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The Holly Is Dark When the Rose-Briar Blooms

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You didn’t mean for it to happen—neither of you did.

“It’s wrong,” your mother whispers brokenly when you tell her. She begs you not to go to him again, tells you that you’re only a confused and lonely boy who has been seduced by pretty lies and empty promises. “He doesn’t love you, Merlin! Can’t you see that you’re only being taken advantage of?” There’s a lot of shouting after that and, later, when you’re curled up in your lover’s arms, hating yourself just a little for making your mother cry, you know that the worst of it all is that your mother is only voicing what all of the world will suspect when your relationship finally goes public. That Uther Pendragon, founder of an international corporate empire, has taken a young man fresh out of high school to his bed will likely keep the media vultures well-satisfied for months. No one will ever believe that this love you’ve built is not based in money or sex or (heaven forbid!) a grown man’s twisted desire to capitalise upon the ignorance of youth. No one will ever believe you truly care for him, or he for you.

“It’s not too late for you to back out,” Uther says, and presses a kiss to one wet cheek. “I won’t think any less of you.” This isn’t the first time he’s offered you an out. You try not to let it bother you that he would so easily let you go, because you know him. He wouldn’t give you up because he didn’t want you enough to fight for you; he’d give you up because he cared enough to need you to be happy. Maybe someday he will accept you at your word when you claim that you could never be happy anywhere but with him. Not anymore.

To think that just eight months past you would have laughed at the idea of spending time alone with this man! Not that you’d disliked him, of course—you’d been in the habit of scowling at the mean people who said nasty things about your best friend’s daddy since you were five years old and following him around with something akin to hero worship. Uther had never been soft, but he’d always been kind, even when you didn’t deserve it. It’s just that teenage boys don’t spend their time hanging out with their best friends’ dads. It simply isn’t done.

A lot changed when Arthur went away to Uni, leaving both father and friend behind. You’d thought you’d be okay, being on your own. After all, you’d had your new job at the coffee shop to keep you occupied and Gwen had decided to take some time to work before going back to school for a degree, same as you, so it wasn’t as though you’d have no one to talk to. But. Well, you’d never gone so long without seeing Arthur in all the time you’d known him. Was it really any wonder that you’d felt a bit lost without him?

Loneliness had driven you to visit the Pendragon estate one unseasonably hot day in late September. Ostensibly you’d merely wished to take advantage of your open invitation to the pool, but really some foolish part of you had imagined you might find Arthur lounging in the sun, waiting for you per usual. You’ll never admit to it, but your heart had suddenly leapt in your chest when you’d exited the pool house to find someone in the water already—and your excitement fell just as quickly upon the realisation that it hadn’t been who you’d hoped it would be. It was only Uther, racing laps across the pool with impressive agility for someone his age. He moved like he had something to prove, or maybe some demon he needed to outpace.

You’d hesitated on the edge of the pool, holding your towel in front of you indecisively and feeling very much like an intruder.

With just a few strong strokes, Uther had propelled himself to the ledge at your feet, peeled back his goggles, and peered up at you with dark eyes. His lips quirked. “Well, then,” he prodded gently after a moment, “aren’t you going to come in, boy?” And you’d been struck by how hopeful he sounded, which had soon been followed by the epiphany that you’d not been the only one feeling out of sorts in Arthur’s absence. It had been terribly selfish of you to think otherwise.

Sheepish and strangely relieved, you’d grinned, tossed the towel aside, and jumped in with a childish splash. Uther laughed and splashed you back and you both swam and talked about nothing at all until you’d had to leave for home because you were scheduled for an early shift the next morning and needed to get some sleep. But before you’d left, Uther extended a tentative invitation to join him for dinner in a few days. You didn’t even pause to think before answering.

You accepted the invitation after that, too. And another. And another.

And then invitations stopped being necessary. You just went; and he just looked happy to see you.

If only everything could be so simple.

Falling in love had been natural and uncomplicated. Dealing with the fallout is proving to be significantly more difficult.

If telling your mother had been a nightmare, you don’t care to think about how Arthur will react.

Arthur had been your first friend, your first crush, your first kiss, and your first heartbreak. For as far back as you can remember, you’ve been two peas in a pod, constantly causing mischief and mayhem—spilling paint on priceless Persian rugs while roughhousing, breaking antique collectibles racing after the stray cat you’d tried to smuggle to Arthur’s bedroom, shaving off Morgana’s eyebrows as vengeance for spreading an awful rumour at school. You’ve always loved him, even when you hated him, so the thought of losing him to this is nothing short of unbearable. And yet.

You would bear it. If you had to.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to tell him? Or be here when you tell him?” Your voice is strained even to your own ears. Uther holds you tighter. “No”, he says, “this is something I must do on my own. I’m his father. Something like this—Arthur really ought to hear it from me.” He doesn’t say that he wants to shield you from the brunt of Arthur’s inevitably violent reaction. He doesn’t need to.

When Arthur returns the next day to stay for the summer holiday, you make yourself scarce by switching off your cell phone and hiding out at the public library (Arthur will never think to look for you there) like a snivelling coward until your shift at the coffee shop is due to begin. Anxiety and terror thrums through your veins and your hands are shaking so badly by the time you go in to work that you spill five gourmet coffees, three fruit smoothies, and one hot chocolate within the first hour. At that point your supervisor, Mr. Gaius, shoves a bucket of cleaning supplies into your arms and puts you to work cleaning the back storeroom, where you can’t cause any more trouble.

The methodical swish of the mop and hard press of the scrub brush are unexpectedly comforting. Your hands have stopped shaking and you find you can breathe again, but peace doesn’t last. You don’t know why you thought it would.

Arthur comes in shouting and screaming profanities a little after 6 o’clock. Even over the constant hum of the kitchen appliances you can hear him, every word cutting into like a well-sharpened knife. “Where is that sick bastard? Merlin! Merlin, where the fuck are you? Come out and face me!” Arthur’s still shouting when Gaius and the new guy—a brawny fellow called Lancelot—force him out the door. When Gaius comes to check on you, your cheeks aren’t even wet. You’re too numb for tears.

Later, eyes burning, you turn on your phone. You have thirty-two new text messages and twelve voicemails waiting for you. You must be a masochist, because you play the voicemails on speakerphone, fingers digging viciously into your palms as you listen to your previously stalwart defender become your most bitter adversary.

Something in you dies with each new cruel insinuation, every slur against your character that hits too close to home. More than anyone else, Arthur has always known how to hurt you. You gave him that power long before he ever knew how to use it.

The tears still don’t come—not from you. But your mother is standing in the doorway when the last damning curse fades. For the second time in as many days, she cries for you.

You delete all the text messages without reading them.

Uther answers on the first ring when you call, sounding old and worn, but also pleased to hear from you. He’s always pleased to hear from you. When he asks how you’re feeling, you lie. He doesn’t call you on it, nor does he mention Arthur in any way. Instead he launches into an amusing account of his days as a hipster foreign exchange student in America during the ‘60s, voice pitched low in a familiar manner that never fails to lull you into the forgiving embrace of sleep.

Arthur doesn’t try to call or message you again after that first day. In fact, he doggedly refuses to acknowledge your very existence. It’s as if you’ve become complete strangers—like the friendship you’d cherished so dearly had been nothing more than a dream. The agony of it eats away at you. Is your love really so wrong?

Nothing changes when you move in. Arthur won’t so much as look at you.

Uther kisses you and pets you and tells you that his son is a stubborn sod, but loyal, too. “He’ll come around. You’ll see. He loves you.” For weeks you cling to that promise like it’s the only thing keeping you alive.

Then the media catches wind of the nature of your relationship with Uther. Abruptly Arthur’s coldness becomes the least of your worries.

Intellectually, you’d known that it would be bad, but theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge are two entirely different species of animal. Neither your lover’s pensive warnings nor your own uneasy imaginings could have possibly prepared you for the sheer humiliation and terror involved in finding your place of work set upon by reporters during your shift, effectively outing you to friends and strangers alike in one awful blow.

“Mr. Emrys, is it true that you have taken up with Uther Pendragon of Camelot Enterprises, a man nearly forty years your senior?”

“Are you really a childhood friend of Arthur’s?” — “How long have you been in this relationship?” — “Did Pendragon ever touch you when you were a child?” — “Does he hurt you?” — “How much does he pay you for your companionship?” — “Mr. Emrys! Mr.Emrys!”

Mercilessly, questions are hurled your way, photographers and camera crews capturing your teary gaze for posterity as Lancelot shields you as best he can while Gaius makes some rapid calls to the authorities—and to Uther—in an attempt to get you safely away. Uther’s security detail arrives first, shoving through the crowd with practiced ease to take you by the arm and escort you to a waiting car. Leon, Uther’s personal assistant, is waiting for you there, eyes wary, but kind. He’s gentle with you as he buckles you in and slips a glass of whiskey into your hands with a tentative smile. “Drink up, my boy,” he insists. “It’ll help with the nerves.” Privately, you think it’ll take more than whiskey to stop the jitters thrumming in your bones, but you do as he says and let him baby you as the car takes you to Camelot headquarters, where your lover is waiting for you.

There are more reporters lurking outside the main tower. They shout at you and flash photographs and swarm around you until you’re gasping for breath and the only thing keeping you upright is Leon’s strong hand on your back and the protective stance of your brawny no-nonsense bodyguards, who somehow manage to usher you into the safety of the building and to the elevator without incident. Leon punches the button for the correct floor without pause, which you’re immensely grateful for; you’re trembling so badly that you don’t think you could have managed to do so yourself. Shame pools in your belly, because you thought you were stronger than this. You don’t want Uther seeing you so utterly frightened and pathetic.

Uther steps out of his office the moment the door dings open and sweeps you into a warm hug without a word, heedless of Leon’s watchful eyes or Arthur’s presence at his back. “You can still back out,” he whispers softly, breath ghosting over your ear. “Just give the word and I’ll make this all disappear.” Even in your distressed state you know that’s not what you want. Maybe you’re not quite prepared for the repercussions of having your private affairs exposed to public ridicule, but you still know what you want. The truth in your heart hasn’t changed. “I’m okay,” you assure him with all the force you can muster. “I love you. I won’t change my mind.” Pulling back, Uther looks down at you, studying your face for several long moments. He must find what he’s looking for, because he leans in to press a chaste kiss to your mouth before nodding and ushering you toward his office.

For the first time in what seems like ages, Arthur looks at you as you pass and sees you. Something akin to desperation flashes across his face and his lips part like he has something to say. Hopeful, but afraid, you pause for a moment to meet his red-rimmed gaze. But then his mouth snaps shut and he stalks away, leaving you brittle and raw and aching in ways you didn’t know you could ache.

“Please, Arthur,” you want to call after him, “don’t you know I need you now more than ever?” But the words knot in your throat and you have to swallow convulsively against the pain.

Morgana sweeps in two days after the news breaks, as elegant and unflappable as ever. She proceeds to berate you and Uther both for letting her find out about your new relationship status through a front page headline in the morning paper. By the time the lecture is over, you’re both drooping like a pair of chastised puppies. Only when she’s satisfied that you’re both suitably contrite do her lips curl into a sweet smile. Then she kisses her father’s cheek and sweeps you up into her arms like she used to before she went off to college and started being too cool to waste her time on a couple of silly boys five years her junior.

“I’m not going to ask if he treats you right, because only a blind man or a fool would mistake the way he looks at you and you at him,” she murmurs quietly, voice pitched for your ears only. “I’m just glad you’ve found somebody to take care of you the way you deserve. It’s no sin to fall in love, Merlin. Don’t let anybody tell you differently.” You sniffle in relief, burying your face in her perfumed neck, and marvel that Morgana, of all people, should be the one to accept your relationship with Uther with very little fuss. She’s really grown up into something special.

Over the next few days you come to be infinitely grateful for Morgana’s distracting presence, especially once it becomes clear that the press’ interest in you will not be waning anytime soon. That interest results in your very first blazing row with Uther: his protective insticts begin to smother you. Your desire to stop hiding from the world and return to work is not well-met.

Much as you love Uther, the last thing you want is to become his kept boy; the very idea is embarrassing and cheapening in ways your lover doesn’t seem to understand. Although he means well, Uther's insistence that you turn in your resignation to Gaius is positively outrageous. That he offers you a job working for him, where he can keep an eye on you, only offends you furthur. You are not a child. You do not need to be coddled.

In the end, you make a compromise: you take a month’s worth of leave time from the coffee shop in the hope that the worst of the brouhaha will have died down by then and also swear not to venture off the estate grounds alone until Uther’s personal security detail deems it safe. It all seems like overkill to you (the press isn’t out to murder you for goodness sake!) but you’ll do what you must to muddle through the mess that has become your life. This is a test. If you and Uther can make it through this, you can make it through anything.

The tedium of all that extra spare time would have surely driven you mad inside a week if Morgana was not so clever. She knows a thing or two about bad press (and about her somewhat dysfunctional family) so the two weeks she manages to stick around are filled with Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, more romantic comedies than you can shake a stick at, anything-goes badminton tournaments, lazy afternoons by the pool, and poker nights with Gwen. Morgana somehow manages to convince you that your current situation ought to be considered less a punishment and more a vacation.

Arthur’s lurking presence in the house, the eyes you feel on you at every turn, even when no one is around—they don’t bother you much until Morgana is gone and you’re left to your own devices. That’s when you begin to feel uncomfortable in your own skin: twitchy and restless and maybe even a little claustrophobic despite the estate’s size. The monotony of rural suburbia grates like sandpaper at your nerves. You’re a people-person, a city boy. This sort of social isolation goes against all that you are.

Eventually you reach a breaking point. Twenty-three days into your incarceration, less than a week after Morgana goes soaring back into her life as a fashionista cum cut-throat lawyer, you take your car out of the garage, glare at the security guard that tries to talk you out of leaving, and venture into town—to a pub your old crowd patronizes every Friday evening without fail. Just because you promised not to go into work for a while yet doesn’t mean you can’t stop by your old hang-outs to say hello to your friends. It’s not like the paparazzi are still laying in wait to besiege you at the first opportunity. They were suitably diverted when Brangelina announced the adoption of another third-world baby early last week and haven’t so much as trampled your mother’s tulip garden since. It’ll be fine.

If anything does happen, you’re well aware of the plain-clothes bodyguards trailing you in the same creepy black Sudan that once used to tail Arthur (and, by association, you) about wherever he went during his illuminatingly rebellious stage back in high school. Uther doesn’t take chances with the ones he loves. You’re not sure whether you ought to find it sweet or upsetting that he’s decided to sic his pet stalkers on you without so much as a by-your-leave.

At any rate, the evening starts about as well as can be expected. Everyone is already there when you arrive: Will, Freya, Gwen—and Arthur, too. Arthur is cozied up to his ex-girlfriend, Vivian, in a way that makes your hackles rise (has the idiot forgotten the way that bitch played him when they were dating?), but you bite your tongue when he directs a challenging scowl in your direction. He’s not your concern anymore. He’s made that abundantly clear.

The girls provide better company. Will... Well, Will is a coarse bastard and cracks a number of tasteless jokes at your expense, but there’s no real malice in his tone. Before long you’re feeling more at ease than you have in far too long. The drinks help. Quite a lot, actually.

Life is lovely once you’re tipsy enough that the faces of the people shooting disapproving looks in your direction begin to blur. Strangers know who you are, who you spend your nights with, which—yeah—is weird and uncomfortable, but they don’t matter. You don’t care about them. Not at all.

The problem with drinking yourself fuzzy, of course, is that at some point all that liquid tends to weigh on your bladder. And it never occurs to anyone (including yourself) that going off on your own mightn’t be the best idea, even with your newfound fame. So.

Valiant catches you alone in the WC while you’re washing your hands.

“Well, well,” he says, crowding against you until he’s backed you up against one of the stalls. His breath is stale and rank with vodka. You gag—try to shove him away—but he’s bigger than you and too drunk to be reasoned with. “Look what I’ve found—Pendragon’s little twink whore. Are you out looking for a good time tonight, kitten? I'll bet you're desperate for a good fuck, if you've had only that impotent old man’s wrinkly cock for company.”

“Don’t you talk about him that way,” you snap with all the bravado you can muster though your hazy fear. “Uther is a good man!” Valiant used to work for Camelot Enterprises. If you remember correctly, he used to have a position on the board of directors, but he was dismissed years ago. You don’t know what he'd done to earn that dismissal; no one who knows has ever been willing to say. What you do know is that the man has a mean streak and hates the Pendragons something fierce. He’ll hurt you to get to them. Of that you have no doubt. God, you’re so stupid!

His eyes on you are lidded and wicked. You try to keep calm, not to panic—oh why oh why did you have to drink so much?—but when he starts to rub meaningfully against you, one hand slipping to palm you through your trousers, you can’t help but whimper. He laughs, rubbing until your body betrays you.

But you refuse to be a victim.

You spit in his eye. The unexpected action puts Valiant off-guard enough for you to stagger a few desperate yards toward the exit before a merciless fist knocks you down. Your head hits the linoleum. Hard. Rolling onto your side, you gasp and retch, senses too muddled to pay much heed to the scuffling behind you, the familiar sound of punches being thrown. Valiant must have forgotten to lock the door. Someone has come in. You’re going to be okay.

Resting your forehead cold, filthy floor, you force yourself to breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.

The man who had come to your rescue kneels down beside you when the tussle is over, gentle hands helping you into a kneeling position and cradling you carefully against him. Dizzy, you look up to take in your hero’s face—and it’s Arthur’s face looking down at you. Arthur’s arms wrapped around you like he’s afraid to let go.

“Merlin,” he says, expression wild and afraid. “Oh, my God. Merlin. Are you alright? Can you hear me?”


“Yes, yes! It’s me, Merlin, I— Jesus Christ, I can’t believe that foul sonofa— I’m sorry, Merlin. I’m so sorry. If I’d been paying better attention—” Arthur speaks in jerks and starts. The abruptness confuses you, makes him hard to understand over the fierce pounding in your head. But his eyes are wet with regret. That you understand just fine. Or you would have, back when Arthur still loved you. “Oh, Merlin... You really think I don’t love you? I do. I never stopped. I’ve been—stupid.”

“Yeah,” you snort. “So what else is new?”

Arthur cringes, hurt, and you feel an uncharacteristic flare of satisfaction at that. It fades quickly.

Looking into that wane face, tired and strained, is too much like looking into a mirror.

“I deserve that,” Arthur acknowledges quietly. “I’ve been a bad son and a horrid friend these past two months and I don’t know that I can ever wholly make up for that. But I want you to know that the way I treated you—it was never about me not loving you. It was just me... not wanting to accept that you’re not mine alone any more. I always...” Arthur falters, hisses through his teeth. There’s something broken in him. Something you can’t reach. “I always thought that, despite the absolute disaster that was our attempt at dating sophomore year, we would end up together someday...”

Your heart throbs. Truth be told, you’d thought that, too, once. Things change.

The (probably soon to be fired) hired stalkers deliver you and Arthur both home in good time. Uther is waiting for you.

When you explain what happened, his face goes colder than you’ve ever seen. This time you accept his pleading request that you allow him to take more intense protective measures without complaint.

Neither do you complain when he lays you on the bed you now share, curls protectively around you, and mouths softly at the purpling bruise wear Valiant’s fist had struck. In fact, you rather like that.

Arthur smiles hesitantly up at you when you stumble into the kitchen for breakfast the next morning.

There’s a stack of chocolate chip pancakes with brown sugar waiting for you, still steaming. Two pain pills sit on a napkin beside the plate.

You smile back.

Maybe you never meant for things to happen this way—but real life isn’t a fairy tale. There are no evil stepmothers, no fairy godmothers, and no white knights to point you in the direction of happily ever after. Love doesn’t always come easy and rarely lasts forever. Some might find that disheartening, but you—you rather like the implied challenge. You’ll have to fight for what you want.

Nothing worth keeping ever arrives wrapped in a bow. The things that really matter, sometimes they require sacrifice paid in tears. And it’s worth it. It really, really is.