlin nods. “As much as he enjoyed any book, I guess; he wasn’t much of a reader. But I remember thinking I’d like to read it. I’ll have to find it—it’s around the house somewhere.” In the back of his mind, Merlin notes that he doesn’t feel the debilitating stab of pain he normal feels when he speaks of Will.

Arthur pockets his phone, a look of resignation on his face.

“Jack being demanding again?” Morgana asks.

“He wants me to book a flight this weekend. He’s arranged for me to meet Sunday with the sister of this bloke I’m to write about.”

“It might work out perfectly, Arthur,” Morgana tells him. “Father is doing well, and as I said, we have an appointment to tour Morning Ridge.”

Arthur doesn’t say anything, and Merlin finds he can’t meet Arthur’s gaze.

“Yes, well. It seems to be in the cards,” Arthur replies. As he takes a sip of wine, Merlin glances at him. Leaning back in the lounger, Arthur’s arms appear very tan in contrast with his white Polo shirt. His long legs are covered in khaki slacks, and his ankle’s casually propped on one knee. Merlin becomes a bit mesmerized by a vulnerable-looking spot of skin just below Arthur’s sharp ankle bone.

“What’s the story on?” he asks, blushing when Arthur catches him staring.

“A man who went on a rampage on the New York subway system last year, killing six people,” Arthur replies, setting his glass on a nearby table.

“There’s been a lot of controversy on his defense of mental illness and the way he was treated by employers before the crime. Jack wants me to put together an in-depth piece that could possibly turn into a biography of sorts. Seems this fellow might have an interesting past to go along with the story.”

“How long do you think you’ll be in New York, Arthur?” Leon asks.

“I don’t know,” he shrugs. “It depends on how many sources I can acquire and how long it takes to interview them. Plus I’ll have to meet with a photographer.”

Merlin can feel Arthur’s gaze burning a hole in him but keeps his eyes averted. The thought of Arthur leaving gives Merlin a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach that doesn’t go away even as Mordred runs up with a jar full of fire flies and the group dissolves into laughter at the names he and Morgause have chosen for each of them.

Since Merlin has to work the early shift the following morning, he and Arthur stay at Merlin’s that night so Arthur can have breakfast with his father at the rehab center.

Merlin finds himself inexplicably nervous when they enter the house. It’s as though something large and full hangs in the air between the two of them, and Merlin’s both afraid and excited for it to break.

“Merlin,” Arthur says when he comes out of the bathroom to find Merlin puttering restlessly in the kitchen. “Is something wrong?”

“What?” Merlin startles out of his thoughts, the pile of mail he’d been holding slipping out of his hand and scattering over the tile floor. He immediately bends to gather it up.

“You seem nervous,” Arthur says, crouching to help.

“Oh, well, um, I can’t imagine why. I’m not.”

As Merlin reaches for the piece of mail farthest from him, Arthur covers his hand with his own, and it’s as though a zap of electricity shoots through Merlin’s body; he has to fight not to jerk his hand away in reaction. He raises his eyes to meet Arthur’s and sucks in a breath when he sees the flicker of desire there.

“Fuck me,” Merlin whispers, astounded.

“What?” Arthur blinks.

Merlin snaps to attention. “I meant that like shit, not like fuck me…as in literally lay me down and fuck me, fuck me. Because, of course, I wouldn’t ask you to fuck me---or demand it, rather…” Merlin’s babbling, and Arthur’s looking at him with a curious expression, but the desire hasn’t left his eyes, and Merlin isn’t sure what to make of that, and now he can’t stop his incessant, nervous chatter. In fact, it speeds up alarmingly as Merlin feels a hot blush spreading over his face.

“Not that I would necessarily imagine you’d want to be the one doing the fucking---you might like to be fucked yourself, in which case I might say fuck you rather than fuck me, but then again, that sounds all wrong, too, and oh, my God, Arthur--please stop me!” Merlin cringes.

Arthur does, with a kiss.

Merlin falls back onto his arse on the cold tile and struggles to take a breath as Arthur’s mouth moves deliciously over his.

“I didn’t think you’d let me kiss you,” Arthur mumbles against Merlin’s lips, and Merlin finds his hands cupping Arthur’s face, skin feeling so good under his palms…jawline a little soft and a little stubbly, both. His fingers inch back to tangle in the silken strands of hair at the nape of Arthur’s neck, pulling him even closer. Merlin can’t think about anything other than these sensations, along with Arthur’s soft lips and the slow swipe of his tongue now seeking entrance, and the way Arthur’s thumb flicks against Merlin’s sensitive nipple, making Merlin arch into his warmth. Merlin opens his mouth, inviting Arthur in, and then Merlin’s suddenly flat on the floor, the length of Arthur’s hard body pressed against him.

Wrapping his arms around Arthur’s neck, Merlin deepens the kiss, brain shutting down and dick taking over as he feels himself growing unbearably stiff in his pants. Arthur moans, and Merlin’s cock jerks at the sound. His fingers dig into Arthur’s back before moving down to dance briefly over the soft patch of exposed skin where Arthur’s shirt rides up. Seconds later, Merlin clasps the delectable arse that’s been teasing him for weeks.

Arthur groans and pushes against Merlin, mouth hungrily devouring his, elbows propped on either side of Merlin’s head. Arthur’s an extraordinarily good kisser, and Merlin’s lost, his knees falling open and groin pushing eagerly against Arthur’s hardness, their bodies finding a desperate rhythm.

The words Arthur spoke a moment ago slowly settle into Merlin’s brain, and if he weren’t panting with need, he might ask Arthur about them, but Merlin can’t be arsed to think of anything at the moment other than how good it feels every time Arthur pushes the hard bulge of his cock against Merlin’s. He cries out as the next combined lunge of their hips sends tingles up Merlin’s spine, releasing a hazy cloud of bubbly warmth inside his head.

Arthur’s hot mouth moves from Merlin’s, down his jaw, to the column of his neck, nibbling and sucking at Merlin’s skin; and Merlin stares at the ceiling, eyes glazed, hips languidly undulating as the pleasure steadily builds.

“You’re so hot,” Arthur says, voice vibrating on Merlin’s skin. “I want you, Merlin. Please say you want me, too.”

“I’d have to be dead not to want you,” Merlin croaks, gasping as Arthur nips at his Adam’s apple. Arthur rises up on his hands and grinds into Merlin.

“Oh-ohhhh…” Merlin moans, unable to stop himself. It shouldn’t be this hot to be fucked through two pairs of trousers on a hard floor, but it is, and suddenly Merlin’s overwhelmed and coming, hips jerking spasmodically as he squeezes his eyes shut.

Fuck, Merlin,” Arthur mutters, voice cracking. Merlin slides the hand that’s clutching Arthur’s right arse cheek along the crack, gripping firmly, and Arthur lets out a sexy little sound as he comes completely undone in Merlin’s arms, trembling and gasping.

It’s a beautiful sight to behold, and Merlin presses kisses along Arthur’s damp neck, licking a stripe up to his ear before latching onto the lobe with his front teeth. Arthur’s hips jerk, and he makes a sound in his throat like an aborted sob before sinking heavily onto Merlin’s body.

Merlin rubs his fingers along Arthur’s back, soothing him, his own heartbeat still erratic.

“I’m squashing you,” Arthur moves a bit to the left, settling his side on the floor, and Merlin takes a deep breath of air, turning his head to look into Arthur’s eyes.

“I didn’t mean to…attack you like that,” Arthur says softly, and Merlin smiles. He feels so good, he doesn’t want to allow the guilt that he knows is waiting for him to seep in.

“I liked it,” he says.

“Merlin, I’ve wanted to do that for so long…kiss you, I mean.” Arthur colours, and Merlin reaches up to run a hand through soft, blond hair.

“I’ve wanted it, too.”

“You have?” Arthur looks surprised.

“Yeah.” Merlin sighs, and Arthur leans in and kisses him again, softly this time, like slow-pouring syrup.

“I was afraid to—thought you’d push me away,” Arthur admits when they part. His eyes are serious pools of dark blue, lashes long and blond.

“I might have done,” Merlin admits. “I’m still pretty fucked up.”

Arthur nuzzles the side of Merlin’s face, and Merlin feels an odd mixture of fondness, desire, and trepidation course through him.

“I don’t mean to push you,” Arthur breathes into Merlin’s ear, and Merlin shivers.

“Let’s get off the floor,” Merlin suggests, sitting up. “I haven’t mopped in a week.”

Arthur pulls himself to his knees, and Merlin follows suit. When they’re both standing, Merlin bites his lip, an inner war raging. Part of him wants to just let it all go and drag Arthur into the bedroom to shag all night. His body’s on fire with it—but that’s the bed he and Will bought and slept in every night, and it’s full of memories of the two of them together. Merlin realizes, of course, that he’s made new memories in it with Arthur already-- the two of them lying side by side reading or sleeping, or sometimes talking into the wee hours.

Arthur’s watching his face for a sign, and Merlin takes a breath.

“Arthur, I don’t know if I’m ready for…this.” He gestures between them.

For one small moment, disappointment shows in Arthur’s eyes, but then it’s gone and he says, “Of course. I understand. I shouldn’t have…”

“It’s okay,” Merlin hastens to assure him. “Really. What we did—I wanted it. But it hasn’t been that long since—Will. And I’m such a mess.” He reaches out and touches Arthur’s arm. “It would be so easy to just –let go and be with you. But you’re leaving in a week, and I’ll be here still struggling with the memories.”

Arthur’s eyes soften and when Merlin’s hand slides down to cup Arthur’s, Arthur squeezes it. “I’d turn down the assignment.”

“What?” Merlin stares at him, sure he couldn’t have heard right, his eyes drawn to Arthur’s tongue wetting his lips.

“I’d turn it down, if you were willing to give us a go,” Arthur repeats.

“But…” Merlin can’t believe it. Arthur wants a relationship with him? Really?

“What would you do here, Arthur? We’re out in the middle of nowhere!”

“I can write anywhere,” Arthur says, and although a part of Merlin wants to say yes, a larger part tingles with fear. He doesn’t want to hurt this man, and he also doesn’t want to lose him. But Merlin has the feeling that starting a relationship right now would be a very bad idea.

He shakes his head. “I can’t, Arthur. Not now.” He feels Arthur pulling away and tightens his hold on his hand. “I want to…I really do. But fuck. I’m still in therapy! And you shouldn’t give up a story to stay here in the woods with me. You should go to New York and do your thing, and then maybe, if you still want to, you can come back.” Merlin looks at Arthur hopefully.

Arthur gives Merlin a small smile before stepping away. “I’m going to go wash off.”

Merlin watches him go. He’s sticky and uncomfortable, and he wets a paper towel in the sink, cleaning himself up a little while he waits for Arthur to come out of the bathroom. He hears the shower turn on and walks into the bedroom, toeing off his shoes and putting his watch on top of the chest of drawers.

Merlin’s mouth still tingles from Arthur’s kisses, and he can't help but long to feel Arthur's lips on his again. Glancing over to the bed, a flood of heat washes over Merlin as he pictures what the two of them could be doing right then if Merlin hadn’t put a stop to it. And at that moment, Merlin wants to be doing that with Arthur more than anything in the world.

He walks around to his side of the bed and realizes that he now thinks of the other side as Arthur’s. When did that happen?

Sitting, Merlin picks of the photo of himself and Will and stares at it.

“I didn’t mean for this to happen,” he tells Will’s image. “You deserve more than seven months of grieving. You meant more to me than that.” He feels tears prick his eyes. Suddenly, clear as day, he hears Will’s laughter in his head and his voice saying, “Git! What are you talking about? I’m dead! You always did overthink things, Merls.”

Merlin smiles in spite of himself. Yeah, that’s exactly what Will would say.

Merlin sits up straighter and opens the drawer. “Then you’ll understand why I’m doing this, Will.” He places the framed photo inside and slides the drawer shut.

Hearing the bathroom door open, Merlin turns around to find Arthur standing uncertainly in the doorway, pyjama pants resting low on his hips and towel slung round his shoulders.

Merlin stands. “I guess I’ll get clean.”

“Merlin,” Arthur stops him as he walks past. “Maybe I should go back to Morgana’s. I mean…after what just happened.”

“No,” Merlin says. “I don’t want you to go. I’ll be back out in a minute, okay?”

Arthur nods, eyes unsure.

Merlin takes a fast shower, washing thoroughly, anticipation running up his spine. He’s really going to do this. Even though Arthur may leave his life for good in a week’s time, Merlin’s going to sleep with him. Maybe he’s crazy to consider it, but he wants this. Very much.

When he comes out of the bathroom, Arthur’s lying in bed. The light on Merlin’s nightstand is still on. Arthur watches Merlin as he walks into the room and tosses the towel into the dirty clothes basket.

Merlin sees Arthur’s breath hitch at the sight of Merlin’s nude body.

Merlin stops at the side of the bed, taking a breath as his eyes run over Arthur’s form, lingering on the sharp hipbones just above the elastic of his pyjama pants.

“Would you think I’m crazy if I said I’ve changed my mind?” Merlin asks quietly.

Arthur’s eyes are wide as he slowly shakes his head.

“I want to be with you, Arthur,” Merlin tells him clearly before crawling into the bed.

When Arthur’s mouth falls open, Merlin leans in to taste it, vision blurring as their eyes draw close. Arthur's lips are achingly pliant beneath Merlin's and taste of tooth paste.

“You haven’t changed your mind, have you?” he asks, pulling back a little.

Arthur seems to shake himself out of his stupor then. “Fuck no,” he says, and, wrapping his arms around Merlin’s waist, pulls him closer. The skin-to-skin contact is delicious, and a small moan escapes Merlin’s lips as he licks into Arthur’s mouth.

After a few moments of breathless snogging, Merlin moves back. “Let’s get these off,” he says, tugging at Arthur’s pants, heart speeding up as Arthur’s full erection pops out from behind the material skimming over his hips and down his long, tanned legs.

“You’re so fucking beautiful,” Merlin breathes, before remembering what Arthur had said about his father calling him “pretty.” He glances up at Arthur, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

“You have a tattoo,” Arthur says, awe in his voice as he runs his hand over Merlin’s bare upper back.

“Yeah, I got it when I was a teen. It’s some kind of tribal symbol…I just liked the way it looked.”

Arthur runs his hands over Merlin’s shoulder blades where the tattoo curls in intricate lines. “I like it.”

“I like your hands on me,” Merlin says, the words coming out a little unsteady. He can feel his blood charging through his veins, igniting torches of desire throughout his body.

Arthur captures Merlin’s mouth with his own, pulling him down so that their bare bodies press together. Merlin’s lost in the sensation of Arthur’s warm, slick tongue against his and nearly comes undone when Arthur opens his legs and wraps them around Merlin’s waist.

Burying his face in Arthur’s neck, Merlin struggles to get his breathing under control and not to shoot his load between them like an adolescent boy. Arthur’s skin feels and smells so good, Merlin can’t help himself—he brings out his tongue to taste it, running it along the column of Arthur’s neck. Arthur trembles.

“I want you inside me, Merlin,” Arthur whispers into Merlin’s ear, breath hot. Merlin groans, beginning to count backwards from one hundred.

Will had never been an eager bottom, although he grudgingly did it now and then for Merlin, who didn’t mind bottoming but enjoyed topping as well. The very thought of taking Arthur like that has Merlin tingling with anticipation and also worried that he won’t get past the second thrust before coming.

“I…I want that, too,” he manages. “But---fuck, Arthur. It’s been a while--I’m not gonna last.”

Arthur leans back to look Merlin in the face. “We’ve got all night, yeah?”

Merlin swallows and nods. But he really wants to make this good.

“Why don’t we take the edge off?” Arthur suggests, and before Merlin realises what he’s doing, Arthur’s scooting down in the bed until his head is propped on the pillow. “Come here,” he urges Merlin, tugging him so that Merlin’s straddling his chest, erection pointing straight at Arthur’s face. Arthur’s eyes move over it with lust, and he licks his lips.

Merlin can’t breathe as Arthur takes him into his mouth. He isn’t sure which is more exciting, the feeling of the hot mouth and smooth tongue on his cock, or the sight of Arthur’s spit-slick lips wrapped around him.

“Oh, holy shit…” Merlin leans back and moans. It only takes a few deep, wet sucks and he’s coming, hips jerking, surprised that Arthur’s swallowing it all.

“You shouldn’t,” Merlin can’t help but say after he recovers. “It’s not a safe thing to do.”

“I wasn’t really thinking,” admits Arthur sheepishly. “But as a health care professional, I assume you’re pretty careful?”

“I get tested regularly,” Merlin assures him.

“So do I,” Arthur says. “But use a condom—I don’t want you to worry.”

Merlin leans in and kisses Arthur, tasting himself on his tongue. Once again, Arthur wraps his legs around Merlin’s hips, and that’s pretty much all it takes for Merlin to start getting hard again. Running his fingers down the smooth skin of Arthur’s side, he sprinkles kisses over Arthur’s jaw and down to the soft spot of his neck, nibbling gently until he draws out a shuddering sigh from the man in his arms.

Arthur’s cock is hard and hot, branding Merlin’s belly.

“I want you so much. Can’t wait to have you inside me,” Arthur rasps, turning his head to catch Merlin’s mouth with his. They kiss some more until Merlin’s rigidly hard again.

Shaking a little, Merlin reaches over to the drawer of his nightstand and draws out a lubricated condom packet left over from God knows when.

“This may have expired,” Merlin laughs breathlessly as he tears it open, a little distracted by Arthur’s obvious arousal, taut abs quivering in anticipation, a lock of hair hanging in his slightly-glazed eyes, cock a hard, curved line on his belly. He’s sexy as fuck, Merlin thinks, and is a little surprised by the wave of emotion that washes over him along with the desire.

“Let me.” Arthur takes the condom from him and rolls it onto Merlin’s cock with an ardent focus that makes Merlin a little crazy with lust. With a grunt, he pushes Arthur down onto the pillows, kissing him with fierce intent. Arthur responds by opening his legs and canting his hips up eagerly.

“Fuck, Arthur…fuck!”

“Come on, Merlin, I want you so bad…”

Merlin fingers Arthur a moment before gently pushing his cock inside him. Arthur’s small and tight around Merlin, and incredibly hot.  

“Is this okay? Am I hurting you?” Merlin knows he’s done little to prepare Arthur for the abrupt intrusion.

“No, it’s…ah, it’s good. Keep going,” Arthur urges, breathing hard.

Merlin spreads his own knees wide, kneeling on the bed, arms planted on each side of Arthur, who curls, legs loosely encircling Merlin. This allows Merlin to give shallow thrusts that feel so awesomely brilliant, Merlin thinks he’s going to die on the spot. Merlin leans in for another series of kisses, their breath mingling as tongues parry.

“This is even better than I imagined,” Arthur whispers, eyes losing focus and breathing quickening as Merlin fucks him steadily. A small puddle of sweat collects between Arthur’s collarbones, and Merlin thinks if he could only reach it, he’d lick it up.

Instead, he gives tiny, controlled thrusts of his hips, his abdominal muscles tightening as sparks of pure pleasure shoot down to his groin.

“You imagined this?” he can’t help but ask, voice tight with desire. Merlin can feel himself getting close, in spite of his earlier orgasm, and the little, enthusiastic noises Arthur keeps making make Merlin want to pound him into the mattress with abandon.

“Many times,” Arthur says, the words ending on a drawn-out moan, pre-cum glistening on the head of his cock.

A shiver of arousal runs through Merlin, and he shifts, pounding into Arthur hard.

“I wish I could fuck you and put your cock in my mouth at the same time,” Merlin growls, staring down at Arthur’s dripping erection. Arthur moans again in response, louder this time, humping into the air. Shifting his weight onto one hand, Merlin takes Arthur’s shaft in the other and strokes it, watching in awe as Arthur shivers in reaction, fucking himself on both Merlin’s dick and into his hand, keening helplessly, head thrown back in pleasure.

Merlin’s never seen anything so sexy in his life. He speeds up his thrusts, barreling toward his second orgasm, the room dimming around him. Arthur grips the pillows in his fists and calls out Merlin’s name as Merlin lifts Arthur’s legs to his shoulders, deepening the penetration.

“Oh shit, oh fuck, Mer-lin!” Arthur jolts at the next twist of Merlin’s fist and thrust of his dick, arching his back off the bed and half-sobbing as his body wracks with pleasure, nearly translucent strands of white come spurting over Merlin’s hand.

It’s a beautiful sight and swiftly pushes Merlin over the edge.

Overcome, Merlin fights back the embarrassing urge to burst into tears when his body blooms and he spills his release. Arthur’s legs shake, and Merlin kneels, panting, head hanging, before gently helping Arthur lower them to the bed. He gingerly withdraws from Arthur’s body and disposes of the condom. Arthur rolls to his side of the bed, and Merlin crawls in next to him, switching off the lamp. They lie side by side, waiting for their breathing to slow to normal.

Arthur, lying on his stomach beside Merlin, his arse two pale globes in the darkness, reaches over and clasps Merlin’s hand in his, pillowing his head on his right arm.

“I hope you don’t regret that.”

“I don’t,” Merlin assures him, and it’s the truth.

“Are you all right?” Arthur reaches up and touches Merlin’s wet face. Merlin nods, embarrassed, pressing his cheek into Arthur’s touch.

They lie in comfortable silence, limbs heavy in repletion.

“Will’s clothes are still hanging in the closet,” Merlin says after a few quiet moments. “I haven’t been able to bring myself to pack them up.”

“There’s no hurry,” Arthur replies. “Give yourself time.”

“I think maybe I’m just avoiding it because it’s going to be painful,” Merlin sighs.

They’re quiet for a while longer, neither one of them very sleepy. Presently, Arthur says in a soft voice, “Father told me the other day that he’s going crazy. I was reading to him, and he interrupted me…he sounded really lucid. He said he’s losing his mind. He said—that he’s afraid.” Arthur’s voice alters a little on the last word, and Merlin rolls onto his side so he can see Arthur’s face. “It was awful. I hate that he knows what’s happening to him. I’d rather him be oblivious to it.”

“I know,” Merlin says quietly. “It’s terrible to see them scared.”

“I don’t want to leave him. What if he dies while I’m gone?”

“You can’t stay here forever, putting your life on hold. Your father’s doing so well. He’s healed; he no longer needs the oxygen… There’s no reason to expect him to die anytime soon.”

“I know you’re right.” Arthur runs a finger down Merlin’s bare chest. “I’m just having a hard time leaving him.” Arthur raises his eyes to meet Merlin’s. “And you.”

“I’ll be here when you get back,” Merlin tells him. “And so will your father.”

***

Merlin doesn’t get to see much of Arthur before Arthur leaves for New York City. Merlin works several double shifts that week, and Arthur is in and out of the rehab center, touring Morning Ridge and making the necessary arrangements for his trip. There’s an emergency with a patient, and Merlin finds himself embroiled in several long, tedious meetings concerning her care.

When he finds Arthur waiting for him in the parking lot after work on Friday night, Merlin can’t help the smile that spreads over his face.

“Hello, stranger.”

“Hi,” Arthur’s answering smile is wide as he pulls Merlin close. “It’s been brutal this week. And every time I’ve looked for you, you haven’t been available.”

“It seems to be the week for problems,” Merlin agrees. “Are you leaving tomorrow?”

“Early morning,” Arthur says. “I didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye.” He kisses Merlin tenderly, and Merlin melts into Arthur’s embrace.

Merlin follows Arthur to the minivan parked several spaces down. It must belong to Morgana, as Arthur would have returned his rental car. “I hear they’re moving your father on Monday.”

Arthur nods, stopping beside the van. “Morgana was impressed with Morning Ridge. So was I, actually. It’s a nice place.”

Merlin smiles. “Told you.”

Arthur bumps shoulders with him. “I suppose you can be right once in a blue moon.”

They’re silent a moment.

“I’ll miss you,” Arthur says.

“I’ll miss you, too.” Merlin’s heart hurts. He has to keep telling himself he’s doing the right thing.

“Will you be okay?” Arthur asks, and Merlin wants to pull him close right then and never let him go.

Instead, he swallows and tries to keep his voice even. “Yeah. Last night I started packing away Will’s things. I hadn’t been able to do it before. I’m finally beginning to heal.” He takes Arthur’s hand. “Because of you.”

Arthur shakes his head. “You would have anyway.”

“Eventually,” Merlin agrees. “But I’ve been hiding, and you helped me to stop doing that so much.”

Arthur takes a step forward. “I’m glad, because you’ve helped me, too. This has been difficult…with Father. You’ve made it easier to bear. There’s something about you, Merlin, that makes me want to be a better man.”

Merlin squeezes Arthur’s fingers. They’re warm and a little rough, and Merlin remembers how it felt to have them all over his skin. He suddenly wonders how he’s going to do this.

Arthur leans in and kisses Merlin softly, lips no more than a brush of air. “I’ll be back, you know.”

“You’d better.” Merlin smiles, but his eyes are serious. He watches Arthur reluctantly pull away and climb into the van.

He doesn’t stop watching until the van’s tail lights are completely out of sight.

***

It’s okay for a while. Merlin busies himself with boxing up Will’s clothing, slowly saying goodbye to his old friend and lover and putting things to rest in his mind. He takes the clothes to the local Good Will store and spends another day off utilising the closet space by cleaning out his dresser drawers. Between this and a lot of work, he schedules a few extra sessions with Mithian in order to talk out some of the confusing feelings he’s experiencing.

It becomes clear fairly quickly to Merlin how very much he misses Arthur—much more than he thought he would, considering how short a time they’ve known one another. Other than a few text messages, including one saying that Arthur had arrived in NYC and another with a picture of the Empire State Building, Merlin has heard little from him, and the hole Arthur’s left in his life seems to grow larger by the day.

Mithian reminds him that he’s had very little experience with men outside of Will.

“Sleeping with Arthur was a big deal.”

Merlin knows that, and he tells her this.

“So stop trying to trivialise it, Merlin. You don’t do ‘flings’—that just isn’t you. Arthur means something to you, and that’s okay. Really.”

She smiles at him, and Merlin feels something slot into place inside.

Merlin sends his own texts to Arthur—a couple on the last days Uther’s at the rehab center to let Arthur know his father’s well, and a picture of the cleaned-out closet once he’s finished with it, to which Arthur replies with a smiley face and an “I’m proud of you.” He also says that he’s been in a flurry of activity and hopes it will all settle down soon.

When Morgana unexpectedly invites Merlin to dinner one Saturday evening a few weeks after Arthur left, Merlin texts him pictures of the kids. Arthur doesn’t text back right away, which leads to a dinner table discussion of how immersed he’s become in the story he’s writing.

“I think it’s taken him by surprise how interesting he’s found it,” Morgana tells Merlin as she passes the large crystal bowl of salad to him.

“When’s Uncle Arfur coming back?” Morgause asks, mouth full of mashed potatoes.

“Swallow your food before you speak, please,” Leon admonishes her.

“It may be a while before he finishes his work,” Morgana answers her daughter. “And even then he may have to go straight to London.” She gives Merlin a look he’s not sure how to interpret.

Morgause pouts. “I want him here.”

“When are we going to visit Grandfather?” Mordred asks. The baby starts to cry, and Morgana leans over to where the infant seat is propped on a chair and nestles the dummy back into the infant’s mouth. Samantha has quite a head of Leon’s strawberry-blond hair, and it stands on end like something wild. Merlin privately thinks she looks like a little orangutan fresh out of a tumble in the clothes dryer.

“Monday morning,” Leon replies, cutting up his pork chop.

“I don’t want to,” Morgause whines. “He never knows who I am!”

“That’s because he’s sick,” Morgana tells her patiently.

“When I’m sick, I know who everybody is!”

“He’s sick in his mind, darling.” Morgana looks longingly at Leon’s martini, and Merlin’s willing to bet she’s wishing she weren’t nursing the baby and could have one herself.

“That’s scary,” Morgause whimpers.

“Oh, would you shut up, you big baby?” Mordred hisses at his sister.

“Mordred!” Leon admonishes.

“Well, it’s Mum’s father she’s talking about. I don’t see why she needs to go on about it.” Mordred looks sullenly down at his plate. Merlin leans in and nudges the boy’s shoulder.

“How about a game on the Xbox before I leave?”

Mordred’s sulk instantly turns into a smile, and when Merlin straightens up, he catches Morgana looking at him softly.

Several hours later, when Merlin’s had the pants beaten off him at Mario Kart, Morgana walks him to his car.

“Forgive me if I’m wrong, but did something happen between you and my brother before he left?”

Merlin turns to look at her, car keys in hand.

“Something?” He isn’t sure what she’s getting at.

“Something…romantic,” Morgana clarifies.

Merlin can feel himself blushing and hopes it’s too dark for Morgana to see.

“Oh, um. Why do you ask that?”

“I’m assuming that, along with the fabulous blush, is a yes.” She smiles. “I just thought Arthur seemed extra happy that last week or so before he left for New York, and also extremely loathe to go. More than he would be at just leaving Father.”

Merlin looks down at his shoes.

“I’m sorry if I’m making you uncomfortable, Merlin,” Morgana says. “It’s just that I want my brother to be happy, and I can’t help but think you’d be so good for him, that’s all.”

Merlin raises his eyes to meet hers. “I do think he’s pretty special,” he admits. “We hope to perhaps…explore things when he gets back from New York.”

Morgana smiles widely. “I knew it!” She almost bounces on her feet. “I’m so excited.” Unexpectedly, she leans in and kisses Merlin on the cheek before bidding him goodnight.

Merlin takes a few minutes to stand in the darkness, enjoying the slight breeze and sky full of stars. He gazes over at the three-storey house, most of the windows lit, sounds of clanking dishes and laughter coming from beyond the screened door, until a particularly loud screech from Morgause breaks the calm that has fallen over him, and he climbs into his car.

***

As August melts into September, Merlin makes it his mission to reconnect with his mates. He’s found that after pushing them away for so long, he doesn’t get as many offers to do things with them anymore. He manages lunch with Vivian every so often, and at Merlin’s prompting, he and Gwen take to having a movie night when their nights off correspond. Lance sometimes joins them and sometimes not, depending on if he has a class or is studying.

When Merlin stops by their duplex early one night and lets himself in the door, he’s alarmed to find he’s caught Gwen and Lance in the middle of things in the bedroom. The sounds of the squeaking bed and the brief glimpse he gets of Gwen straddling Lance, his fingers entwined in her long, curly hair, is enough to make him retreat out the door and drive to a nearby convenience store to spend half an hour perusing the shelves before heading back and acting like he’s only just arrived.

The intimacy Merlin witnessed makes his heart ache, and it’s with less of a shock than he would have thought that he realises it’s Arthur he’s missing and not Will. He checks himself for feelings of guilt, and smiles upon finding none; his hours of talking to Will aloud as he packed up clothes and the extra sessions with Mithian have obviously helped.

When Merlin enters the duplex for the second time, Gwen wears one of Lance’s T-shirts and a pair of short shorts with frayed edges. She’s barefoot and has the relaxed look of post-coital bliss. She smiles crookedly at Merlin when he walks in with a bag of junk food, completely unaware that he’d been there earlier.

“Lance is studying in the bedroom,” she tells Merlin, taking the bag from him and unloading crisps and dip.

“What are we going to watch?” he asks her, taking a seat on the long, beige sofa.

“You pick. There’s a stack of DVDs on the table.” Gwen pours the chips into a bowl and snaps the lid off the dip.

“How about Red Dawn?” Merlin suggests.

“Fine with me.”

Merlin puts the movie in.

He and Gwen are comfortably seated and well into the film when Merlin’s phone buzzes.

Merlin’s heart flutters in his chest at the sight of Arthur’s name.

Take a weekend and come c me.

Merlin types: Wish I could. No time off. No funds.

Arthur sends a sad face emoticon back. Merlin thinks about what it would be like to fly to New York City and spend a weekend in Arthur’s hotel bed with him. He gets hard just thinking about it and has to strategically place a pillow over his crotch so Gwen won’t notice.

He briefly loses track of the movie plot as he and Arthur text back and forth about inconsequential things.

When Merlin next looks up from his phone, Gwen’s fallen asleep and the credits are rolling. Merlin covers her with a blanket, turns off the telly, and lets himself out.

The next time Merlin sees Morgana, it’s for lunch in the cafeteria at the rehab center. Morgana has just visited her father at Morning Ridge and come by to see if she could catch Merlin.

“His mind is getting worse,” she tells him, forking up a bite of salad. “He didn’t know me at all.”

“I’m sorry,” Merlin says.

“I hate it,” she tells him, mouth grim. “He’s always been such a proud man, and now he wears diapers and his room smells like piss.” She drops her fork and covers her face, hands trembling. “It’s difficult to watch. Sometimes he yells at me, but today he was quite pleasant…only he thought I was a stranger. I think I’d rather him yell and know whom he’s yelling at.”

“Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease,” Merlin replies, not knowing what else to say. “It’s hard to watch, especially in someone you love.”

Morgana wipes her eyes with a paper napkin and tries to smile. “I spoke with Arthur last night. He wants me to call today and tell him how the visit went.” Her voice wavers. “How am I going to tell him this? He’ll only worry.”

“Maybe you can gloss over it a bit,” Merlin suggests. “Leave out the bad stuff.”

“I’m not sure there’s anything good to report,” she sighs. “Father kept falling asleep in his chair.” Morgana straightens in her seat. “I’m sorry, Merlin. I’m monopolising the conversation.”

“It’s all right,” Merlin tells her. “I don’t have anything going on other than work.”

“You and Arthur are still in touch, though, right? He mentioned you last night.”

Merlin tries not to blush but doesn’t think he’s successful. He and Arthur have started having weekly phone conversations, and some have gotten a bit heated as they’ve lain in their respective beds and spoken in low voices.

“He says he likes you a lot.” Morgana’s smiling, and Merlin blushes harder.

“I like him, too,” Merlin admits. “A lot.”

Morgana’s laugh is a musical sound. “Well, let’s just hope he can wrap up this story soon!”

“Amen to that,” Merlin agrees, and pokes his spoon into his green square of Jello.

***

As the green fades from the trees and autumn colours blaze all around--golds, reds, and oranges shining brightly in the sun, the weather cools and Merlin’s garden is bright with mums. Merlin works so many long shifts that his supervisor insists he take some time off in November. He spends it cleaning out drawers, darning socks, and reading a novel he’s been meaning to get to.

Merlin begins to worry when he doesn’t hear from Arthur for more than a week. No weekly call, and no text messages. It happens occasionally that things get busy and they go a few days out of touch, but a week? It’s never happened before, and the lack of communication makes Merlin antsy and a little worried. His texts go unanswered, and when he tries to call, it’s the same. He wonders if Arthur’s mobile fell in the toilet or out the window, but if it did, he doesn’t think the voice mail would still work.

“Perhaps Arthur left it somewhere,” Gwen suggests when Merlin puts the question to her.

“But then wouldn’t the battery run down? Because the phone still rings before it goes to voice mail.”

“I’m not sure…”

Merlin runs over in his mind what he can remember of his last conversation with Arthur, trying to figure out if he could have possibly said anything to provoke this silence on Arthur’s part. When he can’t imagine what it would be, he begins to fret over Arthur’s safety. Gwen urges him to put himself out of his misery and call Morgana, but to Merlin’s chagrin, he can’t get a hold of her either.

On a rainy night during Merlin’s time off, he curls up on his sofa, a bottle of beer and the telly remote within reach, as well as his mobile, which he stares dolefully at every so often. Blustery gusts of wind splat rain onto the front window of the house before creeping beneath the eaves, wreaking havoc with the pipes, producing a groaning sound that Merlin finds positively otherworldly. He shivers and pulls the blue afghan closer around him, burrowing down in the pillows and taking another swig of beer.

A flash of lightning is quickly followed by a loud clap of thunder that shakes the foundation.

“I fucking hate thunderstorms!” Merlin says aloud. It doesn’t help that he’s watching The Bride of Chucky and is seriously creeped out.

Another clap of thunder sends Merlin’s head under the covers. He thinks he hears something outside.

 He’s sure he hears something outside.

“Cool it, Emrys. Don’t be such a chicken,” he mutters, but then there’s footsteps on the porch stairs, and Merlin sits up, listening, heart thumping in his chest. Gwen and Lance are in Nashville for the evening, and Vivian has a date. Who the hell would be outside Merlin’s house, especially in this weather?

Sudden pounding on the door causes Merlin to almost fall off the couch. Slowly, he gets to his feet and moves toward the front window, edging to the side to peek around the curtains.

“Merlin!” The voice barely rises above the next clap of thunder and burst of wind-splattered rain that obscures Merlin’s view of the front porch.

Merlin can’t see because of the unrelenting downpour, but it couldn’t possibly be who that sounded like…

Merlin moves to the door wishing, not for the first time, that he had a peep hole. Standing on his tip toes, he tries to see out the row of small windows at the top of the door. When he can’t, he tries hopping.

“Merlin!” the voice comes again. “I’m soaking wet out here! Are you going to open the door?”

Another flash of lightning and almost immediate crash of thunder, and then a frantic, “Fuck, Merlin! I’m going to get struck by lightning if you don’t open the door!”

Merlin grabs the door knob and twists before realising he hasn’t turned the dead bolt. By the time he finally gets the door open, his heart’s beating a mile a minute. Arthur stands on the porch sopping wet, rain water running down his face and dripping off his nose

“Get in here!” Merlin grabs Arthur’s arm and yanks him inside. “Oh, my God! What are you doing here? I thought you were dead! Or worse, ignoring me!”

Arthur smirks. “I thought I’d surprise you.”

“Yeah? Well, I’m surprised, that’s for sure. Let me get you a towel.”

Merlin returns with a large, fluffy, blue towel and hands to it Arthur before perching on the edge of the sofa. He watches as Arthur peels off his wet jacket and drags the towel over his head, vigorously rubbing his hair. Arthur peers at Merlin from under the towel and begins unbuttoning his soaking shirt.

“Don’t be angry, Merlin! I came straight here—I haven’t even stopped at Morgana’s.”

“I’m not angry,” Merlin shrugs, trying not to look peevish.

Arthur sighs, opening his shirt and toweling off his chest. Merlin looks away, focusing his eyes on the wall opposite.

“When I figured out that with a few well-placed appointments, I could wrap up everything in New York and free a few days to stop here before I have to be in London, I started working like mad. I was going to tell you about it—but first I left my mobile in the hotel, then forgot to charge it---by the time I got my shit together, I was neck-deep in work, and I decided it might be cool to surprise you.”

Arthur looks at Merlin, who doesn’t respond. “Surprise!” he says playfully, to which Merlin gives him a grudging smile.

“I was worried. I thought something happened to you, or you’d found somebody you fancied in New York.”

Arthur chuckles ruefully. “Merlin, if you knew my schedule, you wouldn’t have worried. I didn’t have time to even breathe. I’m sorry, though. I should have called you back.” He unbuckles his belt and begins shucking off his wet trousers.

Merlin raises a brow. “You know, getting starkers goes a long way toward my forgiving you.” He watches Arthur towel off his long legs and wonders at how hot it suddenly seems in the room.

Arthur grins at him. “Got something I can put on? I left my bag in the boot, and fuck if I’m going back out in this downpour!”

Merlin stands, taking a step toward where Arthur drips on the tiled area by the front door.

“I’ve got a better idea,” he says, hands touching Arthur’s cold skin. “Why don’t you crawl into bed, and I’ll bring you a snack?” Merlin pulls Arthur to him and nuzzles his neck, hands moving over the wide expanse of his bare back.

Arthur pulls Merlin’s hips close. “That sounds brilliant.” He kisses Merlin, long and deep, and Merlin wonders how he survived the last few months without this.

Once in the bedroom with bread and cheese and some tea, Merlin watches Arthur eat, eyes taking in every gorgeous bit of him.

“Aren’t you going to join me?” Arthur raises a brow, licking bread crumbs off his fingers.

Merlin grins and begins pulling off his clothes.

Lost in Arthur’s embrace, Merlin feels as though he’s come home. If he hadn’t been ready for this before, he’s more than ready now. Nothing feels as right as being skin-to-skin with Arthur, Arthur’s loving hands all over Merlin’s body, mouths working over one another.

When he’s finally inside Arthur again, Merlin groans with pleasure, pushing up against the inviting round orbs of Arthur’s arse and nipping at the back of Arthur’s neck as he fucks him into the mattress. Merlin has wanked a hundred times over the past few months to the memory of the sounds Arthur made the last time they were together, and Arthur gives him a new library of memories as he grunts and sighs, pushing upward to meet every thrust of Merlin’s cock.

“I missed this,” Arthur says, voice shaking. He spreads his knees wider, and Merlin fucks him deeply. “You inside me—I dreamed about it. Ohhh—oh, holy shit, Merlin…”

Merlin speeds up his thrusts, intent on his purpose, which is to own every inch of the beautiful man beneath him. Arthur rises off the bed with every hit, breath hitching in his throat, until he’s trembling and calling out Merlin’s name, and Merlin’s mind is a fog of pleasure and feelings, strong, strong feelings…

“I can’t do this again,” he says into Arthur’s armpit long moments later, sweat drying on their bodies.

 Arthur looks down at Merlin in concern.

“You don’t want to make love again?”

Merlin smiles into Arthur’s skin before taking a nip of the soft flesh with his lips. “No, knot-head. I can’t be away from you like this again.”

Arthur sighs and settles into the bed, hand moving slowly over Merlin’s bare back.

“Good. Because I can’t, either. But I don’t know what we’ll do about it…I have to be in London on Saturday to show my notes to Jack. I can’t reschedule, because Matt-- the photographer who worked with me—will be there, too, and he has to fly to Zimbabwe the following morning.”

Merlin thinks about Arthur leaving again and aches with it.

“I’ve been thinking,” he begins, then stops, biting his lip, worried that he’ll sound needy or reckless.

Arthur squeezes Merlin. “That’s new.”

“Prat,” Merlin puffs into Arthur’s skin before licking a stripe down to his ribcage.

Arthur jolts, ticklish. “Sorry, sorry! What were you thinking?”

“Of moving back to London,” Merlin says, propping himself on an elbow and looking down at Arthur’s astonished face.

“What? Really?”

“I know it sounds a little crazy, but there’s nothing keeping me here. I came with Will because of the nursing programme, and I’ve just been holed up out here in the woods. I’ve thought about renting the place. In fact, there’s a new group of nursing students coming in after the hols, and I’m sure it will be easy to rent the place out to one of them.”

Arthur looks like he can’t quite believe what Merlin’s saying.

“And you’re sure you want to leave it all behind? The life you had with Will?” he asks.

Merlin nods. “I’ve made a lot of progress while you’ve been gone.” He smiles. “Put a lot to rest. I’d like to take Will’s ashes to his mum, too. That’s something that’s been hanging over me for a while.”

Arthur leans up and takes Merlin’s mouth in a searing kiss before Merlin can tell him anymore of his plans, and it’s quite some time before they get back to talking.

6 months later


“This isn’t quite how I envisioned spending our day,” Arthur says, fidgeting with his keys. He’s always nervous when he visits his father in the facility, and Merlin’s come to expect it.

They’ve flown back to the states in order to sign the real estate papers—the couple who’ve been renting Merlin’s house made an offer on it, and Merlin’s eagerly accepted. They sit in the sunny, open activity room at Morning Ridge, waiting for one of the caretakers to bring Uther out, only it’s taking a long time due to Uther having spilled something all over his clothes and needing to be changed. The constant stream of elderly people through the room, some of them holding dolls, makes Arthur visibly uncomfortable, and Merlin wishes he could do something to ease the situation a bit.

“Quit grumbling,” Merlin pokes Arthur in the side, but gives him a fond smile when Arthur looks at him.

“Ouch!” Arthur rubs his ribs as though Merlin could really have hurt him. “You’re abusive.”

Merlin rolls his eyes. “So divorce me.”

“Not a chance,” Arthur breathes into his ear just as a woman wheels Uther into the room. He looks a good deal older than the last time Merlin saw him, and he realises it’s that way every time. He wonders if Arthur realises this, too. Uther’s been in the wheel chair ever since he hurt his back playing shuffle board, and Merlin doubts he’ll ever get out of it again. They’ve been told he isn’t being cooperative about trying to stand and walk.

“Father,” Arthur greets him, back stiff and voice modulated. As always, Merlin wonders at the fact that Arthur still falls into his ingrained behavior with the husk of the man his father is now.

Uther looks at them and then around the room.

“Your father’s had a good morning,” the caretaker, a woman in her fifties named Betty that Merlin and Arthur have met before, tells them as she parks Uther’s chair and puts on the brakes. She has a kind face and sunny expression. “He’s been very communicative. Yesterday when your sister was here, he wouldn’t say a word.”

Arthur smiles and takes a seat across from Uther. “You’re looking well, Father.”

Uther scrutinises Arthur for a moment, as though looking for something.

“Arthur?” he finally says, and the smile on Arthur’s face warms Merlin’s heart. Arthur had been devastated on the last visit when Uther hadn’t recognized him.

“Yes,” Arthur breathes. “We’ve come from London to see you.”

Uther turns to look at Merlin, and Merlin wonders if he’ll call him Richard. Merlin knows there’s an 8x10 photo of him and Arthur at their wedding ceremony in Uther’s rooms along with all the other family photos, and Merlin frequently speaks on the phone with the older man when Arthur calls him, but Alzheimer’s has a way of wiping out even the most firmly embedded memories.

“Good morning, Uther,” Merlin says warmly. “Do you remember me? I’m Merlin.”

“My husband,” Arthur says proudly, wrapping his arm around Merlin’s shoulders. It’s been a month, and Merlin still can’t believe it sometimes.

Uther’s expression doesn’t change. After a moment, he nods once. An elderly woman shuffles by, impeccably dressed, leaning upon a walker for support.

“Hello, Uther,” she greets him, touching his shoulder as she passes. Merlin and Arthur smile and nod at her, although Merlin suspects she heard Arthur’s words and is purposefully ignoring them; the southern states aren’t known for their open-mindedness.

Arthur pulls some photographs out of his coat pocket and shows them to his father, who becomes briefly animated while looking them over. It isn’t long, however, before he’s drooping in his seat.

Arthur stands and releases the break on the chair. “We’ll take you back to your rooms, Father.”

They walk out of the room and down a corridor, Arthur pushing the wheelchair. A few people wave and smile as they pass. Merlin peers in open doors to see residents busy doing crafts or watching television.

“I’ll be there in a moment,” Betty tells them as they reach the front desk where she’s writing in a notebook. “He’s probably ready to take a nap.”

Arthur nods, and they turn the corner and head down a long hallway, passing doors with cheerful wreaths on them. When they come to the one with the brass nameplate beside it bearing Uther’s name, Arthur pushes the door open.

The acrid smell of urine immediately assaults Merlin’s nostrils. He knows no matter how diligent the place is about cleaning, this is bound to happen with an incontinent adult. Just one accident can fill a room with odour. He sees Arthur wrinkle his nose, but Arthur makes no comment as he parks his father’s chair and looks about the place.

Nothing has changed since the last time they were there, other than a few new drawings from Morgana’s children taped to the wall by the telly, the screen of which bears the day's date and time in large print. Merlin crosses to the blinds and lowers them, casting the room in shadow. Uther mumbles something that neither Merlin nor Arthur catch.

Presently, the caretaker breezes in.

“Ready for a trip to the bathroom and then a nap?” she asks Uther cheerfully.

“We’ll be going now, Father,” Arthur touches the older man’s shoulder. “We’ll come back by in the morning before our flight out.”

Uther reaches up and grasps Arthur’s hand for a moment, briefly meeting his son’s eyes before dropping his hand and looking away. Arthur glances at Merlin, perplexed.

“Everything all right, Father?”

Uther shifts in his chair. “When will Igraine be back?” he asks.

Arthur pales. He opens his mouth to say something and then closes it again.

“Let’s get you to the restroom,” Betty says, sensing Arthur’s discomfort.

They hear Uther quibbling with the caretaker as they leave the room, shutting the door behind them.

“That room reeks,” Arthur complains, mouth firming into a taut line as the receptionist buzzes them out, and they make their way to the rental car. Merlin knows Arthur’s avoiding what’s really bothering him.

“It’s bound to,” Merlin says. “It’s difficult to keep the odour out.”

“Father would hate it,” Arthur stops, hands on hips, and looks out over the expanse of valley beyond the parking area. Morning Ridge sits atop a large hill and has quite a lovely view in the warmer months. Trees in the distance form a backdrop of green, with an occasional pink or white dogwood breaking the monotony.

“Yes, but he doesn’t realise it now,” Merlin tells him. “He’s fine, Arthur. They take care of him here.”

“They’re not family!” Arthur goes through this every time they visit his father—the guilt and subsequent anger of not being there for him-- and Merlin’s found he can only ride through it. Stepping up behind his husband, Merlin wraps his arms around Arthur’s waist, tucking his chin in the curve of neck and shoulder. After a moment, Merlin feels the tension run out of Arthur’s body.

“I love you,” he whispers in Arthur’s ear, and Arthur drops his head, taking a deep, calming breath.

By the time they’re on the interstate on their way to Morgana’s, Arthur’s mood has lightened and the conversation turns to other things.

The baby has grown considerably and is quite entertaining, and Merlin notes with amusement that she hasn't lost her monkey-like qualities. Morgause insists on feeding her sister at the dinner table, carefully wiping dribble food from her chin with the baby spoon, although at nine months, Samantha is more than capable of doing it herself. Instead she makes grasping motions with her fat little hand and demands, “More, more!”

“Have you tried popping in every once in a while when you’re not expected?” Arthur asks Morgana when the subject of their father and Morning Ridge comes up and his anxiety over the situation rises again. Arthur’s like a dog with a bone when it comes to his worry that his father might not be completely safe or comfortable. “Maybe catch them at something.”

“I’ve gone at all different times of the day,” Morgana sighs. “He’s always fine and perfectly happy, Arthur.”

“Have you checked him for bruises?”

“What?” Morgana asks, brow wrinkling.

“Arthur, you don’t honestly think they’re hitting him, do you?” Merlin asks, pushing away his plate. “I told you I know many of the people that work there.”

Arthur sighs. “I don’t know. All I know is he isn’t himself, and we’re responsible for him.”

“Arthur, I honestly think everything is fine,” Leon says, leaning over to help Mordred cut his meat.

“Well, what about him injuring his back? It could have been prevented, I’m sure. Now he’s in a wheelchair again.”

Morgana throws down her napkin. “I can’t be there twenty-four hours a day, Arthur! I’m only one person, and I have a family!” She stands, tears welling in her eyes. “Excuse me. I’m not hungry.” Turning, she stalks out of the room. Morgause immediately drops the baby’s spoon and runs after her mother.

“I wish you’d cut her some slack,” Leon says, glaring at Arthur.

“What?” Arthur looks like he seriously doesn’t understand what just happened.

 “Morgana’s doing the best she can. You’re not here—you don’t know what it’s like.”

“I’d be here if I could, Leon, and if I were here, I’d be keeping an eye on Father.”

“By doing what?” The only sign of Leon’s ire is the reddening of his face. “Staying over there all the time? Arthur, we have children and lives to lead. Half the time we’re there, Uther doesn’t even know who we are.”

“He’s not your father, Leon. You don’t understand.” Arthur leans back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest.

“I understand well enough,” Leon tells him. “Mordred, if you’re finished, you may be excused.”

The boy gets up and leaves the dining room. A moment later, they hear the television come on in the other room.

“Look, Arthur. If you feel you can take better care of your father in London, you’re welcome to find a facility there.” Leon’s normally light eyes are stormy with anger, and Merlin silently cheers him on—this is exactly what Arthur needs to hear.

Arthur swallows and looks away. Merlin knows moving Uther to London isn’t something Arthur wants to do and hopes this is the moment when his hard-headed husband realizes just what his sister is up against.

Finally, Arthur sighs and apologises. Leon relaxes, and by the time Merlin and Arthur go to bed in the guestroom that night, Arthur has spent a considerable amount of time closed up in a room with Morgana, making up with her. In fact, Merlin suspects by the slightly pinched look on Arthur’s face when he enters the room that he’s been crying but doesn’t say anything about it. Instead, he pulls Arthur into his arms underneath the light duvet and marvels for the millionth time at the feel of Arthur’s body pressed against his, and how very much he loves this sometimes difficult man.

“Lunch with Gwen and Lance tomorrow,” Merlin kisses Arthur’s head. His hair smells like Morgana’s floral shampoo, as Merlin suspects his own does, too.

Arthur nods. The room is dark, the only sound the ticking of the small clock on the bureau. The guest room is on the opposite side of the house from the other bedrooms, and Merlin thought he heard the family retire moments ago while Arthur was still in the shower.

“I’m a shite brother,” Arthur says after a long moment.

“No, you’re not,” Merlin squeezes him. “You’re a wonderful brother and uncle. And son. And husband.” Merlin kisses him again.

Merlin knows Arthur’s conversation with Morgana had been intense. At one point, he and Leon had heard her yell, “Why do you spend so much time worrying over a man who treated you like shit all your life for something that wasn’t even your fault?”

Merlin lovingly runs his hand down Arthur’s bare arm.

“She’s right,” Arthur says, as though reading Merlin’s mind. “I don’t know why I continue to torture myself over Father’s well-being when it’s obvious he never gave a shit about me in the first place.”

“I don’t think that’s what she said,” Merlin admonishes. “I’m sure your father loved you, and I think you still want his approval. But Arthur, he’s beyond giving it to you now. It’s time to let go.”

Arthur seems to let that sink in, and Merlin gazes contentedly into the darkness, fingers of one hand playing with the hair at the nape of Arthur’s neck while continuing to stroke his arm with the others. Arthur may be trying at times, but he’s a wonderful person, and Merlin’s never been happier in his life than he’s been these past several months.

Arthur accompanied Merlin to Will’s mother’s, although he didn’t go inside, but instead looked around the small town until Merlin was ready to leave. He held Merlin that night when he cried and has been a constant presence in Merlin’s life ever since.

Although Merlin planned to get his own place in London, it never worked out that way because he and Arthur never wanted to be apart. When Arthur proposed marriage, Merlin readily accepted and hasn’t regretted it for a moment.

"I never told you this," Arthur says quietly, voice tight, "but the last time I visited Father--when you went out with your friends--" he pauses, glancing at Merlin to see if he remembers. Merlin nods.

Arthur swallows. "Father was so pleasant to me. He...he told me he was proud of me." A tear escapes Arthur's eye and rolls down into his ear as he lies staring at the ceiling, and Merlin's chest tightens. "Then he went on to say what a good job I was doing as CEO of Pendragon Industries." His voice breaks. "Why--why does he have to be out of his mind in order to tell me he's proud of me for the very first time?"

Merlin gathers Arthur into his arms, holding him tightly.

"I'm proud of you, Arthur," he repeats over and over again until Arthur calms.

Arthur rises up on his elbow and looks down at Merlin, face glistening with tears, stark and open.

“I love you, you know,” he says, and Merlin’s heart turns over. A smile blooms on his face, and Arthur smiles in answer.

“I love you, too.”

Arthur leans down and kisses Merlin, bodies molding together as Arthur’s tongue sweeps into Merlin’s mouth, passion and heart driving every movement. Merlin tastes Arthur's tears as he laps at Arthur's open lips. He lifts his knees to encircle Arthur, hands moving to bury themselves in soft, blond hair.

Sometimes Merlin worries that all this will end-- that Arthur will be taken away from him just as Will was. And in some ways, Arthur means so much more to Merlin than even Will did. It's frightening, but all he can do is take things day by day and cherish every moment he’s got with the man he loves.

If losing his best friend taught him anything, it was that.

 

 

finis