Work Header

Stop Watching

Work Text:

"Doesn't look like a bad bunch this year," Perceval said walking past Arthur's desk to eclipse the sunlight coming through the office window.

Arthur grunted in response and buried his nose in the signup sheet.

He didn't bother to twist around to watch the kids gathering for track tryouts. It was the same thing every year. Some kids were Olympic hopeful freshmen wanting to get an early start for what they hoped was fame and renown in what they thought was the easiest sport around. There were the returning juniors and sophomores who had slacked off on their summer training because they were too busy earning minimum wage to spend on parties, and besides, no one ran effectively with a hangover anyway. Arthur's favourites were the seniors who would at least have made a half-hearted attempt to follow the summer training program Arthur had laid out for them at the end of the last school year, but who were most likely not ready for the first race at the end of the next week.

Arthur could whip them all into shape -- that was his job, but it didn't stop him from being annoyed at all the students anyway. Most of them assumed that because their coach was a former Olympic runner, they could ride on his coattails and to get noticed by college and university scouts, or, at the worst, by national team headhunters. Arthur already had a reputation for sending more than three quarters of his kids to university on scholarships, and it was no secret that nearly two dozen of his athletes in the last four years made the national team. Two of his former "kids" were training toward the next Olympics.

With stats like those, he should be training kids for the Olympics himself, not feeding the national team with a queue of students. It wasn't as if he hadn't gotten any job offers to do exactly that. He had. It was just…

Arthur grimaced. Some things weren't that easy, that was all. Arthur reminded himself that despite having his father as the school's headmaster, he liked his job, and that once the students realized he wasn't only a pretty face (and definitely not a pushover), the rabble would settle into a nice, comfortable routine of training, racing, and more training. Arthur could distract himself -- no, he could concentrate on weeding out the "I'm on the track team" students from the serious "I'm a runner" athletes.

"I don't see Geraint," Perceval remarked.

"Boy's got his head between a girl's legs half the time," Arthur muttered unhappily. Ever since Geraint started dating one of the perky, blonde cheerleaders -- Arthur couldn't remember her name -- he had slacked off on his running. "If he doesn't show, I'm going to hunt him down and make him run the course barefoot. Over hot coals."

"That's it?" Perceval asked, glancing over his shoulder with a smirk. "You're getting soft."

"Apparently there's a memo. Can't whip the kids, or put them on the rack, or cut their nuts off," Arthur said, flipping through the questionnaires filled in by the students who had signed up for try-outs. He sorted them by year -- freshman applications made up the majority of the paperwork, but there were a handful of new ones for the senior level. He recognized a couple of names. Gwaine Greene and Lance Dulac were crossing over from soccer. Both of them were good, dedicated athletes, but when Arthur heard they were quitting soccer after a rough early-season game against Mercia High that had taken them both out with a concussion (Gwaine) and a broken leg (Lance), he had tried to convince them to switch to track. Arthur was glad to see that he hadn't lost his touch, but he knew the soccer coach -- a stern-faced, humourless Edwin Muirden -- would be pissed at having lost two of his best players.

"Was cutting nuts off even on the books?" Perceval asked. He shifted; suddenly all the natural light streaming through the window was blocked off again.

Arthur rolled his eyes and reached for the desk lamp, trying to read the scribbles on the application forms. He was willing to bet that ninety-nine percent of them were lying when they said that they "ran every day" and were "in good shape" and could run "three minute miles".

"You never know with Uther. It's entirely possible," Arthur said, not looking up. The Headmaster of Camelot High was a strict, highly-conservative disciplinarian -- Arthur knew that first hand. The kids thought he was a jailhouse warden, and Arthur didn't have the heart to tell any of them that they had it easy compared to having to grow up with Uther as a father.

"Looks like they're all gathered up," Perceval said. "Do you have your scythe out?"

"Ready and sharpened," Arthur said. He fastened the list of name and stack of applications to a clipboard, added a few extra sheets, and looped his whistle around his neck. He rubbed his eyes and reached for his coffee mug, refilling it from the tiny, slowly-dying machine on top of the filing cabinet. "Coffee?"

"Unlike you, I actually sleep at night," Perceval said, shooting a frown at Arthur. "You need to set a better example for the kids. If you don't sleep --"

"They don't sleep, yeah, I know. But who's going to look up to the guy who could get them on the national track team? It's not like I ever ran in the Olympics or anything like that."

Perceval snorted.

Arthur followed Perceval out of the office. Perceval and Leon -- who was out on the field trying to sort out the tangle of students -- helped him out with the track try-outs; Arthur helped Perceval with the football teams, while Leon wasn't shy of asking for a hand with the basketball mob. The first few weeks of high school were always so chaotic that an extra hand or two was always appreciated, and every year seemed to get worse than the last.

Every year, Arthur wished he were somewhere else.

He was following Perceval down the corridor when he heard light, running footfalls coming their way -- the soft echo of a feather-light pat-pat-pat-pat made judging distance and speed a little difficult. Whoever it was, they were late for practice. Arthur doubted that it was Geraint, because Geraint was a heel-striker who sounded like a jackhammer when he ran. Arthur wasn't expecting it when the student rounded the corner and crashed into him.

"Oh, fuck!"

Arthur's hot coffee went everywhere.

A hand caught him before he fell on his ass from the force of the impact. Cool, long fingers curled around his biceps to steady him. Arthur stared down at his empty coffee cup, the dark liquid dripping from his shirt and clipboard.

"Fuck! Fuckety, fuck! I'm so sorry," the student blurted out.

Arthur levelled the most withering glare he could manage toward the boy standing in front of him -- except he wasn't a boy. Arthur judged his age as sixteen or seventeen, which made him either a junior or a senior. He was tall -- just a smidge taller than Arthur, and although Arthur had been on the receiving end of a hit that would have made Perceval instantly recruit the kid as a linebacker, he was surprised to see that the kid was full of lean, long lines.

And bright blue eyes.

Arthur's glare lost some of its intensity.

"Are you all right? I'm sorry, I wasn't looking --"

"Clearly," Arthur said. He shook out his clipboard; a puddle of coffee dripped to the ground, nearly splattering Perceval -- whom, Arthur noted, was trying very hard not to laugh. He wondered if he could make Perceval run sprint drills until he dropped.

"Yes, well, it was an accident. Don't bite my head off, I kind of need it," the kid said, chattering away. "I don't have it on half the time. Anyway, I'm really late, I -- oh."

Arthur was aware of the long look he was receiving. The kid glanced at Perceval, and back at Arthur before wincing visibly.

"Please tell me you're not Coach Pendragon," he said. There was no missing the undertone of I'm totally fucked in the boy's voice.

"I'm Coach Pendragon," Arthur grit out. Great. Just great. The hot coffee was cooling rapidly, and he could feel his shirt sticking to his skin. He was going to have to change before he went out on the field -- with a fresh cup, because he really needed his caffeine hit now.

"I didn't just muck up my chances of getting on the track team, did I?" the kid asked. His eyes had gone round with dismay, and the way he was chewing the corner of his bottom lip was absolutely not adorable.

"Start running," Arthur snarled.

"What? Oh. Right," the kid said, backing away in a quick, hurt rush. How he didn't collapse in a tangle of those long legs, Arthur didn't know.

"Kid? Locker room's that way," Arthur said, thumbing over his shoulder.

The student stumbled to a stop, looked at Arthur with surprise, and smiled a big, guileless smile that made his eyes crinkle up at the corners and his dimples show. "Right. Thanks! Again, I'm really sorry!"

He ran past them for the locker rooms. Arthur watched him go, and it wasn't until the door to the Men's locker room had shut that he became aware of Perceval watching him with a raised brow.


"You are going soft," Perceval said disapprovingly.

Arthur started with the seniors -- he'd just wound down on his speech when he saw the accident-prone kid run up the hill to join them. He had a few things in his hands that Arthur couldn't make out, but he wasn't going to make his team wait before getting started. If he lost them now, they'd scatter like a herd of sheep.

"Let's see how much conditioning you lot really have, and how many of you actually stuck to your summer training," Arthur said. "Ten Ks in thirty-five minutes, or you have a week to show me why I should keep you around."

The team groaned. Arthur could guarantee that none of them would make the cut-off -- they weren't supposed to. It was all part of his master plan to get them geared up for a full training round whether they liked it or not -- there would be no slacking off from this point forward.

"Line up," Arthur said.

The kid finally caught up to them, coming to a stop in front of Arthur. He handed a small black book over; there was an envelope and several sheets of paper stuck inside. "Run log, letter of recommendation from my last coach, plus your questionnaire. Did I hear right? Ten in thirty-five?"

"You're a senior?" Arthur asked.


"Line up with the others. Also, it's ten in thirty-three for you," Arthur said, taking the bundle with a raised brow.


"You ruined my shirt," Arthur pointed out.

"Shirts are cheap. I can get you a new shirt."

"What about the psychological damage from coffee trauma?" Arthur asked.

"I'll take responsibility for the coffee trauma -- which you seem to have gotten over pretty quick," the kid said, pointing to the coffee mug in Arthur's hand with a grin. "But I don't think you can blame the psych issues on me," the kid said.

Arthur raised a brow and pointed his pen at him. "You want to make it thirty?"

The kid jumped back and trotted to the line, holding up his hands in defeat. "Thirty-three is fine, Coach!"

Arthur waited until -- he glanced down at the application form ("Questionnaire", my ass, Arthur thought. This kid was acting like it was a done deal that he'd join the team.) in search of a name -- Emrys lined up with the rest of the boys. He blew the whistle and started the chronometer. He watched the group race along the long, flat stretch at an easy clip and rounding the bend up the hill before heading for the juniors and sophomores.

He got them started with the same rules, except they had five kilometres of terrain to cross in twenty minutes.

After he set Perceval to keeping an eye on the freshmen -- if they couldn't run 1K in six minutes on a flat track, they'd be cut. Perceval had more candidates to handle, and would be running them in a few groups. Arthur hated dealing with the freshmen; it was always easier to palm them off to someone else.

By the time the start for the second group of freshmen had gone off, it was nearly time to start waiting for the juniors and sophomores. Arthur moved to the finish point, glancing at the chronometer, and checked off the kids who'd made it under the twenty minute cut-off easily, and made a note of those who had made it by the skin of their teeth, which was the majority of them. He sent them off to cool down.

Arthur had no desire to wander over to Perceval's track to see how things were going when he didn't have that long before the seniors would be coming back. While he waited, he went through his paperwork and nearly dropped the new kid's run log.

Out of curiosity, Arthur flipped it open. The letter of recommendation came out, sealed, addressed to no one in particular; Arthur tore the envelope open and skimmed the contents. He'd read -- and written -- enough of these sorts of letters to know that Emrys was a transfer student, and wasn't surprised to see the traditional stock phrases of the school is sorry to see him go, he is an asset both on the field and among the student body, he's a hard worker and will always try to meet your expectations, and hope that the disruption in his training won't be too jarring.

What surprised him was the handwritten note on the bottom. His 12K time in the Listinoise Cross-Country was 32:55. Don't go easy on him. He's Olympic material. Good luck. The handwriting matched the signature. There was also a phone number.

Arthur folded the letter and tucked it in with his papers. He flipped through Emrys' run book, skimming the dates. From the looks of it, he ran once a day, sometimes twice, following a regimented routine of long-distance runs and shorter wind sprints. He glanced at the dates and couldn't help snorting in disbelief when he saw dates throughout the summer, right up until that morning.

He rolled his eyes. If the kid had run that morning, Arthur would kill him. There was such a thing as overtraining.

The commotion the seniors made coming around the bend meant that Arthur didn't have time to review the run log more closely, so he tucked it in his pocket and started to mark those who had made it under thirty-five minutes.

Emrys was at the front of the small group of the more reliable runners -- the ones Arthur knew had been training for at least the last month, which included his two newest recruits from the soccer team. Emrys was encouraging a wheezing Gwaine to keep up, while Lance was laughing too hard to keep his feet steady.

Then, abruptly, Emrys glanced at his watch, held out his hands in apology, and broke from the group to sprint the last kilometre to the finish line.

Arthur glanced at the chronometer.

Thirty-two minutes.

"Did I make it?" Emrys asked, coming up beside him. His body radiated heat like a furnace, making him difficult to ignore, and his heavy pants on Arthur's arm sent chills up his spine.

"Go cool down," Arthur snapped.

There was mocking amusement in Emrys' tone when he said, "Yes, Coach."

Arthur muttered under his breath and recorded the times of the students crawling across the finish line. "Cocky, overconfident, arrogant brat."

He did not glance at Emrys out of the corner of his eye nor follow the swish of his shorts as he jogged off, clapping Gwaine's back encouragingly and helping him along.

Arthur didn't finish sorting through the paperwork until days later. The cut list had been posted the same day, but it took two nights before he could toss the pile in the recycle bin after entering his notes in the computer, putting in everyone's rough times, and finalizing an official list of students on the team for the teaching staff.

The senior team was more or less set in stone -- they had one extra runner with the Emrys boy, who might or might not take over Geraint's spot if Geraint couldn't come up with a satisfactory explanation for his absence on the first training day. A handful of new people joined the juniors and sophomores, but a handful more had dropped out, while the freshmen were a disorganized chaos of lanky-limbed kids who wavering in a constant state of flux while they decided if running really was the sport for them.

The first two weeks of Arthur's specially-designed freshmen's training routine would narrow down the numbers even more.

There were days when Arthur felt guilty for employing such tactics. Deep down, he believed that anyone could be a runner with the proper training and motivation, but after his first year on staff at Camelot High, he learned that he couldn't hold everyone's hands. It was why he preferred training with the seniors -- at least they had a respectable level of commitment.

Merlin Emrys, it seemed, exceeded all reasonable expectation of commitment and gleefully wandered all over are you insane territory. From his long conversation with Merlin's former coach that morning, he gathered that it was something of a trend. Now, he understood the Don't go easy on him that had been scribbled on the bottom of the recommendation letter.

Arthur leaned over his desk and glanced out the window. Across the yard, he could see Merlin heading toward the sports building. His backpack bounced against his hip, and his expression exploded in a big brilliant beam that was blinding even at this distance as a young girl leapt off one of the benches and into his arms.

Merlin hadn't been at Camelot High but a week, and he had already made friends. A lot of friends, if Arthur understood correctly. Merlin's old coach had said -- had warned -- that Merlin had a way of worming his way into other people's lives and that sometimes it led to trouble.

Arthur flinched away from the sight of Merlin swinging around the short, curvy brunette. Of course Merlin would have a girlfriend already. Arthur shouldn't care -- and he didn't, he told himself sternly -- and he wouldn't care about Merlin's social life as long as it didn't interfere with his schoolwork and his performance on the track.

But he watched -- he couldn't not watch -- as Merlin let the girl go. He recognized Gwen; she was on the girl's basketball team. Nice girl. Outgoing. On the honour roll. She wouldn't lead Merlin astray, so there was at least that small mercy.

Gwen led Merlin to the table, and Merlin, ebullient as usual, waved to everyone there. Lance, a blond girl -- Elle, Elena, something like that, Gwaine, a couple of others. Merlin stayed to chat for a few minutes before waving an arm toward the building. There were more gestures, more half-hearted attempts to get away, more laughing conversation.

Arthur caught himself irrationally irritated when Gwen gave Merlin another hug, and relieved only when he saw Merlin making his way toward the building. Finally.

Arthur turned back to his desk, straightening some papers, but he had everything that he needed. He fussed over the coffee machine, poured himself another cup, and returned behind his desk, glancing at the time. Was Merlin stopping to say hello to everyone in the building?

There was a knock on the door.

"Come in," Arthur said, straightening in his seat.

The door cracked open and Merlin stuck his head through. His short black hair was sticking out at all sorts of random angles -- straight and curly and dangerously sexy, and Arthur did not just think that. His eyes were bright, his smile natural and easy, and the strap of his backpack pulled at his school-regulation button-down shirt-and-tie. The tie was loose around his throat, the top three buttons of his shirt undone, and Arthur's eyes were drawn to the expanse of neck and the hint of collarbone before he forced himself to look away.

"Hey, Coach. I heard you wanted to talk to me?" There was a smile in Merlin's voice, and it made Arthur's stomach flutter. He resolutely kept his eyes down on the papers in front of him, but it didn't help.

Arthur crooked a finger and gestured to the seat across his desk. He waited until he heard the click of the door shutting behind Merlin before speaking. "Sit down. I spoke to your last coach."

He caught a glimpse of Merlin pausing in a half-crouch as he sat down, his expression deer-in-the-headlights wary, before he finally dropped in the chair with the usual insouciance of a teenager, his backpack next to him. "How's Coach Kilgarrah?"

"Unhappy that you're not running for him this year," Arthur said, leaning back in his chair. He'd looked up Merlin's file, asked around about him, but there wasn't anything out of the ordinary about Merlin's background. Arthur had expected to hear about some trouble -- an arrest or two, suspensions and expulsions from school, failing grades, but there had been nothing of the sort. If anything, Merlin was as clean-cut as they came. Not quite on the honour roll, but pulling decent grades, and the worst trouble on record was a toss-up between talking back to a teacher during class, or picking a schoolyard fight with an acknowledged bully.

In Arthur's opinion, neither of those flaws amounted to much by way of a rap sheet or explained why Merlin moved nearly across the state to attend Camelot High, but the blanks had been filled by Merlin's last coach.

As he understood it, Merlin's mother had been courted by and finally lured over to one of the most prestigious law firms in town, and the only thing to compound the decision to move was the lack of racing opportunities in the town Merlin had lived in. They didn't have a large sports department but did have a laughable budget. A kid with Merlin's track record needed more than that.

"You know what they say. His loss is your gain, right?" Merlin raised both brows, his mouth set in an encouraging agree with me or you'll break my heart grin.

Arthur had to fight not to match it. He picked up Merlin's run log and waggled it in the air. "I've had students hand in run logs with forged stats before, but yours is an unbelievable work of fiction."

There was an indignant squawk. "No! No, it's all true, I did --"

Arthur stared at Merlin until his protest died down. "According to your last coach, you were notorious for putting in far more Ks than you were supposed to. You'd follow the training scheme he set out for you, then turn around and tack on ten more Ks after the team run. He said, if I wanted a realistic idea of how much mileage you've been logging, I need to multiply the numbers in your book by some sort of sliding scale fudge factor."

Merlin gripped the armrests of his chair, his mouth slack, his expression betrayed.

"Worse, you've been running injured. Calf strains, shin splints, groin pulls. How many toes have you broken?"

"Those weren't my fault," Merlin said, not answering Arthur's question. "I keep them taped up. The doctor said that it would take forever for them to heal, and I didn't want to lose conditioning. They don't hurt anyway."

Arthur shook his head, slamming the book down on the desk; Merlin flinched. "That's not the point. The point is, you're overtraining and you're running hurt. That's going to stop."

"But --"

"If you keep stressing your body like this, you're going to end your career before you even have one," Arthur said, gentling his voice only a little. He waited for the words to sink in. Merlin sat stiffly in his chair, working his jaw, and his eyes were full of challenge and defiance. Arthur knew that look -- he could see himself in Merlin, only ten years younger, stubborn and fearless and so sure that he was immortal, capable of conquering everything.

"Fine," Merlin said, capitulating only grudgingly, and Arthur didn't believe it for one minute when Merlin went on, "I'll cool off, cut my runs --"

"You'll do more than that. As of today, you're on mandatory rest. I've scratched you from Friday's race," Arthur said, watching as each word stirred up unspoken rage and defiance in Merlin's eyes. Merlin's body had gone absolutely, perfectly still; for a moment, Arthur thought Merlin would burst to his feet, shout at him, and storm out of the office, that he would hear from his mother, threatening a lawsuit if he didn't allow Merlin to train or race.

Merlin might not see it now -- he might never see it. But overtraining was serious business, as were the injuries he'd suffered, especially since he never allowed them to heal properly. A few days off would help more than hurt, and Arthur's only regret was that he hadn't called Kilgarrah earlier to put Merlin on the injured list sooner. He might even have made the first race of the year -- not that it would matter, since the first couple of races were between schools, and mattered less in the overall rankings and more in giving the students a fresh taste of competition. It was a taste that Merlin didn't need right now. If the run log was any indication -- adjusted, of course, with Kilgarrah's fudge factor mathematics -- Merlin didn't lack run motivation. From the look Merlin was levelling on Arthur right now, he wasn't a stranger to challenge either.

Arthur could see it in Merlin's eyes -- the inward battle as he decided how much he wanted to listen to Arthur, how much he wanted to stay on the team. Arthur didn't bother explaining himself or his decisions to Merlin. It would only add fuel to the fire instead of taming it. Arthur was the coach here, not Merlin; if Merlin wanted to run, he had to run under Arthur's rules.

Kilgarrah had warned him, "When I recommended he go to Camelot High, it wasn't because of your scintillating academic program or the athletics department's connections to universities and national teams. It's because you'll keep him firmly in hand, Pendragon. You won't give him an inch, and if you value your sanity, you won't ever back down from him, or he'll take that inch and turn it into a mile, and you'll spend the rest of the school year scrambling to get it back."

Arthur could see just how right Kilgarrah had it. The defiance in Merlin was mighty enough to shatter castle walls.

"When can I run again?" Merlin asked, and that was the first true sign of capitulation, even if it came under the guise of a treaty negotiation.

"Monday," Arthur said.

Merlin made a small, shrieking sound, squirming out of his seat as if he were about to protest.

"I could make it longer," Arthur warned. "I would prefer to make it longer. Say, two weeks."

A muscle jumped in Merlin's jaw, but he didn't look as if he were about to bounce out of his seat, jump across the desk, and throttle Arthur. Arthur counted it a small victory.

"No sooner. And if I hear that you've been going off to run on your own -- if I see one hint of soreness or tiredness in you on Monday, you're off the team."

"But --" Merlin paused, as if expecting Arthur to cut him off. Arthur waited to see what he would say. Merlin's initial protest seemed to die on his lips, and he tried another tactic. "What am I supposed to do for five days? I'll go nuts. Do you know how boring it is in this town? I don't even have a car. Mom won't let me have one, says I run everywhere anyway, and besides, I have this routine, I don't want to break out of it --"

"Do whatever you do when you're not running," Arthur said. "Do your homework. Do your chores. If you've got an after-school job --"

Arthur knew Merlin didn't. Most of his senior athletes focused on training, hoping for college and university scholarships.

"-- then ask for some extra shifts. Go out with your friends. Take your girlfriend out."

Arthur tried not to think too much on why there was a bad taste in his mouth at the last suggestion.

Merlin answered him with a snort. There was a curl of a smirk on his lips. "What girlfriend?"

Arthur tilted his head slightly to indicate the yard. "The girl you were with outside. I assumed she was your girlfriend."

Merlin's head tilted to the side, and the teenage churlishness in his eyes was replaced by wily evaluation and a flare of interest. "You were watching me?"

A billion warning bells rang in Arthur's head. He thought there was an echo of Kilgarrah's rough, deep voice in the room, but he couldn't make out the words, and anyway obviously Kilgarrah wasn't here. "I happened to glance out the window when I saw her jump into your arms."

Merlin's smile broadened until he looked absurdly pleased with himself. He shifted around in his chair, relaxing, unconsciously taking up a pose that put the full length of him, long legs and lean body, on display. Arthur forgot to breathe for a moment. He struggled for normalcy.

"You were watching me," Merlin insisted, his voice soft and teasing. He struggled to contain his smile, which was bright and blinding, his eyes sparkling with delight.

Arthur felt as if he were drowning.

"I don't have a girlfriend," Merlin said suddenly. "I'm gay."

Arthur's mouth went dry. "Okay," he croaked.

Merlin sat at the edge of his seat, the movement drawing Arthur's attention to the curve of his arms, the lithe, graceful movement of his belly. Merlin crossed his arms on Arthur's desk. That beguiling smile was still there. "I don't have a boyfriend either."

Arthur heard do you want to be? in Merlin's tone, but told himself firmly that it was his imagination.

"Then maybe you should get one," Arthur said, hating every word that came out of his mouth. "It'll keep you occupied."

"Oh, I plan to," Merlin said, bouncing a little in the chair. He was eyeing Arthur like he --

Arthur firmly stopped that train of thought. He cleared his throat and reached for the nearest thing to distract himself with. He picked up Merlin's run log and flung it across his desk; it slid over the smooth papers and bumped his crossed arms. "You'll start a new one. And this time, you'll track your distance and times properly. I want to see your book every Monday at practice. Any kilometres over the training plan that you accumulate? You'll have to account for them with me."

Merlin's smile didn't falter. "Right. Okay."

Arthur wondered where the earlier defiance had gone. He wanted it back. It would be preferable to the way Merlin was looking at him now.

"I don't want to see you at practice until Monday," Arthur said.

"You won't see me running," Merlin said.

Arthur gave him a firm nod, half wondering where he'd gained the advantage, half wondering if he'd lost it instead, and not knowing exactly what he'd done for Merlin to suddenly be so agreeable. "We'll discuss your training plan on Monday. It's obvious that you have the stamina --"

"Yes, I do," Merlin said, his eyebrows raising marginally in a way that could not be interpreted as anything but subtly seductive.

Arthur faltered. "-- you can do the distances. But your split times are way off. You need to learn to pace yourself for distances. You can't always rely on the last few minutes for a sprint to the finish."

"What can I say? I like taking my time," Merlin said.

Arthur glanced down at his desk and picked up a random piece of paper. He was not hearing innuendo in Merlin's voice. "Like I said, we'll talk about it Monday."

"Okay, Coach. Whatever you want." Merlin made no movement to leave. Instead, he was looking around the office, but Arthur had no idea what for. He kept his face impassive, his eyes on Merlin's face instead on his throat, resisting the urge to look at those collarbones.

"You can go," Arthur said. When Merlin finally decided to shoulder his backpack and head for the door, something occurred to him. "Merlin. Is there something you need to talk about? A reason why you're running so much?"

Merlin paused, a hand on the doorknob, and that sunny expression of his was shrouded by clouds. He lowered his chin, chewed the corner of his mouth, and when he finally looked over his shoulder at Arthur, he said, "No, Coach. Everything's fine."

No, everything was absolutely not fine.

Arthur's keys clanged in the ceramic bowl by the door, and again, the monstrosity didn't break. But this once, he didn't care about destroying the neon-green hand-thrown glazed bowl. He couldn't think about anything else but Merlin.

Why had Merlin dropped his protests so quickly? Was it because he realized Arthur could keep him out of running races entirely? Somehow, after his conversation with Merlin's former coach, Arthur doubted that. Dedicated, persistent, and outright fanatical were among the adjectives that Kilgarrah had used to describe Merlin, and Arthur hadn't forgotten the clear warning of "When he knows what he wants, he goes after it headlong. You'll need to hold him back to keep him from hurting himself."

What had been that look on his face? Why had he --

No, Arthur didn't want to think of the way that Merlin had crossed his arms on his desk and fluttered his eyelashes at him. He didn't want to think about Merlin declaring, freely and without care, that he was gay. That he didn't have a boyfriend.

Would you like to be?

Arthur shook his head. Merlin hadn't said that out loud. He hadn't. It was all in Arthur's head, some sort of wishful-thinking fantasy that he'd never fulfill.

What he wanted to think about, what he wanted to know, was why, for an instant, he'd lost Merlin. Between the defiance -- and even that uncomfortable, keenly interested stare -- and the sudden agreement, Arthur had lost Merlin. Merlin had dodged his question, but the answer to that question had taken Merlin away from Arthur.

Merlin had lied to him. Arthur didn't like it when people lied to him. There was a reason why Merlin was running -- and it was driving Arthur mad trying to figure out what it was. Kilgarrah hadn't hinted at anything bad, and there wasn't anything in Merlin's school record to raise a flag. Arthur had been half-tempted to ring the principal at Merlin's old school to get the skinny for himself, but another student knocked on his door, and then Leon came by, asking for a hand to set up for the girls' basketball practice. He hadn't had the time to give it much more thought until later in the day, when he ran into his father doing his usual round of roaming the halls and being threatening.

"How's the team shaping up?" Uther asked.

"Still too early to tell," Arthur said. "We have some good runners coming out of the freshmen's team. A couple of the senior boys will turn scouts' heads."

"And for the national teams? The Olympics?" Uther had a vested interest in seeing one -- or several -- of his students make the Olympics. It had started with Arthur; it would continue until they had established a tradition of shaping and moulding the nation's top athletes in track and field.

Arthur had hesitated long enough before answering, but it was long enough for Uther to come to a conclusion, and he couldn't lie. He could never lie to Uther. He'd been found out too many other times, and he'd learned not to try. Not to hide. "One or two students. Maybe. If they want it badly enough. You know how it is. Around this time of year, running isn't the first thing on their list of priorities."

"What about Geraint?"

"Geraint's been cut," Arthur said. When Uther frowned, his cheeks colouring in outrage, Arthur hurriedly added, "He hasn't shown up for any of the practices so far. I'm not wasting my time."

"I'll talk to him," Uther decided, which meant that Geraint would be showing up at the next practice whether he liked it or not. Arthur ignored a twinge of regret. He shouldn't have said anything, but without Geraint on the team, they were missing one of their long-distance powerhouses.

"If he wants to quit, then he quits," Arthur said, even though he knew arguing with his father was a lost cause. "No point in forcing him to run when he doesn't want to."

"It'll be Geraint. There's no one else fast enough," Uther said firmly.

Arthur's thoughts immediately went to Merlin. "Actually, we may have lucked out this year. Transfer student by the name of Merlin Emrys. He ran for Ealdor High, but never entered regionals. His last coach had nothing but good things to say --"

"You're not wasting your time on a dark horse," Uther said. "Focus on Geraint. Push him as hard as you need to. He'll make the team."

But Merlin made the qualifying time for the Olympic "B" team on his first try without even breaking a sweat, Arthur wanted to say, but he knew Uther wouldn't listen. Uther had hung his heart on Geraint, even though Arthur knew that way only ended in disaster. He liked Geraint well enough, but the kid didn't have his head on straight most days. Instead of protesting, he said, "If he shows up."

"He will," Uther said. And with a characteristic change of subject, added, "Sophia has been asking after you, Arthur. You should give her a call."

Sophia Ulrich was the daughter of one of the most influential men in Camelot. Her father was on the city council -- the man behind the mayor's chair, to be specific. He was filthy rich, a long-time sponsor of Camelot High, and Uther tolerated him in spite of his foul demeanour only because of the large endowments that were building the new Ulrich library wing.

It wasn't the first time that Uther had strongly hinted for a relationship between Arthur and Sophia -- if only to squeeze more money out of the councillor. Each and every time, Arthur would nod and murmur something along the lines of "Yes, I'll call", or "Sure, I'll escort her to the charity dinner", spend a few hours in Sophia's company and hating every moment, and not have to speak with her again for several weeks.

If a brief conversation with Uther could ruin Arthur's good mood, the thought of accompanying Sophia for an evening out sucked the life out of him. He'd forgotten about Merlin -- again.

It came back in a flash when he got in his car and drove home after school. He'd spotted Merlin walking down the street with Lance and Gwaine. Merlin's skinny jeans had hung low on his hips, his sweater had been just long enough to frame his ass, and the way that Merlin had looked over his shoulder, right in Arthur's direction, the wind blowing errant strands of hair into Merlin's eyes --

I like taking my time, Merlin had said. In his office. That morning.

And, fuck if Merlin hadn't winked at Arthur as he drove past.

He sat down on his couch, turning the television on by unconscious reflex. He stared at the moving pictures on the screen for a long time before coming to a decision. He checked his watch -- even with the time difference, Coach Kilgarrah might still be at the school.

Arthur found the number among his papers, and dialled. He mentally prepared his questions while he waited for the line to ring through.

There was no answer.

In retrospect, suspending Merlin's running for five days was a bad idea. Arthur hadn't anticipated that Merlin would continue to come to practice to cheer on his teammates, pass out water and towels, and even help Arthur with the timing. He was gregarious, helpful, and friendly to everyone, including the freshmen. He even went so far as to catch someone on the verge of heat exhaustion and pull him off the run before it began, and offer suggestions for a junior complaining of shin splints.

It was obvious that he was popular with everyone who knew him; and everyone did know him. If there was a new person on the field, Merlin greeted them; if he didn't know them, he went over and introduced himself. Kilgarrah had told Arthur that Merlin was naturally friendly and went out of his way to help others at the expense of himself, but Arthur hadn't expected it to be quite like this.

Arthur ignored Merlin's absences as much as he could. He found himself keeping an eye on Merlin despite himself, biting down on the sensations it roused in him and firmly declaring that it was not jealousy when Merlin wrapped an arm around someone's shoulders to support them, or when he congratulated a teammate for a good run with a hug. It was not relief that Arthur felt each and every time that Merlin came back to stand next to him, batting those long lashes when he innocently leaned over to check people's times.

"You're watching me," Merlin whispered in Arthur's ear, simultaneously smug and pleased. Arthur batted him away before the others got the idea that it was all right to look over his shoulder. He hated that, and he didn't want to admit to anyone, least of all himself, that he didn't mind Merlin doing it. That he didn't mind Merlin close by. Arthur caught himself trying to decide if the scent in Merlin's shampoo was coconut or vanilla.

"I'm keeping an eye on the juniors. They're pushing too hard," Arthur said. He took a step away from Merlin -- which might have been a mistake if the glint in Merlin's eyes was any indication. "Why are you even here? You should be home, doing whatever it is you do when you're not running."

"My life revolves around running, remember?" Merlin said, shifting to stand next to Arthur, crossing his arms. The movement brushed their shoulders together.

Arthur ignored Merlin's body heat -- he was like a furnace -- and continued to mark down people's times.

At Friday's race, Merlin was indispensable. He might not have raced at regionals, but he knew his way around a course and how things were managed -- usually very badly, but coming together seamlessly in the end. Leon and Perceval helped manage the bulk of the chaos with the students, but it was Merlin who saved Arthur a lot of running around by fetching everything he needed and pointing out the people he was looking for.

Arthur learned not to question how Merlin knew the people in the first place. Merlin already knew every member of the track team by name, something that Arthur was still struggling with. Of course Merlin would have gone and introduced himself to everyone the first chance he got. Arthur ignored the tense flare in his belly and refused to give it a name each time he saw Merlin chatting with other students from different schools and shaking other coaches' hands. Arthur was mollified only when Merlin stayed with him when the races started, and painfully bereft each time Merlin left the bleachers to congratulate each of his team members as they crossed the finish line.

"He's a good kid," Leon said, besides him.

"I don't know much about him," Arthur said, and that was a lie that he'd never admit to. He'd tried to call Kilgarrah a few more times before the race, but they ended up playing phone tag and never quite getting in touch with the other. He was loathe to call the school principal, who might not be able to help anyway. So he settled for entering "Merlin Emrys" in a search engine and staring at the number of hits.

Most of the hits were to the local newspaper -- the Ealdor Daily -- which had articles for high school sports. Merlin's name showed up for the track races, as a participant and winner for some short marathons in the area. Ealdor High's newspaper was completely digital, and there were far more mentions of Merlin there -- Merlin on the track team; Merlin at the rally for something or another; Merlin on Earth Day cleaning up the creek; Merlin at the junior prom with his boyfriend.

Merlin at the junior prom with his boyfriend.

Reading that line gutted Arthur in a way he didn't understand, that he didn't want to understand. Arthur tried to get a clear view of Merlin's boyfriend's face in a painful round of self-flagellation, but the other boy had his head turned away from the camera in every photo.

After that, Arthur almost shut down the computer. But he stumbled on Merlin's Facebook page, where everything was dangerously open to the public, where there was an impossibly large number of friends -- over two thousand, which, somehow, didn't surprise Arthur at all. Merlin's entries were politically neutral, revealing little while still somehow managing to be effusive. Scrolling back to May and June, there was a status update at least once every day.

An entry one week after "PROM!" was a simple disclaimer: "It's finished."

That could mean too many things. Graduation, or depression, or something else that Arthur didn't want to think about. The status updates tapered off as well; instead of every day, it was once a week, with a radio silence all throughout July. They were short, stilted, and ambiguous, the sort of messages that drew more questions than it answered from Merlin's Facebook friends, and there were hundreds of those questions that Merlin avoided answering completely. There was one entry toward the end of August that seemed more cheerful to Arthur: "We're moving to Camelot."

And nothing again until the first week of school: "Miss (almost) everybody at EH but Camelot High rocks."

"Was there ever any doubt? I made the team!"

"I need new running flats -- anyone know the best place to get them in town?"

Arthur nearly answered that one -- he knew the best shops. Instead, he closed the page -- though not without first glancing at Merlin's relationship status. "Single."

From having a boyfriend at the prom to single in less than a summer. Maybe that was it -- the problem that Merlin had been running away from? A bad relationship? A bad breakup?

Arthur shook himself out of it and glanced at the sports drink Leon offered him. He took it gratefully, mainly to cover the fact that his head had been somewhere else.

"The girls on the team talk about him a lot," Leon said. "You know how they are. He's cute, he's sweet, he's funny --"

"Is that right?" Arthur tried not to sound interested, and, really, really, he wasn't.

"Terrible shame about him being gay, though," Leon said. "Broke half of my team's hearts when he turned down Sarah and told her why he couldn't go out with her. Now they're trying to fix him up so that he'll have a date for homecoming."

Arthur's chest felt tight.

"Good thing he's a runner -- that's the only way he'll escape them. When the girls get started matchmaking, they don't stop."

The next race was about to start, and Merlin bounced back to join them, glancing at Arthur's clipboard for the last race's times. Geraint had joined them for the last two training sessions and was in the 5K race at Uther's insistence, and since Geraint swore up and down that he was fine to race even if he wasn't properly conditioned, Arthur couldn't quite say no, not with Uther breathing down his neck.

"What's this Geraint like on the course?" Merlin asked.

"Maintains a steady tempo, doesn't rush to the finish, good endurance runner," Arthur said flatly, hating -- hating that Leon picked that moment to spot someone that he knew, to wave an arm and to abandon Arthur to Merlin's company.

"Seems like a nice guy, even if he'd rather spend all of his time sucking face with a girl," Merlin said, nudging Arthur's arm with his elbow.

Arthur snorted.

Merlin leaned in and whispered, "You're watching me."

Arthur was nearly knocked onto his feet by a embarrassed flush, and he kept his eyes fixed straight ahead, pointing. "I'm watching the team, Merlin."

"Right, right. You're watching the team."

When Arthur finally glanced at Merlin, there was a smug smile on his lips.

It was the end of the easy Monday run and after cool down when Arthur stopped the team from disappearing into the showers. He passed out the first-week generic training schedule for the bulk of the team -- those who had kept in some sort of running shape during the summer and those who hadn't done too dismally on their course times on the Friday race. The rest received a repeat of freshman drills to get them up and going as quickly as possible.

There were only a few he needed to single out; as the season progressed, he would be analyzing each runner's strategies and performance more and more, and meeting with them one and one to personalize their training program.

"All right. Lance, Gwaine, you two need to work on your endurance. You're great at short sprints, but you need better wind for distance," Arthur said, handing the two their training schedule for the week. Lance glanced at his sheet with a shrug; Gwaine looked at his sheet and mumbled something that Arthur preferred not to hear, or he'd have to suspend him.

The two shoved at each other before heading to the showers. Arthur waited until they were out of earshot before gesturing to Geraint, taking him aside.

"Geraint, your performance was --"

"Crap, I know," Geraint said, rolling his eyes. When he looked at Arthur again, it was to glance at someone behind Arthur before he focused. "The Headmaster took me aside this morning. Said I had a lot of training ahead of me."

"Whatever the Headmaster said, you know the decision is up to you. If you don't want to run, you don't have to run. But either you're all in or you're not in at all," Arthur said, subtly shifting his stance to look at the girl waiting for Geraint by the fence. She was a pretty blonde, short and fine-boned; she'd taken some liberties with the school uniform that would send her right to the principal's office. Arthur considered doing exactly that, but he knew that would put him in Geraint's bad books.

And, by definition, in Uther's.

"No, no. I want to run, coach. Scholarships and all. The Headmaster said I had a good shot at the national team."

"Tryouts are next summer," Arthur said. "You realize that you're still going to be training when track season is over. All through the winter and in the spring?"

"Yeah," Geraint said, hanging his head. "I'll try my best."

Arthur stared at him for a moment. There had been a time when Geraint's aspirations included the IAAF World Cross Country Championships and the Olympics, when those goals had been all that he could talk about. Arthur had allowed himself to get caught up with the possibility, to invest time in Geraint's training program -- only to see it come to a crashing halt toward the end of the season the year prior, when his times grew more and more erratic. As Arthur understood it, that was roughly when Geraint had met his girlfriend.

All the racing spirit had gone out of him; his priorities had changed. Arthur's enthusiasm had changed, too. He couldn't push someone when they didn't want to be pushed.

"All right. We'll get you started on the same program as last year. We'll bring your conditioning up where it needs to be to get consistent times at the qualifying races. We've got plenty of time."

"Yes, coach," Geraint said.

"Go hit the showers." Arthur waited until Geraint had loped off before turning toward Merlin. Merlin was sitting on a lower bench at the bleachers, tugging off his worn running flats and damp socks, stretching out his legs and his feet. His hair was a ruffled mess, his shirt was soaked through, and every movement made the lean muscles in his legs and arms ripple. Arthur cleared his throat. "You're still here."

Merlin's chin raised with a start, and one eye immediately closed when sweat dripped down his brow. He wiped it away with the back of his hand and gave Arthur a big grin. "It's Monday. You said we were gonna talk."

"We're going to discuss your training plan, yes," Arthur said. He sat down next to Merlin, keeping a respectable distance away. He glanced at Merlin's feet and frowned. There were white strips of tape around the two toes next to his big toe on his right foot, and again around the little toe and the one next to it on his left. "Broken toes?"

"Uh. Yeah," Merlin said, having the good sense to at least sound abashed. "Last year on one, this summer on the other. They still hurt sometimes, like when I spread my toes out, but if I tape them, it's not so bad."

"How'd it happen?"

Merlin pointed to his left foot. "This one, playing beach volleyball. That one, walked into a door barefoot in the middle of the night."

Arthur raised a brow.

Merlin added, "I was drunk, and it was dark."

"Not helping your case here, Merlin," Arthur said wearily. He looked down at his clipboard and waffled. Part of him wanted to give Merlin his training routine -- his very curtailed training routine -- and see what Merlin would do. The other part -- the part that was completely disillusioned with Geraint -- wanted to grill Merlin to see just how dedicated he was to running. Instead, Arthur said, "Give me your feet."

"What?" Merlin looked at him as if he were insane.

Arthur put his clipboard on the bench behind him and waved his hand, inviting Merlin over. "Give me your feet, I said. Your old coach said you were prone to injuries. You're racing in flats, and they look worn out. I want to make sure you're not stressing your feet."

Merlin gingerly twisted in his seat and offered Arthur one foot. When Arthur took it without hesitation, Merlin's nose crinkled, and he said, "Ew."

But a second later, the look in his eyes darkened to something approaching interest, and Arthur forced himself to keep his attention on Merlin's foot.

"Tell me where you're sore," Arthur said, running his thumbs first along the sides of Merlin's feet, noting where Merlin started to jerk his feet away from pain, when his toes curled because he was touching a ticklish spot, and marking the areas that drew an inscrutable sound from Merlin. He did the same thing with the second foot before checking the condition of Merlin's shoes. "How many pairs of runners do you have? Are they all like this? Flats?"

"No, um. I have cross-trainers and Nike Frees and flats. I guess everything in between," Merlin said.

"Do you wear them all or do you stick to one pair?" Arthur reached for his clipboard, still not looking at Merlin. He tried not to notice when Merlin dropped his legs down and slid across the bench to sit next to him, closer than he had been earlier. Instead, he jotted a few notes to adjust Merlin's training routine.

"Whatever's nearest," Merlin said.

"Oh. Well. That's not good. I mean, seriously --" Arthur flipped to a blank sheet on his clipboard and wrote down the name of a shoe store. He didn't even have to think of the address or the phone number because he'd been thinking about it ever since he'd seen Merlin's Facebook status asking about running shoes. "You're telling me the kid who's been giving the freshmen really good advice about what shoes to wear doesn't take his own advice?"

Arthur glanced up then and was rewarded with an uncomfortably embarrassed look. This must be what Kilgarrah meant when he said that Merlin forgot to take care of himself, and Arthur tamped down the urge to take up the banner. If the boy couldn't take care of himself, then someone had to.

It just couldn't be Arthur, no matter how much he suddenly wanted to.

Arthur gave him the sheet of paper. "Here. Tell them I sent you, and that you need to be fitted with proper flats with cleats for the slippery routes. I want you to try on some Vibrams --"

Merlin laughed. "Oh, God, no. I'm not wearing those stupid-looking mittens. It'll make me look like that character from Aeon Flux -- you know the one? Hands on her feet?"

Arthur glanced at Merlin in surprise -- there weren't many kids his age who knew that movie. Arthur chuckled despite himself. "Yeah, that one. And there's other types of Vibrams. Merrell has a good line. Look into them. Your other option is running barefoot."

He heard Merlin's sharp intake of breath.

"Not a fan of Vibrams?" Arthur wasn't, either, at least not back when he was training for the Olympics. It would have been too hard to adapt to the change in foot strike, stride and pacing in such a short period of time and still be able to keep his timing, but since his retirement, he had made the switch. It had been a slow, gradual change for him, with a big pay-off in the end; he'd wished he'd done it sooner. But for Merlin, it was early enough in his distance-running career not to cause too much disruption.

"No. Well." Merlin gave Arthur a sidelong glance that Arthur couldn't read; it was as if he was trying to gauge Arthur's reaction. Whatever he saw, or didn't see, it emboldened Merlin because he went on to say, "It's just, won't I have to train from scratch?"

"You already run in flats, Merlin, but those shoes are too narrow for your feet. That's why they're sore, and that's why your toes aren't getting better faster. Keep taping your toes, but on Wednesday's run, you're going bare." Arthur pulled the sheet with Merlin's training schedule and glanced up at Merlin's unexpected silence. There was a weighted, amused look to Merlin's face, a small curl of his lips.

Arthur went over what he said, and did not flush when he realized why Merlin was looking at him like that. Instead, he thrust the sheet at Merlin.

"We're going to work on getting your split times down. You're too unreliable right now. Once we get you on a consistent split, we'll work on your speed --"

"But the race Friday --"

"Forget about the race, Merlin," Arthur said firmly. "Concentrate on running."

Merlin pressed his lips together, his expression clouding over. Arthur knew that look -- Merlin was unhappy. He braced for an explosion of temper, for the oncoming argument, but all Merlin said was "June 22."


"June 22," Merlin repeated. "That's the date for the 10K qualifiers for the Olympics. I don't want to make the "B" team. I want to make the "A" team. And they're not even going to look at me if I don't get my name on the race standings."

Arthur leaned back, and watched Merlin. He tore his eyes away at the sound of the gymnasium door opening and closing; the first of the runners out of the showers were leaving. They raised a hand and shouted their good-byes across the field. Arthur returned their good-byes with a raised arm, but when he looked at Merlin again, he saw the way Merlin wrung his hands together, the way his stomach hollowed in anxious clench.

"It's Geraint, isn't it? You're putting all your chips on him. The rest of us? If we want to make the national team? We're fucked, aren't we? We're on our own. You're not going to train us -- you'll be tearing training pages out of your old books but creating new ones from scratch for him so that he makes it and the rest of us don't. I knew it was a mistake to come here, Coach Kilgarrah told me that this was the best place for me, that you'd help, but I see how it is, and I should've known. So fuck you," Merlin blurted out, all in a rush, all in one breath, and before Arthur could answer, Merlin had run off.

It was late -- very late -- when Arthur heard the outer door bang open and shut. He left his office in time to see the locker room door drift shut. The showers started moments after and Arthur lingered outside, looking out the windows. The campus was dark; there were a few flickering lights in the distance. The Headmaster's office. A few classrooms where the janitors were working. The field was awash in an orange-yellow glow.

He waited until he heard the showers turn off. Then he waited some more. Just when he had screwed up the courage to go inside, the door opened, and out came Merlin in uniform trousers and white shirt, his blazer and tie rolled up and tucked into his gym bag. Merlin saw him and froze.

Arthur couldn't see Merlin's expression in the gloomy corridor, but the way he held himself, full of lingering run when he should be all run out by now, was all that Arthur needed to know.

"Merlin --"

"I'm going to talk to my mom," Merlin said, his voice curt. "I'm going to transfer."

The words were like a knife in his gut, twisting round and round. Arthur struggled to find the words. "If that's your choice," he said evenly, carefully, slowly. He didn't want Merlin to go. He knew what the coaches at the other schools were like. They would push Merlin until he was too hurt to run and he'd miss the trials in the summer. They wouldn't train Merlin the way he needed to be trained. Merlin would be better off if he stayed.

Arthur didn't want him to go. He didn't want Camelot High to miss out on an athlete like Merlin. He didn't want --

He didn't want to only see Merlin at the races.

They lingered in silence, neither of them saying a word. Merlin turned away, scoffing, breathing a whispery "Yeah."

"I don't --" Arthur started, only to stutter to a stop when Merlin paused.

"What?" Merlin asked, not moving. The tense line in his back robbed Arthur of breath.

The words wouldn't come. And even if they would, Arthur struggled with them. "I don't want -- I don't think. Merlin. I want you to -- I think you should --"

How many students had he counselled since he'd come to work at Camelot High? How many students had he listened to, advised, patched back together? Why was it that everything he wanted to tell Merlin was so grossly inappropriate? Why was it that now, of all times, he couldn't come up with the right thing to say?

"You don't want what? You want me to what?" Merlin asked, pushing, pressing. His profile in the dark was sharp, solid, demanding.

Arthur ached. There was such potential in the boy. Such talent. Arthur had seen it on the very first day, during tryouts. Arthur didn't think that any other athlete could have taken an unknown course, completed it in thirty-two minutes, and still be fresh enough to keep going. The official Olympics qualifying time for the 10K was just under twenty-eight minutes -- Arthur was sure he could get Merlin down to that, if not better. Of course he couldn't let Merlin go. Uther would have his head if Merlin made the national team while attending another school.

Except that wasn't the only reason why Arthur hurt so much. Merlin's soft hair. His bright eyes. His easy smile. His self-sacrifice, his determination, his willingness to give it his all no matter what the cost. But there was something haunting him, hurting him deep, deep down. Arthur hated that he could see it. Hated that he cared so much.

He steadied himself. Sorted through a million things that he could say. What came out of his mouth was: "I put your training schedule for the week in your bag. If you change your mind."

Merlin snorted. "Yeah. Whatever."

Arthur watched with a sinking heart as Merlin walked away, his sneakers a rough scuff on the linoleum.

Maybe it had been guilt over Merlin's reaction at hearing how Arthur was changing his training's focus. Or maybe it wasn't anything of the sort. Whatever the reason, Arthur had added one thing to Merlin's training schedule and couldn't bring himself to regret it even when he knew that it was a bad idea.

I run every day at 6 AM starting from the field.

Merlin didn't show the next morning. He didn't come to the Tuesday afternoon practice. He didn't show Wednesday morning either. Arthur was feeling ill and distracted while he waited for the kids to gather, sending the freshmen and juniors and sophomores for their long runs -- an easy 3K and 6K at their own speed on the round track, to be followed up with a series of sprint drills and a cool down. The seniors, who were by now more independent, had already gathered up at the field, and Geraint, by force of habit, made a head count before calling the start.

Arthur stopped what he was doing and stared when he saw Merlin catch up to them. He'd taken the long way around to join the team, pointedly avoiding Arthur, and had ignored Arthur's advice to try the run barefoot, but Arthur didn't care. He was relieved; Merlin was still here, he hadn't transferred out. At least, not yet.

He didn't see the seniors come back from their 12K long run -- they each had their own training schedules and three days a week those schedules coincided so that they could train as a team. It helped for Arthur to see who could run together as part of a relay, and to keep a close eye on who was improving and who was lagging, but he had gotten involved with Perceval and the freshmen running sprints and had missed the seniors' return.

He saw Geraint leading the way to the showers; Gwaine and Lance somewhere in the middle of the group. He didn't see Merlin, but he didn't let himself be too concerned; the team wouldn't have forgotten about Merlin, or left him on the trail with a broken ankle.

It wasn't until later, when he was heading back to his office, that he caught a glimpse of Merlin again, leaving the locker room, head down, shoulders up, and gym bag banging against his thigh. Arthur started to call his name when the locker room door opened again, and Geraint stuck his head out, looked in both directions, and went after him. "Merlin! You dropped this."

"Oh, yeah. That," Merlin said weakly. "That's the Coach's training schedule for me, I guess."

"Yeah, I saw. Don't envy you one bit. He must think a lot of you -- he's got you running insane sprints," Geraint said. "Worse than I ever got."

"I guess," Merlin said half-heartedly, uncertain. He stared down at the sheet in his hands, unfolding it, his brow in a heavy frown. "I didn't really look."

"If I were you, I wouldn't either. Ignorance is bliss and all that rot. But if Coach gives you something, he expects you to do them. Anyway, I'll see you tomorrow," Geraint said, heading back to the change room.

Arthur saw the exact moment when Merlin read the addition he'd put at the bottom of the sheet, the private little note that no one else was meant to see. Merlin's expression pinched, his lips pressed together, and he turned away to stalk down the corridor, crumpling the sheet of paper in his hand.

Hope -- absurd, ridiculous, misplaced -- burst in Arthur's chest when he saw Merlin shove the schedule in his pocket.

Merlin didn't show up Thursday morning. He came to practice and ran the sprint drills that Arthur had written into his schedule. Arthur spent more time watching Merlin run the quarter mile than he did the group of boys he was timing.

Merlin boarded the bus for the race across town and sat at the rear with Lance and Gwaine. He went to the change rooms and joined the team until he was called to the line. He didn't acknowledge Arthur at all. Not during the race, not afterward.

But Arthur took solace in the simple fact that Merlin had been wearing new running flats.

Geraint took first, but Arthur was thrilled when he saw Merlin come in fourth.

The summer was encroaching on autumn’s territory, because the morning was absurdly warm and the grass coated with fine dew, but the leaves changed colours in the dawning sunlight. Arthur finished stretching before he wiped down a bench and sat and waited, just like he'd sat and waited every morning since he left the training schedule in Merlin's bag. He propped his elbows on his knees, staring at his watch as the seconds counted up to the minute.

5:58 AM.

"You waited for me."

Arthur turned and saw Merlin standing a few feet away. He was wearing white running shorts with a thick orange stripe down the legs. His hands were in the pockets of a navy blue soft-shell jacket and a gym bag hung from his shoulder.

The morning light haloed him from behind. His black hair was tousled and messy but every curl gleamed. There was sleep-softness to his features, a laziness in the half-hooded long-lash of his eyes, and Arthur thought that he wouldn't mind waking up to Merlin next to him for the rest of his life if he would have that same look every morning. As quickly as the thought streamed through his mind, Arthur stamped it out. He couldn't think like that. He shouldn't. It was wrong on so many levels. Merlin was a teenager. Arthur was in a position of authority.

Merlin didn't wait for him to answer. "That other night. When I ran off. You waited for me then, too."

"I was concerned," Arthur said neutrally.

Merlin ignored him. "Did you wait for me the morning after? Every morning since then? Did you think I would come? Did you want me to?"

Arthur stood up. He brushed his hands on his butt unconsciously.

"Coach?" Merlin hadn't moved, but it was almost as if he'd taken a big step closer.

"I didn't realize it would take you this long to get over your tantrum," Arthur said. He didn't look at Merlin.

"For all you knew, I'd transferred already."

"I've been checking," Arthur said, letting his eyes slip toward Merlin. Merlin's chin lifted just a little, his eyes narrowed in calculation, and his lips pressed together in an attempt to suppress the exclamation of triumph that was mirrored in his eyes. Arthur had a sinking feeling that he'd given Merlin the inch that Coach Kilgarrah had warned him not to give.

"You've been checking," Merlin repeated, and there was a tug of a grin at the corner of his mouth.

"Had to make sure I wasn't going to waste my time waiting for someone who might not show up, didn't I?" Arthur said, turning away, but not before he saw the smile broaden on Merlin's lips. Merlin wasn't fooled. Not one bit.


"Are you coming? I don't have all morning," Arthur said. He headed toward the start of the trail. He didn't look back at the sound of the gym bag plopping on the ground or at the rustle of clothing. "Shoes off."

There was a pause behind him, a long silence. The footfalls that caught up to him were quick, and Merlin was beside him in an instant, coming so close that their arms and the backs of their palms, brushed together. Arthur shut his eyes tight, suppressing a shiver. They shouldn't be this close, but he couldn't bring himself to move away.

"So what's the plan?" Merlin asked.

"Slow, easy run," Arthur said, struggling to keep his voice steady. "Far as you can, long as you can. You start feeling a twinge or an ache, stop and we'll walk, give you a chance to stretch it out, then we'll go again."

"I can outrun you," Merlin said smugly.

"Probably," Arthur said. "But can you outrace me?"

He didn't wait for an answer. He got on the trail and set the pace, keeping it slow, giving Merlin a chance to find his stride. Heel-running wasn't easy barefoot; throw away the shoes and the body adjusted to a ball-forward impact that was cushioned by the foot. It didn't take long before Merlin's footfalls evened out to a soft pat-pat-pat-pat and an easy hundred-eighty beats per minute, and Arthur was gratified to know that he had been right. All the running Merlin did while wearing flats forced him to a heel-strike, but his body wanted a different stride -- this stride.

They ran at that pace for a while in silence. "You can run from sunrise to sunset and never reach the finish line," Arthur said. Merlin didn't answer, so Arthur continued, "Racing is about strategy. About evaluating your opponents and knowing yourself. Can they keep your pace? Can you match theirs? When should you speed up? When should you ignore it when they do? Are they holding back a bit more wind in reserve? Should you overtake them now, or are they going to blow past you when your tank is dry?"

Arthur stopped talking. He was in good shape -- he was in great shape -- but talking while running did occasionally require that he breathe deeply and flood his blood cells with oxygen.

"There's two kinds of running. There's the kind when you turn off your brain and just let yourself run. You do this a lot when you go with the team on the easy runs. You don't care if they overtake you. You don't care if you've blown past the finish line because you don't feel like stopping. It's the kind of running that's good for your soul."

Arthur glanced at Merlin. His eyes were half-closed, only partially aware of the trail ahead of him. He was barely paying attention to where his footfalls were landing, but he was keeping up with Arthur without effort at all, his hands slack and relaxed, the tension gone out of his shoulders, an expression of serenity across his brow.

"Then there's the kind of running where you forget about you. You're hyperaware of everything that surrounds you. The trail ahead of you is nothing. It's just another path that you're going to tame into submission. The rain's pounding down on you, you're freezing cold, but you don't feel it because you're in tune with everything. You almost see the raindrops slow down. You think you could run around them. The cold doesn't bother you because you've got a furnace boiling deep down inside of you, pushing you to keep on running until you're out of fuel and it cools."

Merlin's chin dipped down, and his eyes had narrowed to slits. He looked like he was dozing off, but he was running in perfect synch with Arthur now, stride for stride.

"You know when the guy behind you is about to make a move. You know to shift an inch to your left to make him stumble and change his mind. When the guy next to you extends his lead and draws the pack with him, you know not to try to catch up because there's a hill ahead, and you're saving everything you've got for that hill. You know when the runner ahead of you is bluffing. You know when he's not and you know when to turn on the speed."

They rounded the rising bend, easily, smooth as silk. Arthur could barely hear Merlin's footfalls besides him; they were so quiet. A faint pat-pat-pat-pat, a comfortable rhythm. Merlin was gliding, not running.

"You're a runner who runs, Merlin. You can run until your heart beats so hard in your chest you can hear the pounding in your ears. You can run until your legs burn and peel and turn rubbery and you can't stand on them anymore. You can run until you don't have a last gasp in your lungs and you see stars and everything goes black. I can't teach you anything about running that you don't already know."

Arthur could feel Merlin's eyes on him now, could hear the startled breath before it steadied. They took a long incline at a moderate grade and descended the steep hill, jumping over the dip before running on the flat course.

"If you want to make the national team, if you want the coaches to notice you, if the Olympics is your end game, I can take you there. I can turn you into a runner who races. Who calculates the course. Who weights and measures the other runners. A runner who wins. But that's up to you, Merlin. I can't train someone who fights me every time I tell you to do something they don't like. Who threatens to find another coach. Who runs away."

You have to want this, Merlin. You have to want to be mine. You have to want me, Arthur wanted to say, but they were the wrong things to say, things that he shouldn't say, not now, not ever, not to any other man, not to Merlin.

Not to Merlin, who was full of spitfire and pride. Not to Merlin, who was so open and unguarded that all Arthur wanted to do was protect him. Not to Merlin, who was running like he'd grown wings, who was beautiful.

They ran for a while in silence. They were at the furthest section of the course before they started turning back toward the start/finish line to start another loop.

"You don't talk like this with the team," Merlin said finally.

Arthur didn't answer. They crossed the finish line and kept going. He kept an eye on Merlin, looking for signs of distress or ache or pain, but there weren't any. Either Merlin was in the zone, pumped so full of endorphins he wouldn't feel it if his foot was broken, or he was fine.

They kept running.

"She said no. My mom," Merlin said. "I asked for a transfer. She wanted to know why."

Arthur bit back the desire to ask, what did you tell her? and waited to see if Merlin would continue.

"Never have a lawyer for a mom. Shoots down all my arguments as invalid. I've never shown past evidence of being fickle. I have no record of not getting along with my coaches. There's no plausible motive for me leaving now, at the beginning of the season. She thinks that --" Merlin fell silent, and there was no reason for him to be silent -- no increase in speed, no stumble, no incline. His breathing didn't deepen, but it did quicken inexplicably, and it was a quarter mile before he spoke again. "She wants to meet you."

This time, it was Arthur's breath that hitched. He didn't answer for a long time. "Bring her to your next race."

The next race was Wednesday against a local school. It wasn't for ranking or for qualifying times, just a bit of friendly competition before the track season began.

"That's going to be tricky. She's got a big case."

Arthur hmm-ed. They continued to run.

"What about Geraint?" Merlin asked abruptly. "I mean. You're offering to train me, right? For the national team? What's going to happen to him? The way he talks, he doesn't really care --"

He doesn't, Arthur wanted to say. He doesn't care and the only reason he's running is because Uther probably blackmailed him into it, and all I want to do is train someone who really wants it. All I want is to train you.

Instead, he says, "Forget Geraint. This is about you. Any training we do will be on my terms."

Arthur could tell right away that Merlin didn't like it one bit. His breathing changed, his stride lengthened as if he were about to run away again, and his jaw clenched. Arthur wasn't sure if it was the one-on-one training aspect that bothered Merlin more, or that Merlin would have to give control over to Arthur.

Merlin didn't answer. They continued to run. Eventually, Merlin's pace dropped from one-ninety-five steps a minute to a more natural one-eighty-two -- Arthur had been counting. They went past the finish/start again and went for another loop.

"What would -- the training. How --"

Arthur put Merlin out of his misery by guessing the question. "To start, you'd run with me every morning --"

"Oh, God," Merlin groaned. "It took me forever to get out of bed today --"

"-- and every training session you'll run different drills than the rest of the team. Short drills, no longer than one K to start, until you get a feel for your pacing."

"My pacing's fine," Merlin grunted.

"That's because you're matching me," Arthur said. "You pick a runner on the field and you match them until you see the end of the line and need to race to the finish line."

"I don't --"

"At the last race? You made the finish line by the skin of your teeth, Merlin," Arthur said. "You picked the wrong runner to pace, and you spent the last five Ks scrambling to catch up. You were exhausted by the end."

Arthur could hear the grit of Merlin's teeth. They crossed the start/finish for the third loop before Merlin said anything.

"If I do what you say, I want something in return."

Arthur snorted. "You'll be getting the Olympics."

"The Olympics are a goal," Merlin said. Arthur could hear the eye roll in his voice and glanced at him. Merlin was already looking at Arthur, and there was something shuttered in his gaze that made Arthur's stomach flutter. "This is something else. It's something I want you to tell me."

"Merlin --" Arthur stumbled.

There was tension in Merlin now, from the clench of his jaw to the bunch of his shoulders to the line of his spine. His footfalls thudded dully against the ground.

Don't give him an inch, Kilgarrah warned him, but Arthur's resolve never seemed very strong around Merlin.

"What's that?" Arthur heard himself ask.

Merlin didn't answer, not until they'd rounded the bend again and the finish line was in sight, but his body had relaxed, and Arthur wouldn't have known Merlin was besides him, keeping pace, if it hadn't been for the heavy exhalation with every stride.

"You watch me. All the time," Merlin said, his voice low and husky in a way that it shouldn't be, this deep in a run. "And you waited for me. Do you think about me too?"

Arthur didn't answer. Couldn't answer. He gasped for breath and had to struggle to maintain his pace all the way to the finish line, slowing down and coming to a stuttering stop. Merlin kept going for a little longer, all the way to the end of the straight trail, stopping before the rise and the turn. He turned and walked back, giving Arthur time to think, except Arthur couldn't think. He was not seeing Merlin come toward him like that, not with his hair plastered to his forehead, not with sweat running down his brow, not with his shirt clinging to his lean, wiry frame.

Arthur couldn't breathe. He tore his eyes away. He forced himself from the trail and headed to the bench where he'd left his towel and water bottle, where Merlin had left his soft-shell jacket and his shoes and his bag. It wasn't long before Merlin joined him there, but at least by then, Arthur thought he had himself under control. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Merlin rummaged through his bag and came out with a refillable water bottle. He listened as Merlin popped the top and drank. There was a rustle of fabric as Merlin gathered his belongings and prepared to leave.

"Showers are open," Arthur said. If his voice was hoarse, well, it was from all the talking on the run.

"Yeah? All right." Merlin lingered only a moment longer before hoisting his bag over his shoulder to head toward the locker rooms.

Arthur watched him go, his mouth dry no matter how much water he drank. It wasn't until later, after he'd listened to the water trickle to a stop in the showers, after the locker room doors slammed shut behind Merlin, after Merlin had shouted "See you tomorrow!" that Arthur realized that he hadn't answered Merlin's question, and that by not answering, he'd given Merlin what he wanted.

Another inch.

Merlin came in eighth out of a field of twenty-four senior runners doing a 10K cross-country run on St-Dennis High's course. He screwed his face into a smile, congratulated the winners in sportsmanlike manner that no one could find fault in, packed up his bag and sat at the rear of the bus, jammed against the window. He glowered at nothing in particular, crossed his arms over his chest, and didn't say anything to anyone when the rest of the students boarded the bus. Even Gwaine and Lance, who never seemed shy about approaching anyone, picked up on Merlin's foul mood, because they stayed clear.

Everyone knew that Merlin had the speed and the endurance to win, and if not to win, then certainly to make it in the top five. It hadn't been a particularly fast race, either, so while there was unbridled anger under Merlin's skin, there was confusion in the rest of the team.

It didn't help that Geraint came in second.

Arthur gave his usual end-of-race speech on the bus, because he knew everyone was going to scramble out and head for their cars as soon as they arrived at Camelot High. It was full of the usual platitudes -- good runs, everyone, remember it's not a ranking race, just giving you a taste of what it's like again, and it's not going to be easy from here on out. Somewhere in the middle of his speech, lightning flashed, thunder cracked and the sky opened up to piss on them.

The bus slowed down as the torrents of rain flooded an inch of water on the roads, and Arthur walked down the aisles, he spoke to each and every runner, giving them a few bits of advice to keep in mind for the next race. He reached Merlin, but Merlin muttered an angry "Don't."

So he didn't.

Arthur walked to the front of the bus and finished his speech with see you at practice tomorrow, and wished the team a hasty good night as the bus came to a stop in the parking lot.

Everyone ran for their cars. Some of the older students helped with the bags. Leon and Perceval headed for their respective cars and left Arthur to store the last of the gear. The bus rumbled away -- the downpour had abated and now it was just a steady trickle -- and it was in the glare of the headlights that Arthur noticed several things.

The parking lot was empty except for his car.

Half of the streetlights had burned out.

Merlin was walking away, gym bag looped over his head and shoulder, his hands stuffed deep in his pockets. His head was down, the collar of his jacket was up, and just as the bus slowed down to take the turn onto the road, he was sloshed with a tidal wave.

He didn't even react. He kept walking.

Merlin was too far away to hear Arthur even if Arthur shouted. Arthur hesitated for a split second and made a decision. He hurried and locked up and went to his car and drove after Merlin. There was a strange, tight squeeze in his belly when he realized that he didn't know which way Merlin had gone, but he saw him, finally, in the flash of headlights of an oncoming transport. Arthur turned the wheel, slowing down next to Merlin, lowering the window partway.


Merlin didn't slow down, but he glanced at Arthur. "What?"

Arthur was at a strange, panicked loss for words, so instead he stupidly asked, "Where's your car?"

"I don't have a car. Anyway, my mom needed it," Merlin said. "I'll just walk home."

"It's pouring rain, Merlin," Arthur said.

"I hadn't noticed," Merlin said flatly, walking under a flickering streetlight. He was drenched already from the short walk, and the overhead glow cast shadows over Merlin's face. His hair was matted against his skull, his cheekbones standing out in stark relief, his clothes sticking to his skin.

"Merlin, will you just get in the car?" Arthur slammed on the brakes and waited. He watched helplessly as Merlin continued to walk a few more steps before slowing down and stopping and coming back. Arthur ignored the rush of relief.

Merlin hesitated. "I'll get your car wet."

"I've got leather seats. You're not going to damage it," Arthur said. When Merlin didn't react, he added, "Put your bag in the trunk. Grab one of the towels from there if you're that worried about my damn car."

Merlin came back after a moment, moving quick. He hastily threw the towel -- towels -- on the passenger seat before sliding in, shutting the door. Arthur turned up the heat and waited until Merlin fastened his seat belt before putting the car into gear.

They drove in silence for a while. "Take the left," Merlin said.

Arthur followed Merlin's directions, realizing with a start that his house was only a few blocks away. He pulled into the driveway of a two-floor townhouse and put the car into park.

"Thanks for the lift," Merlin said glumly, undoing his seatbelt and reaching for the door handle.

"Merlin. Wait," Arthur said.

"For what? For you to tell me what a good job I did, losing the race?" Merlin snapped.

"You did do a good job. You held pace," Arthur said. "You didn't deviate from the strategy --"

"The strategy was shit. Who tells a runner to do a 6:10 pace for a race?"

My old coach, Arthur started to say, because he used to run exactly like Merlin, trying to win all the time. That wasn't what Merlin needed to hear right now, and Arthur let him stew for a few minutes before saying, "Run it through in your head. Try to remember the race. How was it in the beginning? Everyone surges forward, right? For the first K, everyone jockeys for position until they fall into a comfortable pace. How long were you in the lead, Merlin?"

Merlin didn't answer. He worked his jaw angrily. "The first eight."

"Yeah," Arthur nodded. Geraint and Lance had been right up there with him, along with several other runners from the other teams. "You forced the pace, Merlin. And because you stayed steady, you stayed consistent, the other runners, they latched on to you and matched your pace. The ones who aren't used to it dropped off quick. The ones who could maintain it stayed with you until they got close to the end. That's when they pulled away."

"And won," Merlin said bitterly.

"But you forced the race, Merlin," Arthur said. "You dominated it for eight kilometres out of ten. The rest of the pack tried to follow Geraint and that other kid to the finish but they couldn't adjust to the change in pace at all. They were too accustomed to matching up with your pace. You controlled them, Merlin. You controlled the race almost all the way to the end."

That seemed to mollify Merlin somewhat, because he leaned back on the towels and rested his elbow on the door where the moulding met the window. He rubbed at his eyes with forefinger and thumb and his jaw relaxed from its perpetual clench. They didn't speak for a long time.

Arthur noticed that the house was dark. The lights were off. The garage door was closed but that probably didn't mean anything. It was a big house -- like most in the neighbourhood -- and she might be in the back of the building. "Is your mom home?"

"No," Merlin said, and there was a peculiar tone to his voice that drew Arthur's attention.

He startled.

Merlin was close -- he'd shifted in his seat and was leaning toward Arthur. Before Arthur could react, Merlin was cupping Arthur's face with a hand, his thumb stroking over Arthur's cheek. In the next breath, Merlin's lips were on his.

It wasn't a chaste kiss. Arthur had been caught by surprise and his mouth had parted just as Merlin leaned in. Merlin's lips enfolded Arthur's lower lip. Tugged and sucked. Then they reached in again, covering Arthur's mouth, stealing his breath. Merlin's weight was against him, the damp of his jacket soaking through Arthur's clothes, as Merlin deepened the kiss. The slightest press of Merlin’s tongue teased his mouth open even more, and Arthur moaned.

Merlin stilled against Arthur for a fraction of a second that was like an eternity, but Merlin's hand drifted from Arthur's cheek to the back of his neck and the kiss went from full and eager to deep and passionate. Arthur's traitorous body begged yesneedmorewantmore but his mind repeated a terrible, painful, terrified mantra: No, I can't. No, I can't. No. No.

He pulled away, his head cushioned by the seat's headrest. Merlin followed him. Arthur wavered between pushing him away and keeping him close and finally turned his head to the side. Merlin's lips trailed down his cheek until he was nuzzling his neck.

"Stop," Arthur gasped. "Stop, Merlin. Stop."

Two kisses. Three. Four. All of them along the line of his jaw, down the pulse point of his throat. And finally -- regretfully -- Merlin pulled away.

Arthur couldn't see Merlin's face in the dark. He couldn't tell how Merlin was looking at him now. He wished he could see Merlin, to know what he was thinking, and was glad that he couldn't.

Merlin's weight didn't shift from Arthur's lap. The cold and the wet steeped through his clothes, but Merlin was radiating a warmth that left him tight in the chest and aching. He didn't know where to put his hands and left them where they were, hanging futilely in the air, wanting to touch, wanting to feel.

Wanting to hold.

"When are you going to stop watching me, Arthur?" Merlin asked, his voice soft. He leaned in and pressed a string of kisses along Arthur's cheek, ending when he reached the corner of Arthur's mouth.

Arthur couldn't breathe. Everything he had been told growing up -- everything his father had told him, had lectured -- came rushing back. It was wrong. It was immoral. He couldn't be with a man. He couldn't dishonour his family name like this. He was to find a woman, marry her, have children.

The words had hurt him, had driven guilt and fear into Arthur, but they hadn't stopped Arthur from wanting. From craving. He'd managed to keep his eyes averted for a long time. To curb his desires. To suppress his wants, his needs, but now he couldn't do it anymore.

Everything he'd ever wanted was right in front of him, in his lap. Wet and warm, a comforting weight, insistent, overpowering.

And he couldn't have him.

Even if he could, he shouldn't. Merlin was eighteen. He was a student.

Arthur cleared his throat. "Merlin. I'm not. It's not. I can't."

He felt a huff of breath against his throat.

"I shouldn't."

Merlin kissed Arthur again, right where his jaw met his ear. It was a soft, sweet kiss, in such a tender spot, that Arthur's hands drifted down. His palm touched the curve of Merlin's hip, trembling at the contact.

"Merlin." Arthur tried for firm, but his voice sounded broken to his own ears. "Stop."

He couldn't tell if Merlin was listening. If Merlin even would. After what seemed like forever, Merlin shifted his weight, twisting his body to reach for something between the driver's side door and the steering wheel.

Arthur heard a click as the trunk latch opened. He felt a void in his lap when Merlin slipped into the passenger seat. He saw Merlin's blank expression in the thin strip of light through the windshield from the distant streetlight. The side door cracked open, and Merlin stepped out. The rain was a light drizzle now, and he was still damp from his earlier soaking, but he didn’t seem to care.

"Thanks for the ride," Merlin said, lingering, as if waiting for Arthur to give him any sign, any invitation. Arthur couldn't move, didn’t dare move, and after several minutes, Merlin sighed softly. "See you tomorrow, Arthur."

Arthur knew the neighbourhood. He knew his way home. But he couldn't explain why his hands shook so much, or why he'd taken three different wrong turns before finally making it to his house.

His empty house.

He shut the door behind him with a slam. He reset the security alarm. He dumped the keys in the accursed ceramic bowl. He leaned back against the wall, gasping for breath.

He was so, so hard.

See you tomorrow, Arthur.

Arthur stroked himself through the fabric of his pants, trying to get himself off, but it almost hurt too much to do it, to even touch himself.

Merlin's weight against him. His lips on Arthur’s mouth, tracing kisses along his jaw, against his pulse. His voice, soft and seductive,, rough and demanding, brokering no argument, clearly wanting.

Arthur staggered up the stairs to his bedroom. He stripped out of his clothes. His hand pumped his cock two, three, four times before he could stop himself.

He couldn't. He shouldn't. It was wrong.

He stepped into the shower under the iciest blast the knobs allowed, but it didn't do anything to flag his erection. It stood at attention, angry and red, weeping cum, wanting -- daring -- him to touch.

Merlin was all straight lines and lean muscle. He was solid and tangible and unrepentant. Even soaked to the bone, even looking like a wet rat, he'd been the most beautiful thing Arthur had ever seen.

He stood under the water until his skin was nearly white with hypothermia, until he didn't feel the cold anymore, until he was so numb that he felt warm, impossibly warm, flushed hot with want when he remembered how Merlin had asked, When are you going to stop watching me, Arthur?

He couldn't take it. He couldn't. His fingers wrapped around his cock and pumped. His palm was water-slick but too, too rough, and it still didn't last long enough. He came with a choked-off cry, a strangled sob, his cum coating the shower tiles.

He stared at it for a long time. He washed and dried off with a rough towel before crawling into a cold, empty bed, but sleep didn't come. He spent hours chasing after it before he finally drifted in a lucid dream --

-- mouthed his way up Arthur's inner thigh, sending frissons of desires up his body. Arthur groaned, bucking his hips in the air fruitlessly, because there was no friction, there could never be enough friction trying to fuck air.

It was more of a memory than a dream. It was his room growing up in Uther's house, tucked away on the second floor of a house that was too big for the two of them. There were band posters all over his walls, and behind his door there was a poster of his idol, Carl Lewis. It was just Arthur and Eddie -- they'd started in the kitchen, their books and papers sprawled over the dinning table, trying to get started on that stupid social sciences project, but somehow they'd ended up kissing, and moved their studies into Arthur's bedroom. Uther was at a teacher's conference, he wouldn't be back until late -- he was never back until late --

-- nearly folded completely in two, his legs hanging open. He'd lost his grip more than once, but his legs were shoved back roughly, even held there with a grip firm enough to leave bruises, but he didn't care, he just wanted more. More of this -- of feeling his hole licked and suckled and pierced by tongue and finger, shallow thrusts only, driving him insane. He wanted to buck, but he didn't have any leverage; he wanted to beg to be fucked, but he didn't have the breath; he wanted to reach down into the sandy-blond -- black -- hair and grasp a handful and haul him up.

Finally -- finally, there was respite, but only of a sort; Eddie -- Merlin -- ran his tongue up and around Arthur's balls before taking his cock into his mouth. Arthur's body shuddered. He nearly came right then and there from the perfect moist heat of Merlin's mouth around his cock. "Come on, come on, please fuck me, Merlin --"

It was Merlin's wrecked, raspy laugh that did him in, that made him drop one leg and grab his cock and stroke, because he was so, so close, but Merlin knocked his hand away, grabbing Arthur's wrists and pushing his arms over his head, pressing them there. Arthur was smothered by hot, hungry lips, by his own scent and taste in Merlin's mouth, and he moaned when Merlin said, "Don't move."

He watched Merlin tear the condom wrapper with shaky fingers, to roll it over that beautiful, beautiful cock --

The bedroom door -- hadn't he locked it? -- was pushed open, and Uther walked in, his tone annoyed, "Arthur, how many times do I have to tell you to finish your homework before you play video games?"

They all froze in that instant. Uther's lips had, for a microsecond, curled into the smirk of a proud father pleased at his son's virility, only for it to fade into a snarl of outrage and disgust when he realized that Arthur had been about to be fucked by another boy.

There was a flurry of wild, naked arms, flailing in protest, struggling to fight off a stronger, more powerful man; incoherent shouts and screams and cries and pleads as Uther tossed Merlin -- Eddie -- out of the house, still naked except for the condom on his flagging penis, slamming the door in his face --

"Merlin," Arthur woke with a strangled, aching gasp.

His cheeks were wet with tears.

Merlin didn't mention the kiss. Arthur couldn't make eye contact. Conversation was civil and strained, limited to training. When they ran together in the morning, they ran in silence.

But when Arthur watched Merlin from a distance, more often than not, Merlin was looking back.

"I want everyone back here by six PM," Arthur said. "We'll stop for dinner on the way, register in the morning. Remember that your times for this race are going to count toward consideration for the national team, and if any of you sneak booze into your rooms, I'm not going to be happy."

"What about girls?" Pellinor asked, nudging Geraint with raising brows. Geraint had the good manners to blush; it wouldn't be the first time that Geraint had snuck his girlfriend into his room. It didn't matter that they all shared rooms; Geraint had no compunctions against kicking out his roommate if it meant some privacy with his girl.

"No girls," Arthur said firmly.

"What about boys?" Gwaine piped up, wrapping an arm around Merlin's shoulder. Gwaine's grin was broad, Merlin's smile was forced, and Arthur tried vainly to ignore the way Merlin was looking at him.

"Definitely no boys," Arthur said, his eyes falling on Merlin briefly. He cleared his throat. "And for the love of God, don't forget your overnight bags. Hello, Galahad -- are you listening to me?"

"Yes, coach. Forget my overnight bags. Run naked. Distract the other teams. Winning strategy. Gotcha."

Arthur rolled his eyes.

The team dispersed, heading to the locker room to grab their things. They'd shower and change at home and come back for the bus to Celidoine. It was a small team for the first round -- the freshmen only raced locally, the juniors went out of town only sporadically, but for the seniors who might want to make the regionals and the nationals, going out of town for timed races was a necessity. Two relay teams, five K each; seven runners for the ten K; a double-handful of sprinters and hurdlers. Gwaine had turned out to be a great hurdler; Lance needed more work on his sprints, but he would be ready. Geraint had refused the relay races, and that left Arthur staring at the list of names on his clipboard, wondering who he would put in instead.

His eyes kept drifting to Merlin's name. He grimaced, walked back to his office, and shut the door behind him.

He was loathe to put Merlin in for a double, even though he knew that Merlin could handle it. The 10K was in the morning; the relay later in the day. He would have time to rest --

The door opened and shut behind him. Arthur glanced over his shoulder and did a double-take.

It was Merlin, his hair a shower-damp tangle of loose, spiky curls, his uniform hastily put together. His gym bag was at his feet, the shoulder strap dangling from his fingers.

His eyes were the deep, burnished blue of a cloudless sky just as the sun was setting, full of intent. He took one step toward Arthur, then another, and another, stalking like a predator until Arthur was up against his desk, the edges digging into the back of his thighs.

Merlin stopped a foot away from Arthur, fearless, determined. "You said we can't have boys in our rooms. You're not a boy."

"Merlin --"

Merlin closed the distance between them in an instant, one hand behind Arthur's neck, the other cradling Arthur's cheek. His lips swallowed Arthur's protests -- protests that he wasn't even sure he wanted to make. He was devoured by Merlin's kisses. They robbed him of all collective sense, made him forget every couldn't and wouldn't and shouldn't that nagged at him each time he let himself think about Merlin, each time he let his hand drop down to pull at his cock whenever he thought about Merlin while flat in bed and alone, that made him wonder if that night in front of Merlin's house had been his imagination, a particularly vivid fantasy.

But it was no fantasy now; it was every dream fulfilled and personified, a reminder of the firmness of Merlin's lips, the softness that they were capable of, of the heat and wet of his mouth and his tongue, pressing persistently into Arthur's mouth until Arthur abandoned all hope of restraint.

Arthur's clipboard dropped to the ground with a clatter.

His hands went from Merlin's shoulders in an fruitless, aborted attempt to push him away to drifting down the coarse of his uniform jacket and the smooth of his cotton shirt to rest on narrow hips, to tug him closer only to find that there was no need, that Merlin was already there, rubbing himself against Arthur. If not for the desk behind him, supporting him, Arthur's knees would have given out from the sheer, absolute bliss of Merlin's hungry, persistent kissing and the press of their erections through their clothes.

A part of Arthur's mind reeled with fear. What if someone walked in on them right now? What if someone saw them through the office window? What if --

He tugged at Merlin's waist, pushing and pulling, wanting to stop because they needed to stop because it was wrong and wanting to keep going because he ached for this because he wanted Merlin --

"You're still watching me," Merlin whispered, nuzzling his throat -- and just how does a boy of eighteen know to shatter a man's mind? It wasn't fair. "You don't talk to me. You won't look me in the eye. But you'll watch me. You get huffy and tense when I walk away. You want me with you all the time, don't you? You can't live without me. You need me --"

Arthur tensed at the sound of laughter passing by his door, of footfalls, of students running off to head home and pack their things and come back for the six o'clock deadline, but Merlin only pressed his body harder against Arthur, kissing along Arthur's throat. Merlin's hips hitched in a way that should be illegal. It probably was.

"Stop, Merlin," Arthur said, and he was a hypocrite, because he turned his head and chased Merlin's lips, wanting more. More of those chapped lips that he chewed when he was thinking. More of that teasing tongue chasing after his own. More of his weight against Arthur, holding him in place, keeping him bound at his mercy.

"Stop. This isn't right," Arthur said, and he was going to Hell, he really was, because his hands slid around Merlin's waist and down, down, down, cupping that firm ass and pulling Merlin hard against him. It was Arthur who was grinding against Merlin now, desperate to for this too-wonderful sensation, acting like he was fifteen years old again, trying not to come in his pants because then everyone would know --

There was a rush of air between them, suddenly, and Arthur cried out in alarm, remembering the nightmares that had haunted him ever since Merlin had kissed him in the car. Terror paralyzed him, he cringed instinctively, he reached to grab Merlin, to protect him --

But it wasn't Uther in the doorway to warn him about video games before homework. The door was shut.

It was Merlin, taking a step back, adjusting himself shamelessly -- was he stroking himself through his trousers? -- and licking his own lips as if savouring the taste of Arthur on them. "Stop? You keep saying stop. The only one of us who should stop is you."

Arthur made a pathetic little sound.

"Stop watching me. Stop torturing me. Stop torturing yourself. You want me and you know it. And I -- I want you, Arthur. I want you. So much." There was no guile in Merlin's eyes. Only clear, unbridled desire. "Stop saying that we can't. Stop saying that it isn't right. I'm eighteen, Arthur. You're not my teacher. You're not grading me for anything. It's not against the rules."

"I'm your coach," Arthur said weakly.

Merlin scoffed. He bent down and picked up his gym bag, shouldering it. "If that's the problem, I'll find another coach. See you at six."

He was out the door before Arthur could stop him. Arthur didn't know what he would have said even if he could have called Merlin back.

"So who's got a date for Homecoming?" one of the students asked.

Arthur was at the front of the bus, sitting next to Leon, the two of them quietly discussing strategies for the field, for the girls' basketball team, the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents. He was trying very hard not to pay attention to the kids -- they always talked smack in one way or another, riling themselves up, getting nervous energy out of their systems the night before the race. For some reason --

Merlin licked the inside of his mouth and Arthur rumbled a breathy moan in response, hitching his hips for more contact, more friction --

-- he was acutely aware of Merlin's presence: his position on the bus (toward the rear, right behind Arthur, about three quarters of the way from the front), the conversations he was having with Gwaine, who sat next to him (trying to finish their calculus homework was proving to be a challenge), his laughter as it filled the bus like no one else's laughter did over the dumbest joke Arthur had ever heard (it involved the swim team).

"I'm all set -- I'm taking Elena," Gwaine announced after a chorus of the others had piped up their status. Arthur had strained to hear, but he hadn't caught Merlin's response, and he'd be damned if he'd turn around and look to see if Merlin had raised his arm like most of the students had. "Then there's a party at mine. You know everyone's invited, yeah? It's out at the cottage, BYOB, pleeee-enty of room for anyone who wants to crash or want an overnight nookie session --"

"Who even says nookie anymore?" Merlin asked.

"Mister Nineteen-eighty-two over here," Lance said.

"People who are getting some," Gwaine corrected. "Unlike Emrys here. We need to find him a bloke. His balls are so blue, he's waddling when he runs."

"I can manage on my own, thanks," Merlin said.

"You're so adorable," Gwaine said, following that up with baby talk and coos. Louder, he said, "Hey, Emrys here figures he can find his own date to Homecoming."

There were hoots and catcalls and proposed invitations -- anyone from Lamorak, who was on the football team but straight as a board as far as anyone could tell, to several students flipping through their iPhones to see if Camelot had a listing for a gay escort service.

"Here's one!" Geraint said, holding up his phone. "Gold Standard Escort Service. Escorts for every occasion and gender."

"Call them! Call them!"

"Oh, piss off, you assholes," Merlin said with a laugh. Then, more seriously, he said, "Although, if you're paying, you should call Red Tie instead. Much, much better selection of escorts, and if you tip them an extra fifty, they might even put out."

Gwaine whistled. "Do I want to know how you know that?"

"How do you think?" Merlin answered, and the team whistled.

It stung to hear Merlin talk like that. Casual and blasé, as if he didn't have a care in the world -- and he didn't. His friends didn't judge him, he had every freedom. His mother obviously loved him, and Merlin had everything going for him. Worse, Arthur couldn't explain the twist in his gut as anything other than jealousy.

This race was a seniors race and Arthur had no excuse to do a bed check. They'd already been on the receiving side of a lecture if they didn't get their rest -- they needed to head over to the course early in the morning to complete registration and claim their numbers -- and they didn't need Arthur to be a mother hen on top of that.

Still, it didn't stop Arthur from lingering outside the room that Merlin shared with Lance, trying not to think about Red Tie Escorts and Merlin being touched by a random stranger.

The only thing Arthur said to Merlin before he went to the 10K line was "Run."

They'd talked strategy on the morning before, right when the sun was just starting to crest the sky. Arthur had broken it down for Merlin, telling him what to look for, coaching him through his paces, his strides, and Merlin had absorbed it all. They'd run easily around the loop, four times, then five, then six, because Merlin hadn't wanted to stop -- couldn't stop because he was too nervous -- and it hadn't been until the seventh that Merlin slowed down, finally relaxing, giving Arthur a big, bright smile as if to say, yes, I'm all right, I'm ready.

Arthur hoped that he was, because Arthur couldn't remember the strategy at all.

Merlin gave him that same blinding smile and Arthur felt his insides tighten. He trotted off to the line, catching up to Geraint and Pellinor.

Arthur hadn't slept the night before. Not one wink. Leon had snored softly in the bed next to his, and all Arthur could think about was Merlin, kissing him, daring him, wanting him. He had laid on his side in the dark, his cock hard and heavy, and he hadn't dared bring himself off.

He'd wanted to so badly.

It was a good thing that everyone knew what to do for the races, because Arthur wasn't there. He answered questions, he gave encouraging words, he directed, but he wasn't aware, not like he should be, not until he saw Merlin lining up to run.

He didn't blink once the entire time. And when Merlin crossed the finish line first an easy eight seconds ahead of a struggling Geraint, Arthur had to keep himself from cheering louder than anyone else. Just in case people wondered why.

He wanted to be down there with Merlin, to catch him, to hug him, to give him a congratulatory kiss, but he didn't dare. When Merlin caught his eyes across the crowd and gave him that big grin, Arthur suddenly felt that all was right in the world.

Except it wasn't.

"What happened with Geraint?" Uther asked. He was leaning back in his leather chair, the one that was taller than he was, with his elbows on the armrests, hands clasped before him, index fingers steepled. His shoulders were rolled back, his chin was down, and although the tone of Uther's question had been mild, Arthur could almost see the huffing breath of the bull about to charge.

"He came in second," Arthur said. "He put in a good effort."

"A good effort," Uther said. It sounded more like a snort. "A good effort isn't going to get him noticed by the national team. It's not going to get him to the Olympics."

"He made it on the boards," Arthur defended. "There's still a long way to go before the summer tryouts. He has plenty of time to improve."

"His father expects --"

"And there it is --" Arthur rolled his eyes.

"Excuse me?" Uther stared at Arthur as if Arthur had been replaced by an alien. "What did you say?"

"I'm sorry, but you sound like a broken record," Arthur said, shaking his head, getting to his feet. He couldn't stand being in this room with his father anymore. He never could, but now, for some reason, it was suffocating him. "You expect. His father expects. I don't care how much money Geraint's father gives the school -- what about what Geraint wants? I can't make him run if he doesn't want to run --"

"Arthur." Uther's tone was the same flat warning tone that Arthur had grown up with, had been trained to obey without question, but all it did now was cause a rise of hackles at the back of Arthur's neck, his hands to clench into tight fists, his teeth to grit together until they were sanded down.


"You know what this will mean to the school if Geraint makes the Olympic team."

"Do you think Geraint cares?"

"You should," Uther said, lowering his hands. He stood up slowly, his chair rolling back, and straightened his tie. "Your reputation is tied to the school. Don't believe for one instant that you'll be able to get another coaching job somewhere else if you don't maintain our standard of excellence. No one -- no one else would even look at you. And imagine what would happen if they knew about your... perversions. You'd never get a job anywhere."

Arthur supposed that all the other athletes he trained, that he guided all the way to the nationals, and even to the Worlds -- those didn't matter. He wondered what Uther would say if he saw all those letters that Arthur had received with offers to coach with the university teams. The national teams. The Olympic teams. He'd never showed any of them to his father out of fear that Uther would call them up and say, no self-respecting organization would allow a gay man to coach future athletes. The country would be in an uproar.

Tight-lipped, his fists clenched, Arthur said, "Yes, I realize that."

"You'll work with Geraint. You'll talk to him."

"I'll do the best I can," Arthur said. What he didn't say was, there's only so much I can do when Geraint doesn't want to run. A smaller voice deep down inside whispered, do you think I care about my reputation?

"And you'll spend more time with him. No more of this foolishness with the Emrys boy."

Arthur startled and turned around to look at Uther. His father's face was carved stone, but there was malice in his eyes.

"Don't think I haven't noticed how you spend time together, how he stays after hours when everyone's gone. Don't think I don't know," Uther said, his lip curling in disgust, "How he flaunts his perversion around the school. I don't care if he taints the other students. I won't have him tainting you even more than you already are."

You're a bigot, Arthur wanted to say, staring at Uther in disbelief, but maybe he shouldn't be so surprised. Arthur had spent his entire life hiding what he was, who he liked, just because his father couldn't stand it to know his son was gay. They never spoke about it. Never argued. There had always only ever been a cold chill between them, a two-inch wide tightrope that swayed in the breeze, and Arthur too afraid to take a single step in case he fell. In case his father let go and let him plummet. No job, no home, no friends, nothing to catch him.

Arthur had always used to care what his father thought. He lived his life a certain way. He deprived himself of everything that he ever wanted, and now, he couldn't, because for the first time since he could remember, he wanted something -- someone -- so, so badly, he thought he would go mad without it. Without Merlin.

There were so many things that he could tell Uther. So many things that he had to tell him. But all those were a jumble in his head, the words wouldn't come out.

Instead, he said, "Yes, father."

He walked out, feeling like a coward.

They were at the furthest edge of the running trail in the park that bordered the school's cross-country route when Merlin smacked him in the ass and put on a burst of speed.

"Merlin! Goddamn it, Merlin!" Arthur increased stride, pushing to catch up. He rounded the bend and there was nothing but a long, straight course ahead for a full quarter mile, and Merlin was nowhere in sight. Arthur came to a dead stop. There was no way that Merlin could have run that course so fast as to go out of sight --

Firm hands, one at his shoulder, the other at his waist, pushed him across the trail, but before he was pushed into the tree, he turned around --

It was a toss-up to which hit Arthur first. The birch tree against his shoulder blades, or Merlin's hungry kiss.

The kiss was salty from the sweat beading on Merlin's lip, sweet from the cherry-flavoured lip balm he must have put on when Arthur wasn't looking. Arthur didn't know if he should push him away or pull him closer.

They were outside. In the open. Anyone could see them.

The sun peeked over the horizon as sole witness.

Arthur shivered at Merlin's light touch along his arms, as his thumbs hooked in the crook of Arthur's elbows, stroking gently.

Merlin played with Arthur's lower lip, tugging it with his teeth. He licked inside Arthur's mouth, quick and fleeting, and Arthur chased after his tongue. He pushed off from the tree, following Merlin, his fingers reaching for and grasping Merlin's hips.

It was Merlin who broke the kiss, Merlin who licked his own lips to catch the lingering taste on them, Merlin who blinked those long lashes to look at him in amazement.

"Are you done watching, then?" Merlin asked, but he stepped back, away from Arthur, until he was out of reach, laughing softly as he took the trail again at an easy jog.

It was Merlin who looked over his shoulder to see if Arthur was coming, Merlin who flashed him a teasing smile of invitation, Merlin who was finding Arthur's missing courage.

Arthur promised he'd help Perceval handle the Camelot High football team on their next away game if he'd take over the chaperone duties at the Homecoming dance, but at the last minute, Perceval called him, sounding like death warmed over. "I've got a man-cold, Arthur." He coughed. "I caught it from Owain. I don't get it. He was fine, had the sniffles all week, landed three touchdowns at the last game. I wasn't anywhere within twenty feet of him, and this morning --"

Perceval broke the sound barrier when he released a massive sneeze.

"You're a giant wuss, Perce," Arthur said, and needled Perceval for several minutes while frantically trying to come up with someone else to take over for him at the dance. The last thing he wanted to do was to see Merlin there with a date.

He didn't think he could bear it.

"You would be too, if you had neon-green slime coming out of your nose," Perceval said. "Besides, the kids like you better."

"Is it any wonder? I'm better looking --"

"Anyone would be better looking than me right now," Perceval interrupted. "They only like you better because you pretend you don't notice when they spike the punch."

"That's only because I need alcohol to make it through the night, and they provide it for free," Arthur said. "Try not to die. Uther's on the warpath, he's not happy with how the sports department is doing this year. He wants more star power, more wins, more --"

"Rah-rah-rah," Perceval said glumly, and Arthur could hear the other man rolling his eyes. "Just tell him to stick more cheerleaders on the field and no one will notice when we lose."

"You can tell him that at Monday's meeting. I heard that the English department's getting their asses reamed for failing three basketball players."

"Christ, poor Leon," Perceval said. "I got in the shit with them last year when they flunked my running backs, and they --" Perceval coughed. "-- they broke into my office and disassembled everything. You don't want to get the creative ones pissed with you. It's murder trying to put the furniture back together."

"Learned my lesson ages ago," Arthur said, remembering the hissy fit the English department had thrown when Arthur's star runner had been thrown out of his classes and Uther had found out. It wasn't Arthur's fault, he believed in the merits of a good education, but no one would seek revenge against Uther, and Arthur -- and anyone else -- was fair game. He was still finding crusted whipped cream in his office years later. He winced and pulled his phone away from his ear at Perceval's coughing fit. "Why don't you put yourself out of your misery and drug yourself to sleep? I'll see you on Monday. Feel better."

"Way ahead of you, Arthur. Sorry again," Perceval said, hanging up.

Arthur tried everyone on his contacts list that he knew wasn't already going to be chaperoning the dance -- even the bus driver -- but everyone had excuses ranging anywhere from doing their taxes to giving their dogs a bath. He resigned himself to his fate, told himself that it was none of his business if Merlin had a date for the dance, it wasn't as if there was anything between them -- even if there could be something between them in the first place -- and changed out of his tan slacks and polo shirt and into something more presentable.

This is ridiculous, Arthur decided after he'd spent nearly half an hour deciding between two different shades of blue shirts and far too long on his hair. He headed to the school, pointedly not checking himself out in every glassy reflection on the way, and marked out his territory in the gymnasium.

The Homecoming committee had done a tasteful job decorating the gym -- it was a far cry from the neon orange and glaring yellow from the year before -- and Arthur distracted himself by wandering around and talking with the other teachers who had drawn the short straw. He hadn't seen Merlin yet -- not that he'd been looking, not exactly -- but that didn't mean anything, because he also didn't see most of the seniors, who made a point of never coming until late.

The second wave -- this time in the senior body -- arrived close to ten o'clock, gorgeously and extravagantly dressed in classy suits and satiny dresses in bold, solid colours. Someone must have run ahead to tell the DJ, because their grand entrance was heralded by a loud, blasting rendition of Nat King Cole's My Baby Just Cares For Me. The jocks and cheerleaders led the charge with an East Coast Swing-style glide toward the dance floor -- a floor that cleared to make room for them, because when it came down to it, it was the seniors who ran the show.

There was Gwaine, twirling around a pretty girl in a deep mauve dress; Lance with Gwen in a pale yellow satin dress that gave her skin a sun-kissed glow; Geraint with his pale girlfriend in a lipstick pink miniskirt dress that clung to every curve, leaving nothing to the imagination.

Merlin, dressed in a charcoal-grey suit with a priest's collar shirt opened at the throat, breaking dress code regulations by not wearing a tie, narrowly avoided getting escorted out of the gymnasium by the saving grace of a fitted vest under a suit jacket that was tailored to his frame. He was with a pretty brunette in a navy blue dress with a 1950s style poodle skirt, her hair done up in an elegantly messy up-do, and she traded smiles with Merlin before pulling him to the dance floor.

Arthur failed to ignore the blow to the stomach that he was feeling right now. It didn't make him feel any better that Merlin was with a girl. He should look away; he shouldn't torture himself like this, but he couldn't help but watch as Merlin spun the girl around the dance floor, as graceful there as he was on the track course, his eyes twinkling, his lips stretched in laughter. There were other, better dancers on the floor, and every time the senior students lifted their partners in the air, it was a disaster asking to happen, but catastrophe was always averted by some sort of miracle.

And Arthur couldn't take his eyes from Merlin.

"Look at that," Helen from the Drama department said. "What a waste. He would've been better off on the stage."

"Who?" Arthur asked, playing dumb.

"That boy. Merlin? He's rough, but a bit of practice and he'd be better than most of them," Helen said. "I should see if I can lure him in for the Christmas play."

"You're just jealous because I saw him first," Arthur blurted out, realizing too late how he sounded.

"Of course I am," Helen said, amused. "You and Leon and Perce. You have the best looking boys."

Arthur held his breath, but Helen didn't say anything more about Merlin; she chattered on about the girls dancing, frowned at the skimpy dresses, and went into something of a bender over Uther and his threatened cuts to the Drama department in favour of Athletics. She finally wound down somewhere on the third or fourth song, and Merlin's girl dragged him toward a string of tables that none of the freshmen or juniors or sophomores had dared touch because they were RESERVED for seniors.

Arthur had no excuse to wander over there, however much he wanted to. He stayed where he was, wandered when he had to, stared hard at a couple who were necking behind the decorations, and made certain that only three flasks of alcohol made it to the punch bowl every time it was refilled with fresh fruit punch. He didn't lose track of Merlin once, staying on the other side of the gymnasium deliberately, but a minor incident erupted when one of the junior girls' dresses snapped and her cleavage slipped out. It wasn't until Arthur returned to his spot fifteen minutes later that he realized that Merlin was there, waiting for him.

He almost stuttered to a stop and turned away, except that would look suspicious, and he had no excuse to go back the way he came.

"Punch?" Merlin asked.

"I'd rather wait until I see if anyone survives the toxic sludge that Bedivere poured in," Arthur said. Merlin glanced at his plastic glass with a raised brow, sniffed carefully, and took a sip. His lips curled a little, but otherwise he kept his expression even. "His father has a brewery. As I understand it, Bedivere experiments."

"With what, rat piss?" Merlin asked, glancing around to see if anyone would see him put down his glass. He resigned himself to carrying it.

"Entirely possible," Arthur said, chuckling softly, marvelling at how absurdly easy it was to talk with Merlin.

"You look good," Merlin said, turning around, brushing Arthur's arm with his elbow as he deliberately reached past Arthur to put his cup down on the table. Arthur held his breath until Merlin moved a respectable distance away, watching the dancers.

"You're with a girl." Arthur hadn't meant to sound quite as bitter as he did. He hadn't meant to say anything at all.

"What? Oh, yeah. Freya. Her boyfriend dumped her last week, so I offered to be her date." Merlin paused thoughtfully. "Not sure why she said yes, actually. It's not like I'd be making the guy jealous, what with me preferring cock and all."

Merlin gave Arthur a long, sidelong look, and Arthur was sure that his cheeks were flushed red.

"Are you jealous?" Merlin asked.

"No, Merlin," Arthur said, when he really meant, Yes, I am.

Merlin smirked. "Yes, you are."

Arthur stewed, not wanting to give Merlin the satisfaction of an answer -- but he knew well enough by now that Merlin would take his silence as confirmation.

"It was a bad breakup," Merlin said. "Big scream fest in the caf. Right now every heterosexual member of the male population in school is in grave danger. If they so much as look at her the wrong way, they're liable to turn into eunuchs. Can't have that, can we? So, since I'm one of a handful of completely safe men in school, I thought it was my patriotic duty to come to the rescue."

Arthur snorted.

Merlin elbowed him. "Besides, there's nothing better than knowing that half of the school totally owes me one for playing defence. Plus, Freya's ex? He's going to be paying through the nose if he wants me to dish on how to get Freya back."

"You're a conniving little opportunist, aren't you?" Arthur said.

"I get that from my mom," Merlin said with a grin. "I'm going to law school after the Olympics."

"Not going to make running a career?"

Merlin shrugged. "I'll still run -- I'll still race," Merlin said, correcting himself with a soft smile and a sidelong glance that could be described as flirtatious, and which made Arthur feel warm all over. "But I think one coach in the family is enough."

Arthur almost choked.

"I mean you, you know," Merlin said, adding that as if he didn't think Arthur would have figured that out for himself.

"Merlin --"

"Don't argue with me," Merlin said, shooting him a little, amused frown. He shrugged again. "Anyway, I promised Freya I wouldn't leave her alone tonight, so I should go find her again. The girls went to help that junior, you know, with the whole…"

Merlin made a gesture over his chest.

"… wardrobe malfunction thing. They should be done now, though. Otherwise. You know. If I had more time, I'd…" Merlin tilted his head toward one of the gymnasium doors and quirked an eyebrow meaningfully -- Arthur didn't need crib notes to know what Merlin was trying to say.

Arthur swallowed hard.

"I'll see you tomorrow," Merlin said, turning to Arthur. Then, right before he walked away, he gave Arthur a sad smile and leaned in very briefly. "I wish you were my date."

Arthur took a deep breath, inhaling the faint, musky scent of Merlin's aftershave, and watched him walk away.

If it weren't for Leon and his gossipy bunch of basketball players (male and female), Arthur wouldn't have known that the post-Homecoming party at Gwaine's family cabin had been postponed until the family cabin was actually free, so it wasn't held until several weeks, many practice sessions, and multiple wins (mostly Merlin's) later right before Thanksgiving. Arthur pretended he didn't know, wondering if Merlin would tell him.

He did, the Friday morning of the party, in an embarrassed "So, I don't think I'll be running with you tomorrow."

"Planning to sleep in? Visiting family?" It was the Thanksgiving weekend, and it embarrassed Arthur to realize just how little he knew about Merlin. They talked about everything else during their easy morning runs, which happened every other day, but they hardly ever spoke about themselves or their families or anything particularly personal.

He felt a little ill at that realization, because however much he did want to know more about Merlin, he kept shying away from the important questions.

"Um. No. Nothing like that.," Merlin said, kicking off his running flats and inspecting the cleats. His toes were still bandaged, and Arthur itched to reach out and soothe his feet. Merlin had been doing better since switching to a better quality of flats and strengthening his feet by running barefoot, and even though he didn't complain, Arthur knew that they must ache. "It's Gwaine's party. It's tonight. I decided to go after all."

"You weren't going to go?"

Merlin shook his head in answer and didn't meet Arthur's eyes. "But we're running the rest of the weekend, yeah? I mean. You don't have any plans?"

"No," Arthur said, standing up to walk away. "Have fun tonight. I'll see you Sunday."

Arthur didn't know what was worse -- being in Merlin's company and having only errant touches to quell the itch that had been building up under Arthur's skin ever since that day that Merlin rubbed against him in the office more than a month ago, or turning around and walking away, leaving him behind. It hurt in a way that was completely inexplicable and unfair, because Arthur had no right to want Merlin the way he did -- to have him all to himself for Thanksgiving; to go to parties with him -- but he reminded himself, like he reminded himself again and again, that Merlin was eighteen.

A teenage boy.

His life ahead of him.

A life without Arthur. Because Arthur couldn't, however much he wanted.

One coach in the family is enough. Arthur shivered to think of Merlin planning ahead like that, to know that he wasn't the only one with these kinds of fantasies.

"Arthur?" Merlin asked, curious, questioning, a little pained, but Arthur had already shouldered his bag and was heading to the gymnasium for a quick shower and change before school started.

Arthur went through the day's routine in a half-daze and went home early; the day's training had been cancelled considering the holiday, and he had himself at loose ends. There would be no dinner with his father -- hadn't been in years, ever since Uther began attending an annual charity banquet with that horrible woman with the terrible gas that she always blamed on the dog, except there was never a dog around to make the excuse plausible. Catherine? No, Catriona.

There would just be Arthur and his kitchen and the giant turkey dinner he would make for himself with leftovers that would last him until Christmas.

Arthur had this stupid little dream of waking up in the early morning hours to prep the turkey and put it in the oven for the long, slow roast, to tip-toe through the motions, trying not to make too much noise, then to slip back into bed and wrap his arms around Merlin for a few more hours before the sun rose.

It was only a fantasy.

He spent the evening chopping vegetables and preparing dishes to be baked the next day and trying valiantly not to think of Merlin at a party with his friends doing teenage things. He didn't watch old reruns of Stargate: Atlantis and think that the one actor in it reminded him of Merlin. He didn't consider drinking himself into a stupor to numb all these feelings that he had for Merlin, and he didn't wish that he'd gone to the liquor store to replenish a cabinet that had been empty for two, going on three years.

What he did do was fall asleep to a bad B movie playing on SyFy, sometime past midnight. He didn't even know what time it was when his cell phone rang.

By the time he snapped awake, the ringing had stopped and he had no idea where he was, never mind where he'd put his phone. The ringing started again, and he went on the hunt, still drowsy and sleepy, wondering who would call this late at night and why. He hoped no one had died.

He wondered if wishing it was Uther made him a bad son.

Arthur didn't recognize the number on the caller display and he took the chance that it wasn't a telemarketer trying to suck valuable cell phone minutes. "Hello?"

There was a sound like a half-laugh of relief and a broken, wrecked sob. "Arthur. It's. It's Merlin --"

"How did you get my number?" Arthur asked, wanting to hit himself in the head, because what he should really be asking was why are you calling at this hour of the night, what's happened, are you all right, because the tightness in his belly was tantamount to a wash of panic, and his blood had gone cold as the sound of Merlin's voice settled in his head and wouldn't leave.

"Geraint," Merlin said, bitter and angry and biting, and Arthur dimly remembered giving Geraint his cell phone number a year ago at track meet. "Don't worry. I didn't ask him or anything like that. I just saw your number in his phone when I borrowed it in Celidoine and I. I just kept it."

"Is everything okay?" Arthur asked softly, and he already knew instinctively that everything was not okay, because it was too quiet at the other end of the phone. Merlin was supposed to be at a party. There should be music in the background. Laughter. People chattering. Instead, there was nothing besides the sound of Merlin's shaky breathing. Arthur had his shoes on and his coat hanging from one shoulder, when Merlin finally answered.

"No." There was a faint sniffle, a muffled sound. "Arthur. Arthur, can you come and get me?"

Arthur was out the door, keys in hand, before Merlin even asked.

"Where are you?"

"On the side of the road. Walking back to town. I was... I was at Gwaine's --"

"Merlin. Which road? How do I get there?" Arthur backed out of his driveway, following Merlin's vague instructions to get on the right highway out of town. It was late and the traffic was light and the roads were mostly clear; it took him no time at all to weave through the backstreets and onto an on-ramp. "Stay on the line, Merlin. Don't hang up."

It took far too long to find Merlin, even with Merlin telling him where to go in his quiet, clipped, broken voice, and Arthur's heart was in his throat the entire drive. He didn't let himself relax, not for a minute, not until he saw someone walking on the side of the road, shoulders hunched, head down, heading toward town. He turned his car around and stopped next to Merlin, who stayed where he was, trembling.

When Arthur climbed out of his car and hurried to Merlin's side, he heard a soft gasp of relief. It was his only warning before Merlin threw himself into Arthur's arms, the contact electrifying and solid, and Arthur didn't have time to think. He caught Merlin and held him tight.

Merlin didn't stop trembling for what seemed like hours but could only have been minutes, until he finally pushed away from Arthur, averting his head from the headlights of the car. It was too late. Arthur saw the scrape around Merlin's eye, the cut lip, the torn shirt under his jacket.

Arthur's body tensed with rage. He wanted to kill whoever had done this to Merlin.


"Can we just go?"

Arthur wanted to say no. He wanted to demand answers. Who had done this? What happened? All those questions died on his lips when he took in how Merlin angled his body away from Arthur. Arthur didn't want him to turn away, so he said yeah and walked Merlin to the passenger side and shut the door for him.

Arthur paused before getting into the car, trying to calm down, for once not analyzing why he was reacting this way and knowing damn well why he was so angry.

They didn't talk on the drive back. Arthur tried not to look over at Merlin, but once they left the dark highway behind and struck the city lights, it was hard not to ignore the bruise forming around Merlin's eye, the swollen lower lip, the way he was nearly doubled over on himself.

"Should I --" Arthur winced at the sound of his own voice. "Should I take you to the hospital?"

Merlin didn't answer him right away, and even then only shook his head faintly. "No. It's fine. I'm all right."

Arthur bit back an are you sure, struggled against every horrible scenario that popped in his mind, and asked, "Is your mom home?"

Arthur was helpless and useless and quietly panicking. If something had happened to Merlin, then maybe his mother would take a look at Merlin and know what to do, because she was a lawyer.

"Out of town," Merlin said, his tone a little clipped. He unfolded from his curl, the strain in his shoulders easing. "She's brilliant, my mom is. She didn't have to stay in Ealdor for me, but she did, and now that I'm eighteen, I told her to stop turning down job offers and to take the one that she really wanted, and that we'd figure everything out for me from there, because, really, I can run anywhere, and then this job came along and it was perfect for both of us, and there wasn't any way I was going to let her use me as an excuse not to do something that was good for her, for her career, and... She got sent on this thing with these other lawyer-types and I told her to go, that I'd be fine --"

Arthur drove past Merlin's house.

"You could just drop me off at home," Merlin said after a moment of silence. "It was back there."

"I'm not leaving you alone," Arthur said firmly, and he drove the few blocks to his house. Merlin didn't protest.

Arthur parked in front of his house, waited for Merlin to shake himself out of his daze and follow him inside, and the very first thing he did was stop Merlin in the hallway, reaching to flick the the lights on so that he could get a good look at him.

Arthur felt sick to his stomach to take in the greening edges of the bruise that framed his left eye, though it looked like reflex and instinct had spared him from worse damage. The cut on his lip was made worse by the faint traces of a bloody nose that Arthur hadn't seen in the car, but now, he saw a splattering of dried blood on Merlin's shirt where it had been torn.

Merlin shifted from one foot to another, uncomfortable, but not afraid to meet Arthur's eyes. "You're not going to do something stupid, are you?"

"Like what?" Arthur's eyes snapped up, offended, alarmed that Merlin would think so little of him.

"Like call the police," Merlin said. "Or go on a rampage."

Arthur very much wanted to do both. "I can't promise that, Merlin."

It was an awkward, uncomfortable few minutes of silence, neither of them willing to capitulate. Merlin scoffed faintly and turned, reaching for the doorknob. Arthur took his arm.

"You called me, Merlin." Merlin's expression softened for a fraction of a second before hardening under an impenetrable mask that reminded Arthur too much of Uther, stoic and strong and distant, and Arthur couldn't bear it. He should let Merlin go. Arthur didn't have any claim over him however much he entertained the possibility in the privacy of his own mind, but he wanted it. He took a step closer, and another, until they were almost sharing the same space. Unbidden, traitorous, his free hand rested on Merlin's hip, fingers through the belt loops of his jeans, and tugged Merlin to face him. "Tell me what happened. Please."

Arthur wasn't sure what made Merlin crumble past the tipping point of his endurance. Merlin's aloofness faded away, and he was soft and pliable against Arthur, his forehead on Arthur's shoulder.

He didn't speak for a while. "It was Gwaine's older brother, Kay. Actually, it wasn't even him. He's really nice. A lot like Gwaine. He showed up at the party with some of his college friends. One of them was… Was…"

Arthur felt Merlin's hand tighten at his waist.

"My ex," Merlin said. He didn't say anything for a long time. "My we're-so-over, I'm-going-back-into-the-closet, thanks-for-the-experimentation, I'll-never-fuck-a-guy-again, don't-ever-question-my-heterosexuality-or-I'll-beat-you-to-shit ex."

Arthur let go of Merlin's wrist and wrapped his other arm around Merlin's waist. He didn't need to hear the rest of it. He could imagine how it had gone.

"It was fine for a while. Pretended we'd never seen each other before. Then, I don't know when. He's always been a nasty drunk. Maybe he talked crap about me, I don't know. I went to get a beer, him and his friends followed me, started heckling. Calling me names."

Arthur knew those names too well. He'd only ever heard them coming from Uther's lips, and he never wanted to hear them again.

"Should've clued in then, but I'm stupid. I'm really stupid. Freya couldn't stay for the party, and her ex was there too, so I walked her to the car because she was a little nervous. Should've been more scared for me, not for her, I guess." Merlin didn't say anything for a while; Arthur stroked his hand in a small movement down the small of his back. "They jumped me before I made it back inside."

Arthur had to fight to keep his hands from forming fists. From scratching his fingernails in the soft skin of Merlin's back, right where his jeans hung low and his shirt was riding up. From shoving Merlin out of his way and getting into his car and driving to the cabin to find these boys and to tear them apart.

"I guess all the training you put me through paid off," Merlin said with a dry laugh. "Either that or their flabby beer bellies and lazy college asses slowed them down."

Arthur's arms tightened around Merlin. "I'm sorry."

I'm sorry I wasn't there. I'm sorry I'm too much of a coward to --

"It wasn't your fault," Merlin said, letting go slowly. "Can I… Can I wash up? Maybe have a shower?"

"Yeah," Arthur said, leading him past the spare bathroom on the second floor to the en-suite in the master bedroom without knowing why, without realizing how proprietary he was being. He walked in on Merlin stripping out of his torn shirt and grit his teeth at the ugly purple bruise on Merlin's ribs. If Merlin hadn't tugged the towel out of his hands, he was sure he would've ripped it to shreds. "I'll get you a change of clothes."

He left a pair of soft sweats and the smallest shirt he owned on the counter, forcing his eyes from the frosted shower glass, feeling like an intruder, as if he didn't have the right to be there, to look, and went to make up the spare bedroom and put together a few ice packs for Merlin's ribs and swollen lip and bruises instead.

He lingered right outside the bathroom, using every excuse to stay, waiting until Merlin finished his shower, dressed in that still-too-big shirt and sweats that hung for dear life on those narrow hips. Merlin looked better, but he was wary and tired as he followed Arthur to the spare bedroom.

"You're fussing," Merlin said with a faint, teasing smile, taking the anti-inflammatory painkillers and glass of water that Arthur gave him. Arthur opened his mouth to protest, but he was fussing, and he grunted in answer.

"Why don't you get some sleep?" Arthur asked, leaving the room. "We'll talk in the morning."

Arthur didn't know what they would have to talk about. The attack. Why Merlin had called Arthur instead of someone else. Why Arthur had come without question. He knew it was an avoidance tactic, but he didn't want to talk about his feelings right now.

He was too angry. Not at Merlin. At the people who had hurt Merlin.

At himself.

We're-so-over, I'm-going-back-into-the-closet, thanks-for-the-experimentation, I'll-never-fuck-a-guy-again, don't-ever-question-my-heterosexuality-or-I'll-beat-you-to-shit ex, Merlin had said.

Arthur went through his usual routine. He set the coffee timer. He made sure the doors were locked. He turned off the lights and set the house alarm. He lingered outside the spare bedroom until the floorboard creaked under his weight, and went to his room. He brushed his teeth, splashed water on his face, changed into pyjama bottoms, turned off the light, and tossed and turned until he was comfortable.

He tossed and turned for a long time.

Arthur stared at the ceiling. He counted the number of times that the headlights of a passing car would flash across the walls. He stared at the clock and tried to predict when the numbers would change without ticking down the seconds. He listened and imagined he was able to hear Merlin's heartbeat through the walls.

He tried not to think how much he was acting like Merlin's ex and how Merlin couldn't possibly want him. And how much that hurt.


It was soft, a whisper; Arthur wasn't sure he'd heard it. He lifted his head from the pillow and saw Merlin standing in the doorway, a hand on the door.

"I can't," Merlin said, sounding unsure for the first time since Arthur had known him. Arthur hated it. He wanted Merlin to be himself again, confident, brash, certain. "I… Can I? Arthur?"

Arthur swept the blankets aside, ignoring his pounding heart. Merlin's weight made the bed dip as he slid under the covers, pulling them up.

"I won't -- I just. I'll…" Merlin laid down on the bed, staying on the other side, too far away.

Arthur reached for Merlin and pulled him close. The shirt Arthur had loaned Merlin rubbed against Arthur's bare chest, but the warmth from Merlin's body spread through Arthur, and he wasn't sure who was comforting whom when Merlin wrapped his arms around Arthur and held him tight.

He fell asleep listening to Merlin's breathing. When he woke up a few hours later, turning off the alarm so that it wouldn't wake Merlin, Arthur knew that it was the first time in weeks that he hadn't been awakened by a nightmare.

Arthur slipped out of bed, careful not to disturb Merlin, and went down the stairs. He bypassed the house alarm and went through the motions of preparing the turkey and putting it in the oven. It wasn't until he 'd cleaned up that he realized he was being quiet on purpose, that he was fulfilling his fantasy of making a big Thanksgiving dinner for his significant other, even if it wasn't technically Thanksgiving anymore, and it made him pause on the stairs on his way back up to bed, smiling like a loon.

Arthur slid into bed next to Merlin, curling around him. He stroked Merlin's short black hair with gentle fingers, feeling content.

He was done watching.

"Um. It looks like you're having company, so I'll just clear out," Merlin said. Arthur glanced over his shoulder in time to see Merlin running a hand through his hair sheepishly.

Arthur had gotten out of bed when the smell of coffee from the automated coffee maker down in the kitchen drifted up to the second floor. He had watched with a fond feeling that was absolutely suffocating as Merlin first stretched out into the spot that Arthur had vacated, then sleepily sprawled over the width of the bed as if searching for him. When he didn't find Arthur, Merlin curled up again on Arthur's side like a kitten.

Arthur didn't think Merlin would appreciate the comparison.

He didn't look like a kitten now, not with his hair ruffled with sleep and his face scratched up with scrapes and bruises. The black eye had missed the key areas to become a black eye, and the swelling had been helped with ice; the motley green and purples stood out, but not so much that it attracted attention. The cut on his lip was scabbed over, but a wrong move had pulled at it and it had started to bleed again a little.

Merlin had changed out of the sweat pants and back into his jeans, but he'd kept Arthur's shirt. He came into the kitchen without hesitation, his hand brushing behind Arthur's back as he watched Arthur chop sweet potatoes.

Now, he was on the other side of the island, picking at the carrots.

"When's your mom coming home?" Arthur asked. He added the yams to a pot of boiling water.

"Tomorrow night," Merlin said. "Maybe. Thanksgiving crowds. With her luck, the flights get grounded and the weather goes to shit. Wouldn't be the first time she didn't make it home."

"That's awful." Arthur fought to keep his tone casual. "Do you have any plans until then?"

Merlin shrugged a shoulder. "I was meant to stay over at Gwaine's, spend the weekend there, but. You know."

"Yeah," Arthur said. He turned the burner on low so that the pot didn't boil over, and took the carrots out of Merlin's hand. "About that --"

Merlin's shoulders slumped and he turned away from Arthur. "Just leave it, please?"

"You could've been really hurt," Arthur said.

"I wasn't, okay? I'm sore and I'm cranky, and my stupid lip won't stop bleeding --" Merlin tore a paper towel and held it to his mouth for a few seconds, checking for blood; the scab was holding. "-- and you know what, I really don't want to deal with him ever again."

"If you file a police report --"

"Arthur," Merlin said, looking very patient and very pained, "I've already filed two police reports against him. I'm tired of him. I really am."

Arthur stared at him, not knowing what to say. Merlin sighed and moved away.

"I'm gonna go."

"Merlin," Arthur said, his heart in his throat. Merlin turned around, and everything Arthur wanted to say died on his lips. He stared down at the counter and waved at the fiasco of cookware and food around him. "This isn't for anybody."

Merlin tilted his head, trying to catch Arthur's eye, but Arthur refused to look up. He turned away, dragging the carrots with him. He'd chopped through four carrots before the words came tumbling out.

"A lifetime ago, I was in training at the Oregon facilities and everyone had gone home for Thanksgiving except for me. My teammate was packing up, found out I wasn't going anywhere, told me to grab a bag and made me follow him home like a lost puppy. It was the first time in my whole life that I'd ever had a real Thanksgiving dinner that wasn't take-out or a turkey sandwich with a side of soggy coleslaw from the cafeteria."

Arthur felt, rather than heard, Merlin's sharp intake of breath.

"I haven't had dinner -- any kind of dinner -- with my dad since I was sixteen. At first it was because he couldn't stand to look at me across the table. Said it turned his stomach, that he couldn't get it out of his head, knowing that his son was gay. After that, it was just easier to avoid him entirely."

Arthur put the carrots into a colander and reached for something else to chop. The potatoes. The potatoes should be next. Where did he put the potatoes?

"So every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, every stupid holiday, I make too much food and have leftovers for weeks after and I never have anyone over, but I'd like it if you'd stay and I was thinking you could take my car and go over to your place and pick up whatever you need to stay overnight, and you could bring your running shoes too and we'd go for a run in the morning --"

Merlin wrapped his arms around Arthur's waist. "Yeah?"

Merlin sounded so ridiculously happy that it made Arthur's eyes sting. He looked down and saw Merlin's hands over his chest and put his own over top of them. His heart pounded louder. "Yeah."

They spent the afternoon on the couch watching football and talking and sitting too close to each other. Arthur learned that Merlin didn't really understand football but he liked to watch it anyway, even if he needed to be reminded every quarter which team he was supposed to be rooting for. He learned that Merlin's dad had left when he was very young, and that Merlin didn't remember him, and that it had been Merlin and his mom ever since. He learned that Merlin had absolutely no sense of personal space ("Not where you're concerned"), and that Merlin liked touching and poking and pushing Arthur around. He learned that Merlin could kiss him and make him forget there was an universe outside the two of them.

And when Merlin's phone rang, Arthur learned that Merlin had no secrets from his mother.

"No, I'm not at Gwaine's, mom. No. It just. It was all right, but then Gilli showed up -- no, mom. I don't know. I guess he's friends with Gwaine's brother. I swear I stayed out of his way -- yes, I know, but, yes, mom. No, mom. I left early. No, I'm not at home, no, you don't have to call Gaius, I'm all right. Mom, I'm at Arthur's."

Arthur's head snapped to look at Merlin in alarm. The only reason he didn't blurt out what are you doing was because Merlin was on the phone with his mother talking in the same tone one discussed the weather, completely heedless of Arthur's internal freak-out.

His mom's going to nail my ass to the wall. She's a lawyer. She wouldn't want anyone touching her baby boy -- especially not a twenty-eight year old man. Oh, God. People are going to find out. People are going to know --

"Arthur. Arthur," Merlin said, and Arthur looked at him numbly. Merlin plopped down on the couch next to him. The contact between their thighs wasn't just warm; it burned clean through Arthur's jeans. "Breathe. You're turning blue."

Arthur started to say something, only, Merlin was right, he did need to breathe, and it came out in a startled, strangled gasp that sounded like the mutant baby of Despair and Desperation. Merlin looked at him and smiled faintly and put his hand on his cheek and leaned in and kissed Arthur on the lips.

"Mom knows that. She's okay with it. She's okay with us," Merlin said, and Arthur stared at him disbelievingly. "She wants to talk to you."

Arthur held the cell phone as if it were a live grenade, his mind tripping over what Merlin said.

I really, really like you.

She's okay with us.

"Mrs. Emrys?" Arthur said tentatively. Merlin rolled his eyes, smiled one of his little confident smiles, and reached for the television remote.

"Oh, Arthur. Please call me Hunith," a warm voice told him, magical in that it reached out through the phone and wrapped him in comfort. "How badly is Merlin hurt? It's only so that I can prepare myself when I come home, and he really doesn't like being fussed over --"

Arthur's mind rewound what Hunith had said, then went over everything that Merlin had told his mother, and nowhere in that one-sided conversation had he noticed any mention whatsoever of the extent of Merlin's injuries. He wondered if mothers had an instinct for when their children were lying; it was something he'd never learned for himself. "Actually, I think he enjoys being fussed over --"

"Just by you," Merlin said with a snort.

"And it's not horrible, not exactly," Arthur said, moving the cell phone from one hand to the other, getting up to pace out of Merlin's grabby reach. There was something about having an ally against Merlin's stubbornness that emboldened Arthur to continue. "Mostly just bruises and cuts. I wanted him to go to the hospital but he said no. I wanted him to go to the police, but he said no. I didn't know what else to do except not leave him alone."

"You're doing the right thing," Hunith said kindly, and her voice took a more authoritative tone. "There's a restraining order against Gilli. Merlin should have known better than to stay at the party the minute Gilli showed up, but he was there first, and Gilli should have left -- those are the terms. I can have charges against him for that alone, but don't tell Merlin that, because he'll try to stop me. He really doesn't like it when I cause trouble. He says it embarrasses him."

She went on to describe Gilli's appearance -- five feet, eleven inches tall, two-twenty pounds heavy, short brown hair, brown eyes, a boxer's nose and a jutting jaw with something of an overbite. "He drove a blue Chevy, but I don't suppose that matters. He could have a different car now, or borrowed someone's else's."

"Don't worry, I'll keep an eye out," Arthur said. He felt oddly pleased that Merlin's mother was trusting him like this, telling him things that he doubted Merlin would have willingly shared. At the same time, he wondered if that trust was only because he was Merlin's coach. "Mrs. Emrys?"

"Hunith," she corrected.

"Hunith," Arthur relented, hesitating. He puttered around the kitchen, stirring the contents of pots that didn't need to be stirred yet, and thought that he could start on the salad. "Does this guy have anything to do with why Merlin was running so much last summer?"

The silence that answered him filled his ear like nothing else in the world.

"He runs when he's upset," Hunith said simply, sadly. Then, with a smile Arthur swore he could hear through the phone, she added, "Merlin does like you, Arthur. He likes you a great deal. I'd like to meet you. When you're ready."

Arthur stared down at the counter. He didn't miss the implication in her tone. When you're ready. It wasn't just meeting his boyfriend's parent -- not that they were in that kind of a situation, however much Arthur privately fantasized it were true. It was taking that step to break all the restraint that he'd put on himself over the years. That his father had put on him.

He didn't know if he'd ever be able to, but he found himself saying, "I'd like that."

They spoke for a few more minutes -- mostly about Merlin and his training and his upcoming races -- before Hunith had to go to attend a banquet. Arthur sat down next to Merlin, who watched him with a curious, raised brow.

"Your mom... isn't what I expected," Arthur said finally. The tension in his shoulders when Hunith had called Merlin earlier was gone, replaced with the strange sensation of being accepted. It fit around him like a comfortable blanket, fluffy and soft, when all he'd ever been given before was a rough burlap sack to use for warmth.

"You're not mad at me for telling her?" Merlin asked. There was no guilt in his expression, nothing to hint at regret, and Arthur couldn't find it in him anymore to be annoyed, afraid, aghast that Merlin had exposed him to someone else.

"No," Arthur said finally. Merlin rewarded him with a big, beaming smile that melted every last bit of tension away.

It wasn't until later, when Merlin got up to make the salad ("You've made everything else, I can at least do the salad. It's the only thing I can really do anyway."), that Arthur asked, "What kind of law does your mom do?"

"Civil rights," Merlin said, rattling around the kitchen in the awkward sort of way that went with someone not being the cook in the family. "She's at a Gay Rights thing right now. Her firm? Offices all over the country. They're working to petition the governments in each state to overturn their decision against gay marriage. Mom's making a big push for the White House, I think, to get it to come down from Congress, you know, top down instead of ground up."

And suddenly, suddenly, Arthur felt an ache in his heart unfurl with the knowledge that everything would be all right no matter what he did, and he smiled.

They were both glassy-eyed from all the football, and after a dinner full of traded stories and too much laughter, after doing the dishes with Merlin washing and Arthur drying and putting away, after sitting awkwardly on the couch for a few minutes in silence, Arthur put on a movie. It was Die Hard With A Vengeance, and Arthur settled back, a little relieved to have something fill the quiet.

It wasn't exactly a romantic movie. And yet, Merlin found a way to wriggle closer.

Somewhere between everything shutting down on Times Square and the mock-up of the White House blowing up on the hijacked broadcast, Merlin yawned, stretched, and draped an arm over Arthur's shoulders.

Arthur gave him a startled look.

"What?" Merlin asked, looking innocent. He pursed his lips, trying to keep his dimples from showing.

"Are you seriously making a move on me?"

"Yes, absolutely, one hundred percent," Merlin's brow furrowed, but he didn't withdraw his arm. If anything, he wriggled closer until they were touching from hip to knee. He looked at Arthur earnestly. "Wait. Am I being too subtle?"

Arthur tried not to laugh at how ridiculous Merlin was. He tried to keep a straight face. He reminded himself again and again what a bad idea that this was, how he had to stop this from progressing further, because however much that he wanted Merlin, there was still an underlying feeling of wrong to it.

Except he couldn't think of a convincing argument against it.

He shifted slightly, intending on getting up to sit on the chair instead of the couch, pausing only when Merlin made a soft sound and said, "Arthur."

Arthur turned his head to look at him.

When Merlin kissed him, it was in an uncomfortable crash of lips and too much teeth, at a bad angle that missed most of his mouth and crumpled part of his nose, and far too temporary to give Arthur the chance to react. Merlin pulled away and looked at Arthur with a question in his eyes, and it was a question that Arthur must have been too startled to answer properly, because Merlin twisted around to face Arthur and leaned in.

The second kiss was gentler, more sure, but curious and searching. Arthur shivered to feel those lips against his, pressing, pressing and pressing again. He was too lost in the sensation of it to respond back.

Merlin pulled away; Arthur felt, rather than saw, the slump of his shoulders. It wasn't that Arthur didn't want -- God, he wanted -- but that he was terrified.

He saw it all in Merlin's expression. The disappointment, the flash of doubt, the forced quirk of his lips into something of a smile and the start of a never-mind shake of his head. Merlin glanced down at his hands and bowed his head, shamefaced and flushed and embarrassed.

Arthur's eyes traced the lines of Merlin's face, noting the sharp angles and how they were softened by his youth, his enthusiasm, his expression. Arthur followed the cheekbone to the slight concave curve of Merlin's cheek; the line of his jaw to the stubborn jut of his chin. The flutter of black eyelashes against smooth skin, the glimpse of sunshine-gold flecks in storm-grey eyes. Those lips with that perfect curve of Cupid's bow, the firm set of his mouth, the slight moisture pinking already pink lips.

"I guess I should go," Merlin murmured.

Arthur looked up to meet his eyes with difficulty. Merlin's brows were furrowed; his head tilted to the side. Arthur had been caught staring, and a tiny smile touched Merlin's lips.

Merlin leaned in for a third kiss. This time, Arthur closed his eyes, inhaling at the exact moment of contact, his mouth parting as Merlin found the perfect angle to slot their lips together. Merlin lingered like that, frozen as if afraid to break the moment, but Arthur pressed back tentatively and was rewarded with a sound that was both a sigh and a moan.

They kissed again, Merlin trying every angle again, Arthur letting him experiment while privately memorizing each and every kiss and how they fit and how they didn't, because maybe, just maybe, Merlin would change his mind, and this wouldn't happen again. Arthur wanted at least the memory.

The kisses kept coming.

Merlin twisted his body and shifted his weight to sit on his hip, sliding his arm over Arthur's chest to snake over his shoulder and behind his neck.

Arthur felt the wet tip of a tongue on his lips. It touched and teased, licked and tasted, seeking entrance. Arthur opened his mouth, shuddering as Merlin's tongue tangled with his own.

Arthur's hand dropped to rest on Merlin's waist.

They kissed. And kissed.

Arthur lost count. He wavered between expecting the kisses to end abruptly and wishing they would never end. He marvelled at the softness of Merlin's lips, the wet warmth of his mouth, the insistence of his tongue.

And then, he was lost. Completely, willingly lost. In the kisses, in the closeness, in the feel of Merlin against him.

Merlin's body shifted slightly. Arthur made a desperate sound. Merlin's hand drifted from behind Arthur's neck to his chest again, stroking up and down. And down. Merlin grasped Arthur's hip, and Arthur heard a soft moan.

He wasn't surprised when he realized he was the one who had made that sound.

They kissed; insistent, now, hungry, unrestrained.

Arthur's hips bucked to feel a brush over his erection. He felt it again a moment later, faint, fleeting. And again, this time surer, firmer. He shivered and wrapped his hand around Merlin's wrist, torn between stopping him and wanting him to continue.

Merlin made a soft, needy sound that went right to Arthur's cock, and Arthur pressed Merlin's hand harder against the bulge in his jeans, guiding him.

Arthur didn't think about what he was doing. He didn't think, period. All he knew was that he wanted, and that desperate want was quickly becoming need. He wanted his jeans off. He wanted to have Merlin's hand on his bare cock, not through too much thick fabric to really feel his touch.

Merlin shifted again. His hand abruptly left Arthur's cock and went to Arthur's shoulder instead. It was a light weight there while Merlin changed position and straddled Arthur's lap. Merlin was heavier than he looked, but it was a welcome weight --

Merlin thrust his hips in a tiny, tiny movement --

Merlin's cock was hard, hard, hard. Arthur's hiss of surprised, frustrated pleasure was swallowed by Merlin's kiss.

Merlin hitched his hips again. Arthur broke the kiss to gasp for air. Merlin mouthed down his jaw, his throat, suckling, licking, coming back to his lips, claiming it with a nip and an apologetic murmur.

It was a rub of coarse fabric, of heady, broken kisses and stuttered gasps and breathy whispers. Merlin's Oh, God. Want you. So bad. Need you. Arthur. Arthur maddened him. Every rock and rub of their erections through strained jeans. Every sinuous roll of Merlin's hips. It drove Arthur insane.

A tiny thought managed to flit through Arthur's mind, but it was disjointed and incoherent and desperate. Want this. Want you.

Arthur's hands grasped Merlin's ass. He urged a faster rhythm, aching for more contact. It only took one, two, three more, and --

Arthur's climax crested, leaving him white-blind with pleasure, pulsing and throbbing and soaking cum through his jeans. Merlin rubbed against him a few more times before gasping, his head ducking down, his cheek against Arthur's, his hot breath against Arthur's neck.

It was a while before either of them calmed down. Merlin soothed him with light, sweet kisses that Arthur returned maybe more roughly than he should have, a fair bit of guilt seeping into them. Merlin sat back, a ridiculously wrecked look mixing with the smile on his face, and he tilted his head and raised a brow.

"I'm not a teenager, Merlin," Arthur said.

"I noticed that," Merlin said.

"I'm too old to be coming in my jeans."

"Never too old," Merlin said.

Arthur leaned his head back and shut his eyes. He loosed a hand from Merlin's hips and rubbed his forehead. "We're not doing this again."

There was a long, long pause and no answer from Merlin. When Arthur peeked an eye through his fingers, he saw Merlin trying to suppress a big smile.

"Oh, yes, we are," Merlin said.

It was the first senior team training day after the Thanksgiving weekend, and Arthur could immediately tell who had overindulged at Gwaine's party (by how hungover they still were) and who had eaten too much at Thanksgiving dinner (by how they groaned with a hand on their bellies when they warmed up). Leon looked ready to explode, while Perceval bemoaned the lack of turkey leftovers, because his extended family ate nearly as much as he did.

Amidst the chatter and greetings from the student was Merlin's big smile and sweet "Hey, Coach," as he went to join the others at warm-up. Arthur struggled not to watch, certain that everyone would know exactly what they had done over the weekend if they saw him staring at Merlin.

Arthur was lingering by the track field, recording the split times of a few of the seniors, when he came up behind the bench where some of the students were huddling against the fierce wind. The conversation was carried to him, and when he recognized Merlin's voice, he couldn't help listening in.

"Great party, Gwaine," Lance said.

"It was, wasn't it?" Merlin agreed companionably, his tone neutral. Nothing showed in his expression when Arthur glanced in his direction. There were some things that Merlin could hide very well, and his own pain and suffering was one of them.

"So, I was talking to Freya," Gwaine said, elbowing Merlin. "She said you walked her to her car -- she's still freaked out about Mordred sending her dead roses, by the way, so good on you for keeping an eye on her --"

"Least I could do," Merlin said.

"When's Mordred going to get a clue? Freya's done with him, and, you know, Will's wringing his hands waiting for Freya to have her rebound boyfriend so that he can try for her," Geraint said.

"Probably never," Lance said. "Or maybe he already has a pretty good idea that he's fucked up so badly he's well past the point of no return, so he figures he may as well crash and burn on the way down."

"Sucks, though. I think we should stage an intervention," Geraint said. "Muscle our way past Mordred -- not like his whole goth-group is going to scare us, is it?"

"Can always ask Owain if we need actual muscle," Lance said, smirking. While the team was fit, they weren't exactly bodybuilders.

"Going to need Owain if Merlin joins us," Geraint said.

"Oi," Merlin said. "I weigh more than you do, pipsqueak."

"Anyway," Gwaine said, his tone serious and focused in a way it normally wasn't, "Freya said you walked her to her car and she saw you going back to the cabin just as she was pulling out of the driveway. Only, no one saw you after that. What happened? Where'd you go?"

Merlin went very, very still. He was calm and composed as usual, but his eyes didn't shine as brightly, and his smile was a pale rendition. "Didn't you get my text?"

"Yes, thanks for that, always nice to get a message in the middle of the night that one of my best friends thinks he's the fifth wheel at a party and decided to go home," Gwaine said. "So what was it, then? Did you get sprayed by a skunk?"

"No, if that happened, I would've come inside and rubbed myself over everyone --" Merlin said.

"Eau de skunk," Lance provided.

"It's the new thing this season," Merlin said. "All the celebrities are wearing it."

"No, really," Gwaine said, very serious now. "What happened?"

"Oh, Christ, like a fucking dog after a bone aren't you? If you must know, I tripped and fell and passed out for a while, I guess. Woke up under the porch. Felt pretty stupid."

The group snickered.

"Lucky that doesn't happen on the race course," Geraint said, laughing.

"Yeah, or else he'd take out the entire pack behind him, you included," Lance retorted, and Geraint rolled his eyes.

"How'd you make it home, then?" Gwaine asked, persistent.

Merlin shrugged. "Called my boyfriend. He came to pick me up."

"Oooo, Merlin's got a boyfriend --" Geraint said, while Lance whistled. "Who's this mysterious boyfriend that you've never mentioned before?"

"Older guy," Merlin said with a grin. "Very hot."

Arthur was jarred out of his eavesdropping when Pellinor jogged back and asked, "Hey, Coach. How was my time?"

Arthur glanced at his chronometer. It was still running; he'd forgotten to actually time Pellinor in the first place. He cleared his throat and said, "Much better. Catch your breath and we'll run it again."

Pellinor groaned, but he went back to the line.

"I don't know," Geraint said. "I think you're making him up. There is no boyfriend."

"Wait, what? Am I hearing right? Is Geraint jealous?" Merlin asked.

"Sounds like it to me," Lance said.

"Fuck you," Geraint said, rolling his eyes. "I like Viv's tits too much to go for cock, even one as pretty as Merlin's."

There was a brief silence in the group.

"Oh, my God," Merlin said, his mouth open, staring at Geraint. "Oh, my God. You've been checking me out! I'm really flattered, but you know, I'm taken. Plus, Viv might claw my eyes out or something."

Vivian might have to stand in line, because Arthur would be there first. He looked up when Pellinor called his name, and waved his hand to indicate he was paying attention and to begin when he was ready. This time, Arthur kept his eyes on the chronometer and recorded Pellinor's time -- he'd been right. Much better.

"Next group!" he called. He watched as Geraint and Lance headed for the line, jogging lightly to warm up.

"Okay, now you can tell me the truth," Gwaine said. "It was that asshole, wasn't it? Gilli?"

"Who?" Merlin asked, but he didn't sound as innocent as he tried to sound.

"I fucking knew it," Gwaine hissed. "Acting too big for his britches late that night, him and his friends. Kay was passed out in Dad's armchair or he would've kept them in line. Then I notice him and his mutts with their knuckles all scraped up when they were fine before, and now, you and your face looking like you've been through a thresher --"

Merlin touched his face on instinct. "I told you I fell."

"And I'm Usain Bolt," Gwaine snorted. "I saw you in the change room. That's a real fucking nasty bruise on the ribs you've got for falling face-first on pine needles and rolling under the deck. Just tell me. It was that rat bastard, wasn't it?"

"Leave it alone," Merlin said flatly. He got up abruptly. "It's not like I'm going to see him again, yeah?"

Merlin didn't give Gwaine a chance to answer. He walked down the rise to join Lance and Geraint.

Gwaine waited until Merlin was too far away to see what he was doing, and went to riffle through his bag. He caught Arthur looking at him, and, obviously remembering Arthur's rules about phones on the track, stood up with his cell phone in hand. "I gotta make a call, Coach. It's a matter of life and death."

"Whose?" Arthur asked as mildly as he could.

"My brother's," Gwaine said with a snarl. He walked a few steps away, but not so far that Arthur couldn't overhear.

"Kay. No, don't you wassup, G me. I want to know what the fuck you're doing hanging around homophobic sons of bitches who go on skinhead hunts and beat up my best friend at the party you had no fucking reason to show up at in the first fucking place. I don't want to hear it, no, I don't care if you didn't know my best friend was gay or that your buddies were assholes. All I want to hear is that you're going to report them and you're never going to hang out with them again. You're bisexual, Kay -- what do you think they're going to do to you when they find out?"

There was a pause, and Gwaine exploded.

"No, I don't know how they knew Merlin was gay and for fuck's sake -- what?"

Gwaine's groan was muffled by the sound of his palm slapping his forehead.

"Yes, he's the cute one. Big blue eyes. Cheekbones. Mouth that was made to suck cock. Yes. Looks like you could lick whipped cream off of him all day long," Gwaine repeated in sighing monotone, as if he was accustomed to his brother's overshare and it no longer got a rise out of him. "No, I am not introducing you to him. No. Absolutely not. First of all, because it's not my fault your gaydar's on the fritz and you were too busy being Captain Oblivious to notice him in the first place. Second, he's got a boyfriend who's really hot, and, well, you're not -- what, no, I haven't seen him, but you saw Merlin. If anyone could pull Ryan Fucking Gosling out of the heterosexuality pool, it would be him."

There was a brief pause.

"Glad you agree. And three -- even if he were single, I don't think Merlin would go for you if you're dead, which you're gonna be if you don't find a better class of friends, you dickwad," Gwaine said. "And if they don't beat you to death because they spot the rainbow tat you've got across your ass, then it's gonna be mom and dad when they hear all about the classy bunch you're hanging out with."

Gwaine hung up after another minute with an emphatic "Good!", walked past Arthur with a firm nod and rather unapologetic "Sorry about that", tossed his phone in his gym bag, and jogged toward the line where the others were waiting.

Arthur remembered Gwaine's brother, Kay. Shorter than Gwaine, a bit stockier, one of the leading intramural wrestlers before he went to college on scholarship.

He hadn't known Kay was bisexual, but from the sounds of it, the entire family knew, and they were all right with it. Just like Merlin's mother was all right with Merlin being gay.

Arthur envied them their families and friends.

He glanced at Leon and Perceval where they were talking -- probably discussing the upcoming football games, and wondered how they would react if they knew about him.

It was three weeks of cold, dark runs in the morning that ended with quick kisses at the furthest edge of the trail, long looks across the yard, fleeting touches during training while no one was the wiser, and one date on a Saturday night spent getting nearly naked on the living room couch before Merlin gave him a hand-job so incredibly perfect, he hadn't come down to earth in time to watch Merlin getting himself off.

It was three weeks of craving for more than that, of wavering between he's ten years younger, I'm his coach, and God, I want to hold his hand in public, I'd give anything to wake up next to him every morning.

It was three weeks of listening to Merlin's friends teasing him about his secret boyfriend, of watching Merlin take it good-naturedly, of seeing Merlin's sad smiles when Lance wrapped an arm around Gwen's shoulders, or when Will gave Freya a little peck on her cheek, or when Geraint talked about Viv and their plans to get married right out of high school.

It took three weeks to gather up the courage to invite Leon and Perceval over to his house, to find the words to say what he wanted to say, to take that step out that he should have taken a long time ago, because he wanted to live without hiding. Because he needed to live without hiding. Because Merlin deserved more.

They were in Arthur's living room, Perceval taking up half the couch by himself. Leon was in the big armchair, cradling a big bowl of chips in his lap, a bowl of onion dip in one hand, a beer in the other, and trying to figure out the logistics of eating the chips without having to put down his beer. It was half-time, the commercials had gone past, and no one was interested in listening to the sports commentators making fun of each other instead of the game.

"You all right, Arthur? You're being quiet," Perceval said, getting up from the couch. Arthur heard him go into the kitchen, open the fridge, and scavenge for food. He came back with three beers in one massive hand and a fork with the pasta salad from yesterday's supper in the other.

"I'm just --" Arthur took a deep breath. He needed to get the words out. He couldn't keep hiding. He had to -- He stared down at his hands. "I'm just thinking."

"Must be deep, if you're looking like that," Perceval said.

"Is there a problem?" Leon asked.

Arthur rubbed his eyes. If he just got the words out -- if he didn't think about them... "What would you say if I told you that I was gay?"

There was noise from the TV. The clatter of fork on the glass bowl as Perceval chased around the pasta. The loud crunch as Leon finally figured out how to eat the chips without putting down his beer.

"Okay?" Perceval finally said. He eyed Arthur with a look that could only be described as speculative.

"Are you?" Leon asked.

"Yes," Arthur said. He was on the confessor's rack, he really was, but when he looked up at the proverbial Inquisitor issuing the torture orders, the Inquisitor's face was his own. This was his Hell, his misery, his fault. There were too many if onlys in his life, but the largest one was if only he'd never let his father turn him into... this.

"When did that happen?" Leon asked.

Arthur risked a glance in Leon's direction and saw him more confused than upset. "Birth?"

Leon rolled his eyes and tried to lean forward, but the small buffet in his lap stopped him. "Yes, I know that, I'm not an idiot. I'm just. This is weird. Where was I? How come I didn't know?"

"The whole point of being in the closet is that no one knows," Arthur said quietly. He looked at his hands. His fingers were wrung together, the skin red and chafed.

"Well, yes. But why? Why'd you hide? It's not like anyone would care. Never mind us, right, Perce?" Leon asked.

"No, I don't care, it's cool, but I don't get it," Perceval said, sounding genuinely confused. He reached for one of the three fresh beers on the coffee table. "What about Sophia? I thought you were an item. I mean, you bring her to all the big fundraising events around town."

"Yeah," Leon said, his brows furrowing. "Come to think of it, haven't seen you in the social pages for a while. Wasn't Sophia at the Habitat for Humanity fundraiser last month?"

"Sure was, but it wasn't Arthur on her arm in the B-section front cover, was it?" Perceval asked. "I figured maybe you two had a spat, or you couldn't make it -- weren't you in Logres for that track meet at around that time? It was a really old guy with her anyway."

"Did you see his tie? The green polka-dot thing?"

"It was green?" Perceval asked.

"I don't get the paper, I read my news online," Leon said. "Full colour pictures. Green-and-yellow polka-dot tie, and I guess the yellow was supposed to match Sophia's dress, but you know, neon yellow and Irish green doesn't match anything, really."

"Wish I'd thought of going online. I mean, the guy's hair? Someone should've told him that the flip and pomade smear went out in the 1950s."

"He's from the 1950s," Leon said. "1960s at the very least. His pants had bell bottoms."

"No way," Perceval said, snickering.

Arthur stared between the two of them for the longest time. "My God. You two are gay."

Leon threw chips at him. Perceval thumped him on the head with his fork. "You don't need to be gay to appreciate a fashion disaster. So, what was it then? You're not with Sophia? Was she your -- what do you call them, Leon?"

"Sorry, my mind-reading skills aren't up to figuring out where you're going with this," Leon said dryly.

Perceval was snapping his fingers. "What do you call the girls that cover for someone who's gay and who doesn't want anyone to find out?"

"What does it matter?" Arthur said wearily. "I can't do it. I can't hide anymore, I mean."

No one said anything. On the television, the players were taking the field for the start of the next quarter, lining up on opposing sides, but none of them were paying any real attention.

"Is it your dad?" Leon asked quietly. "Is he why you never said anything?"

"Oh, shit," Perceval said, as if the thought had just occurred to him. If anything, Perceval's pallor went several shades of pale so quickly, Arthur wondered if he needed to call an ambulance.

Uther Pendragon knew how to play the politically correct game, how to put the best face forward. He knew how to say exactly what he needed to say to the right person to get things done, whether it was a new endowment on the school for a new library or a new gymnasium or a new theatre, or a bit of political clout to get certain school board members shouted down when he wanted a particular policy to pass. His term as headmaster of Camelot High was a long one, and Perceval and Leon had been there long enough to hear the stories or even play witness to Uther's particularly vitriolic brand of bigoted rants. There had been a time when Uther had not been shy to express his distaste against homosexuals, when he funded and even led rallies in opposition, and spoke vehemently against the changes to school board policies allowing him to expel students for “depraved” behaviour.

"Does he know?" Perceval asked, and Arthur thought he heard a tremble in his voice. It seemed ridiculous, somehow, that Perceval would be afraid of Uther when he wasn't the one who was gay.

Arthur didn't answer for a while. He sank back in his seat and closed his eyes. "I was, I don't know. Fifteen or sixteen years old when he walked in on me with another guy."

"Oh, shit," Perceval said again.

"Yeah," Arthur said, chuckling humourlessly. "He really put the screws into me after that. Hung a lot of things over my head. Threatened to throw me out of the house. Told me my mom would be ashamed of me and that she was rolling in her grave. Said he'd disown me if I ever embarrassed him."

Perceval and Leon were quiet, and it seemed that once started, Arthur couldn't stop.

"He said if I ruined things for him he'd kill me. He almost did. I'd just come back from training camp -- I'd thought I'd be safe there to do what I wanted, he was like half a country away, but I guess he paid other people to watch me. He found out about me and this athlete, an exchange student from Russia, and, well." Arthur rubbed his face with his hands. "He was careful, you know. Didn't break anything I might need. I didn't get out of the house for days because the swelling was too bad. But I had to get back to training, or I'd miss my chance at the Olympics that first time, and he let it slip to the reporters sniffing around that I'd been attacked by a rival. Sent me back to camp with a bodyguard."

Arthur snorted.

"More like a babysitter. Didn't get any better after that. He sent me news clippings, video recordings, everything he could find about kids saying they were gay and getting beaten for it. He'd even scrawled in black ink see what could happen to you on that story about that kid who was killed downtown for being gay."

"Jesus. That. Jesus. I have no words," Perceval said, sounding distressed. Leon was shaky, the drunk-and-about-to-throw-up shaky he was sometimes, only he hadn't even finished his first beer .

"Yeah," Arthur said, and he felt suddenly very bone tired. He'd been carrying this weight with him nearly his entire life, and now that the burden had been cast off, he realized just how it had drained him. The silence from Perceval and Leon wasn't as frightening as it should have been.

The couch shifted. He felt a hand on his shoulder.

"You know we're your friends, right?" Perceval said. "It doesn't matter to us. Although if you're going to tell me that you've had a massive crush on me for the last few years --"

"He must be pretty important," Leon said, his voice so quiet and powerful that they drowned out Perceval. "If you're telling us this now. He must matter a lot to you, whoever it is."

"He is. He does," Arthur said, his voice soft. He opened his eyes to stare at the ceiling, terribly maudlin all of a sudden. "I'm in love with him."

He hadn't even told Merlin yet. He wasn't sure if he had the courage.

"Damn it," Perceval said. "Get a guy's hopes up --"

Arthur snorted and shoved Perceval; Perceval barely budged.

"No, but really," Perceval said, grinning. "I'm happy for you."

Arthur ducked his head and nodded. When he looked up again, Perceval's expression was serious. So was Leon's.

"What are you going to do about Uther?"

"I don't know," Arthur said, and he honestly didn't. Arthur had cut his father out of his life as much as possible. They barely saw each other at the school, except for the interdepartmental meetings. He never saw his father except very briefly at the obligatory holidays. He had numbly acquiesced to his demands to escort this woman or that woman to this event or that event and kept his head down in unconscious attempt to keep from breaking the rules Uther had imposed on him ever since he was a teenager. But Uther hadn't been his father except in name since he'd crashed through Arthur's bedroom and threatened to kill him.

Uther couldn't do very much to Arthur if Arthur came out in public. He might find some reason to fire his own son, or pressure him out of the school. Arthur actually expected him to do exactly that, just to find a way to save face. Worse, Uther might be vindictive enough to spread rumours and make certain that Arthur never held another job for the rest of his life. Losing his job didn't bother him; not being there for the kids he trained and taught did.

"Finish off the school year, I guess," Arthur said finally. "Then leave. I don't have to make some big announcement or anything. It's enough for me that you guys know."

"What about your job?"

"I'll give the school board enough notice to find a new coach. I don't have to go through my dad." Arthur paused. "I don't even think he'd accept my resignation. He'd probably bully me to stay if I tried to quit."

Arthur guessed that Uther would probably use the whole "duty to the school" spiel that every staff member knew so well, mixed in with a generous amount of guilt about familial betrayal and some sort of fictional Pendragon tradition. Then there were the threats --

Arthur remembered getting beaten up. He remembered the bruises on Merlin's body. God. He wouldn't be able to stand it if Uther hurt Merlin.

"I don't think I could stay even if he did, even if I came out all the way. Can you imagine?" Arthur half-laughed. "Now when he bitches and moans at the faculty meetings about the immorality of youth, he'll use me as an example right in front of everyone. And you know what? The hell with it. I'd rather leave. It's not like I don't have other prospects."

Colleges, universities, the national team. The Olympics team. They all wanted him as a coach. He just had to make a few phone calls.

"Well, that will suck. If you leave. But it's your call," Perceval said. "You know that we're on your side no matter what?"

Arthur looked up slowly, glancing first at Perceval, then at Leon. He wasn't sure how he had expected them to react, but it wasn't this. His eyes stung and he blinked the tears away, because he was damned if he was going to let either one of them see him cry. "That means a lot."

They watched the game for a while, but mostly they talked -- about the students and the fate of the track team if Arthur left. How the students would react ("You underestimate how much the kids love you. I bet they'll throw an all-out riot if they find out you were made to quit because you're gay," Leon said.), what the other staff members would do ("I think Monmouth would look at you like you're a lemon he'd just sucked on -- oh, ew, forget I said that," Perceval said.), what actions the school board would take ("Ultimately, they'll bow to the power of the parents, and the parents? If it makes their kids happy… I think you're good," Perceval said.). The topic changed to Perceval's plans for the next year, what Leon had in mind for the girls' basketball team, since the boys' had flubbed their chance at making the regionals, to the end-of-year faculty meeting and the Christmas play and the Christmas dance and the next semester and Perceval's ridiculously large extended family and Leon's girlfriend.

They talked until the game was over, through the news report and late-night comedy talk show. They talked until Perceval interrupted them with his snoring and startled himself awake and mumbled about sleeping in his own bed.

"Look," Perceval said, standing in the doorway, a hand on Arthur's shoulder. "Don't worry about anything, okay? If you have anyone giving you grief --"

"Sic Perceval on them," Leon volunteered.

"-- and if you need to talk to someone, well, obviously you want to talk to the more sensitive one of us. You've got my number, right?" Perceval said with a grin.

"Hey, what do you mean? I'm plenty sensitive --" Leon protested.

"Thanks," Arthur said, his chest tight. "I -- I appreciate it. I really do."

Perceval said his good-nights and left, his car heading up the road. Leon stayed to help Arthur clean up, collecting the debris of all the potato chips he'd tossed during the game.

"So, do we know your… I guess the word I should use is "boyfriend", right?" Leon asked.

Arthur shifted uncomfortably. He studied Leon's expression before taking a deep breath. "Yes, you do. That's… That's kind of the problem."

"Since when is being in love with someone a problem?" Leon asked. He picked up a cushion and found a small mountain of chip debris.

"It's Merlin," Arthur said. Leon stood up straight at once, turning to look at him in surprise. Arthur braced himself for shouting, for name-calling, for -- anything but the look of consideration that came over Leon's face and the little, untroubled shrug.

"Okay. But I still don't see the issue," Leon said. "Merlin's eighteen. He's not one of your PE students. You're not grading him, you're training him for the track team. His times speak for themselves; no one can say you're fudging anything. And if anyone complains of preferential treatment, well, they can go fuck themselves. Everyone knows Uther's pushing you to work with Geraint. You spend more time on the field with G than with anyone else."

Arthur didn't answer.

"You feel guilty, don't you?" Leon asked. "I doubt you need to. I mean, who started it? Who made the first move? It was Merlin, wasn't it?"

"Yeah," Arthur said. His voice was a whisper, and he couldn't help but smile a little.

"See?" Leon picked up the beer bottles and put them in the box next to the kitchen counter. "Sounds a lot like me and Morgana."

"You've been with her what, three years?" Arthur asked. He put the bowls in the sink; he'd deal with them in the morning.

"Almost four." Leon looked at Arthur speculatively before coming to what looked like a decision. "Did I ever tell you how old she is?"

"Twenty three? Twenty four?" Arthur asked. "You told me you met in school."

"I didn't say which school," Leon said. "She's nineteen, Arthur."

Arthur did the math in his head several times to make sure he hadn't forgotten to carry the one somewhere.

"I was her teacher. She kept asking me out and I kept saying no. By the end of the year, she'd cornered me in my office, in the showers, in the janitor's closet." Leon paused. "Believe me, I'm in a lot more trouble than you are if that gets out."

"You..." Leon had started at Camelot three years ago -- a last-minute replacement for a teacher who had a nervous breakdown. It had seemed odd at the time at how quickly and willingly Leon had taken the job despite his other credentials, but it made sense now. Arthur sat down with a small laugh. "We're a pair, aren't we?"

"Yeah," Leon said with a chuckle. "But it's not like we've got much of a choice in this, do we? Morgana won't let me go. Thumps me in the head when I start thinking that she'd be better off without me. I'm guessing Merlin's the same way."

Arthur thought about Merlin, how he'd crawled under Arthur's skin and made himself the centre of Arthur's world. How he challenged Arthur, how he refused to accept anything less than everything Arthur had to give, how he surprised Arthur by showing him how much there actually was to give in the first place. "Yeah. He is."

"You can fight it all you want, Arthur, but in the end, they'll get their way. You won't mind, either. I know I don't."

Arthur tried not to smile, but it was a losing battle. He nodded.

"If you do come out," Leon said suddenly, changing the subject, "I think it would be a good thing. You'd be like a role model. A lot of the kids need that. Hell, Perceval needs that."

"Perce?" Arthur turned around to look at Leon. "Why Perce?"

Leon raised a brow. "I might've missed spotting you and Merlin, but you'd have to be blind not to see how Perceval's mooning over his star quarterback, Elyan."

They had conversations. They had a lot of conversations. Arthur learned that Merlin was far more mature than he'd given Merlin credit for, and even though Merlin was a horny eighteen year old most of the time, it was when they weren't kissing or rubbing each other off that Merlin surprised him the most.

His mom was out of town again and Merlin had come over to his house and promptly sprawled himself on the couch to study for his exams. Arthur had finished the biggest pile of dishes and had put the casserole in the oven when he went over to the couch, lifted Merlin's legs out of the way, and sat down with Merlin's legs in his lap.

Arthur couldn't see Merlin over the AP History book he was reading. Arthur turned on the TV, lowered the volume, and relaxed. He pulled off Merlin's socks and watched his toes curl, but the history book stayed where it was. It was five minutes into a foot rub when Merlin winced a bit and tried to pull his leg away.

"You know, I heard at school that you majored in kinesiology in university," Merlin said, lowering his book.

"That's right," Arthur said, running his thumb along the arch of Merlin's foot. He could feel a tension knot there. "Did some sports physio too, obviously."

"Oh, okay. I was just wondering. Seemed a bit weird how you keep going after my feet. I thought you had some sort of a fetish or something," Merlin said, his lips tugging into a wry grin.

Arthur snorted. "Of course not."

"Just checking," Merlin said. He raised his book again.

Arthur studied the foot in his hand. He raised Merlin's leg and kissed the top of his foot. "Maybe just a little bit."

Merlin laughed, but he twitched his foot and said, "Quit it. I have an exam."

"You'd turn me down for an exam?"

Merlin looked at him over the edge of his book and gave him an intense, determined frown. "Law school." Merlin went back to studying, but he squirmed closer.

They had other conversations. They started with a tight-chested Arthur who couldn't help but think that Merlin really would be better off if he wasn't with Arthur. He could go to university, he could live in the dorms, he could join a frat and get himself drunk and do all sorts of things that a boy his age was supposed to do. Go out on dates. To the movies. Out for dinner. All these things that Arthur didn't dare do.

Merlin smacked him on the back of his head. "Stop it. You're thinking too loud. I can't hear the movie."

"Merlin --"

Merlin reached for the remote, paused the movie, and slotted himself against Arthur's side, draping an arm over Arthur's shoulders and running his fingers through his hair. "No, I'm not going to break up with you. No, I'm not going to let you break up with me."

"You're going to go to the Olympics. You're going to go away to school."

"We're going to the Olympics. Don't think I haven't seen those letters from the recruiters -- they've been trying to get you as a coach for ages. You want to work for them, don't you?"

"Yes, but --" Arthur was distracted by a yank of his hair and a sudden realization. "Wait. What? How did you know that? Where did you find those letters?"

"In your desk drawer --"

Arthur squawked. "Those are my private papers --"

"I'm a giant snoop. Blame my mom. It's inherited. They found a gene that specifically codes for snooping. My mom and I have it in spades. Get used to it."

"Merlin --"

Merlin shifted in his seat and straddled Arthur's lap -- Merlin's bum in Arthur's lap was a guaranteed way of robbing Arthur of his capacity for speech. "I have a plan. It's a fantastic plan. I'm going to finish school here, yeah? I'll win nationals, go to the Olympic trials and get on the team. In the meantime, you'll call them up, tell them that you might be done playing hard-to-get, and you'll start a new job in the summer. We can move out there together. Then in the fall, I'll be at school. I've applied to Yale -- I know they've been courting you as their head coach for their athletics department, and their scouts have been sniffing after me since the last race, so I'll probably get a scholarship to get in, especially since it's my mom's alma mater. And if you go with Chula Vista instead, I could go to San Diego U. It's not far, we can commute --"

"Merlin --"

"I'm even eligible to get in the residence program at Chula Vista, if I want to take a year off and just focus on training, and, well, you'll be right there, won't you? We won't have to be apart."

Arthur stared up at Merlin. It like Leon had warned -- it was as if Merlin was a force of nature. Arthur was a paper plane swept away by a hurricane, but he couldn't find it in himself to object. He had considered quitting his job. The only reason he had to stay at the end of the school year was for Merlin. He'd thought about calling up his contacts, to see if they still had openings, but the only thing that held him back was not knowing where Merlin would go.

It hadn't been something that they'd talked about, but it made Arthur all sorts of happy to know that Merlin's plans included Arthur.

They hadn't even had sex yet. Arthur wasn't sure if hand jobs counted. All he knew was that he wanted more. More of this, more of Merlin. However he could.

"Are you done thinking yet?" Merlin asked gently, running his fingers through Arthur's hair.

"I'm thinking different things now," Arthur said, smiling a little as Merlin's head tilted to the side and studied him for a long time.

"Better things?"

"Better things," Arthur confirmed.

Merlin's smile was sweet, but the kiss that pressed on his lips was sweeter, with the faintest trace of salt from the popcorn that Merlin had polished off before the movie was even ten minutes in. Arthur thought that he had an appetite. That Perceval had an appetite. But Merlin easily beat them both when it came to cleaning out Arthur's fridge.

"Good, because we have plenty of time to decide what we're going to do, yeah?" Merlin said, kissing Arthur again and again, gentle presses of lips that made Arthur forget about the movie and the future. He chased after Merlin's mouth, and Merlin allowed it only for so long before taking full advantage of Arthur's complete distraction to make short work out of his shirt.

"Merlin?" Arthur gasped, shivering under a shower of kisses that trailed a line down Arthur's throat. There was a barrage of licks that conquered his collarbone, a line of wet that traced his sternum, a kiss here and there along the sides where he was most ticklish. Merlin grabbed Arthur's leg and pulled and pushed and --

"Will you -- oh, yes, there, like that," Merlin said when Arthur moved his leg to stretch along the couch, and abruptly, he hooked his hands under Arthur's knees and yanked, forcing Arthur flat on his back.

Arthur stifled a sound of surprise. Merlin covered him for an instant, pressing a firm kiss on his lips. "Lay back and think of --"

"Don't finish that sentence," Arthur warned. It was too late, because his cock was very interested, if not in the husky tone of Merlin's voice, then definitely in the way that Merlin's thigh rubbed against it.

"Always wanted to say it, though," Merlin said, his eyes bright with mischief as he slipped off, shifting until he was sitting on his knees. He pulled off his shirt -- Arthur followed the hem as it drifted up Merlin's torso, his fingers chasing after, touching every inch of bare flesh as it was exposed. The shirt was flung aside; Merlin's hair was a tangled mess from the static, giving him an inadvertent bed-tousled look.

"God, you're gorgeous." Arthur didn't know he'd spoken the words until they hung in the air between them, and Merlin grinned, slow and languid, before covering Arthur again. The shock of bare flesh against bare flesh made Arthur ache for more.

"You want to know what else I've wanted to tell you?" Merlin asked, stealing a kiss before Arthur could properly respond, his lips drifting to kiss his ear. His voice lowered to that impossibly sexy rumble again. "I'm going to suck your cock."

Arthur's hips jerked up, liking the idea. "Jesus, Merlin."

"You like that?"

"Fuck. Yes."

"You want in my mouth, don't you?"

"Yes. Fuck. Yes. Please," Arthur said, babbling, not really knowing or caring what was coming out of his mouth as long as Merlin carried through with his threat. "Those lips. God. Fantasized about them for ages. Want to feel them around my cock. Merlin. Fuck --"

His body froze, electrified, at the sensation of Merlin's tongue around his nipple, licking a slow, slow circle that extended outward in concentric rings. Merlin's breath was soft against the wet lines but it was a shock to feel his skin cool, only to be covered by that warm mouth again. There was a flick of the tip of Merlin's tongue on Arthur's nipple, a hot, pulsing suck --

Arthur's body arched, his moan drowning out the explosions from the movie.

Merlin let him go. He shifted to do the same thing on the other side, and Arthur's mind was gone under the assault. He had the fleeting, overpowering image of Merlin's mouth doing exactly the same thing on Arthur's cock as he was doing on the nipples, ready to surrender to Merlin's demands, whatever they were.

Arthur became aware of a small, keening sound, of pleading and begging -- please, please, God, oh God, don't stop -- but didn't realize it was coming from him until Merlin happily obliged by repeating his handiwork from one nipple to the next, spending more and more time on each. It was when there was the slightest, faintest nibble of Merlin's teeth around the nub that Arthur thought his jeans would tear where his erection was trying valiantly to get free.

He reached down to rub himself, to ease the ache.

Merlin grabbed his wrist and pushed his arm over his head with a warning growl. The vibrations tickled Arthur's skin, and he squirmed under Merlin, trying to get some friction.

Merlin tortured him by moving away, by keeping him from getting any relief, and once satisfied that Arthur wouldn't move anymore -- more than could be helped, anyway -- he returned his attentions to Arthur's nipples, kissing, licking, suckling.


Arthur moaned when teeth raked down his ribcage, giving him a moment's respite before lips pressed hard against one nipple, worrying it.

Arthur tried to say something coherent -- something appropriate along the lines of fucking hell -- but the best he could do was a hissed moan.

There was a tug at his jeans, deft fingers unbuttoning and unzipping. The relief of pressure on Arthur's cock nearly made him come. He was distracted by the pull on his hips, the urgent murmurs from Merlin, and he regained sentience only long enough to yespleasedoitnow lift his hips from the couch so that his jeans, then his briefs, could be pulled down.

Merlin was over him, bracing himself on his knees and hands, licking into his mouth, giving him a passionate kiss. Arthur ran his hands through Merlin's hair, down his back --

Only to be pushed away again, his hands pinned over his head.

"Don't move," Merlin warned.

"Shit," Arthur breathed, watching as Merlin wriggled further down on him, one hand on Arthur's hip. He kissed Arthur’s hipbone; he dragged teeth over the sensitive skin in a furtive tease that made Arthur's body jerk involuntarily.

"Don't move," Merlin said again, giving him a heated look through long eyelashes.

"Not… easy…" Arthur grit out.

He swore he heard Merlin laugh, but the laugher was brief; Merlin mouthed at his length and the contact was warm, wet and absolutely impossible to resist. It was slow, serenading torture to feel Merlin kiss and tongue at his penis inch by inch, all the way down and all the way up, his tongue dipping around here and there, darting from side to side.

"Fuck," Arthur hissed. "Can't -- Merlin --"

Merlin took the base of Arthur's cock in a firm grasp, staving off Arthur's climax, and simultaneously took in half of it into his mouth, making Arthur's hips jerk in an attempt to come.

It was evil and pleasurably painful and completely blinding, and Arthur didn't try to hold back his moan.

Merlin's head bobbed up and down, on every descent taking in more of Arthur's cock. Arthur watched the beautiful, completely pornographic sight of Merlin sucking him off while he still had some sense left, but even that vestige of higher brain function disappeared the instant Merlin's hand joined in on the action. He hitched his hips but Merlin held him down, keeping him captive.

The suckling sounds were loud and lewd, eclipsing even the movie’s sound effects, chasing Arthur up his second attempt to come. Arthur disobeyed Merlin's order and ran his hands through Merlin's hair, soft and gentle and gripping a little to make him stop, in warning --

But Merlin must have sensed where Arthur was, because his hands slipped from Arthur's hips, and Arthur was free to do whatever he wanted -- which was to fuck Merlin's mouth with one, two, three too-rough-not-rough-enough thrusts before he came into a pulsing wave that washed him overboard.

The couch dipped around him; heat radiated from on high. Arthur opened his eyes and saw Merlin over him, his lips swollen a vibrant red, cheeks and chin slicked with spit and come, his hand fisting his cock -- when had he pushed down his pants?, Arthur wanted to know -- in furious, mesmerizing pumps.

"So fucking hot," Merlin whispered, his head bowed, and before Arthur could reach to help him, Merlin spilled come all over Arthur's stomach. Merlin's supporting arm shook, and finally collapsed; Merlin fell on top of Arthur in a sleepy, blissed-out state, the come smearing between them.

Arthur ran his hand down Merlin's back soothing and calming him; he kissed his brow in light, gentle presses of his lips until Merlin looked up.

"You're --" amazing, gorgeous, so fucking good, Arthur wanted to say, and instead, "-- bossy."

Merlin smirked knowingly, as if he was perfectly aware of how much it turned Arthur on to be told what to do, to be manoeuvred into position, to be pinned. "And?"

Arthur took a deep, deep breath, and didn't answer. Merlin chuckled.

It was a cold, miserable Thursday with icy rain and dropping temperatures. Merlin had been acting strange, giving him darting sidelong looks when Arthur got ready for a faculty meeting.

"Come on, Merlin. I'll drop you off at home," Arthur said.

"I'd rather stay here." Merlin looked at him for a long time before dropping his eyes to his AP Calculus. He'd been working on the practice problems for the three hours straight, studying for his last exam.

"I won't be back until late. I don't want to wake you. Between the exams and the State Invitational on Saturday, you need to get your rest, okay?" It was going to be a small team for the Invitational -- Merlin and Geraint, Gwaine and Lance. Pellinor had missed making the cut by just a bit over a second; he would still have a chance at the June trials, but it would be a near thing.

"I could sleep in the guest room," Merlin said. He snapped his book shut, though, and shoved his papers in his backpack.

"You say that every time, and you somehow always end up in mine."

"Somehow?" Merlin paused, raising a brow, giving him a cheeky grin. "Anyway, it's not like we really do anything. Not that I mind, but, you know." He pointed at himself. "Horny teenage boy."

Arthur pointed at himself. "Dirty old man. But. You know. I'm trying to do the right thing here and not sully your virtue until you're at least twenty."

Merlin squawked. "What! Twenty?"

Arthur smothered Merlin's yelp with a kiss. He tugged at Merlin's lower lip, rumbling with pleasure at the way Merlin collapsed against him.

Merlin broke the kiss. "Or until I win the Invitational? We can see who'll sully whose virtue then."

Arthur's brain didn't quite short-circuit, but it came close. No, the actual short-circuiting came later, much later, after he'd dropped Merlin off and suffered through a three hour meeting discussing everything from the cafeteria's bland coleslaw to the temperature gradient in the theatre to the proposed revised athletics-academics schedule for the senior students.

He came home, locked up, turned off the lights, and went up the stairs to the master bedroom with the very empty bed and the box of condoms and bottle of lube on the nightstand table that Arthur most definitely had not put there, and didn't move until he had control of his brain again.

There was a great deal of mixed emotion on the field, and all of it could be attributed to three things. The first: the State Invitational was usually open to anyone within the state itself, but this year, because several races had been cancelled by other nearby states at this level of competition, many more runners were competing this year, including several members of the national team. That meant that the pace set would be faster and harder, that Gwaine and Lance would have to put everything into their much shorter races, that Geraint and Merlin would have to push every tiny morsel of speed that they had, if they wanted to make it to the end and still rank for the try outs in June.

The second: someone in the know had spotted at least seven university scouts, one Olympic team scout, and four national team coaches. The rumours spread like wildfire, and Arthur wished he could dispel them and get his team to focus, but it was hard when he saw familiar faces in the crowd and wanted to hold a sign up over his team that said, Keep an eye on these boys.

The third: it was snowing.

There wasn't much that Arthur could do about the larger field of competitors except boost the confidence of his team with honest reminders of their abilities and confidence-inspiring speeches. He had to snap Gwaine's attention from the stands -- he was searching for those coaches and scouts -- and physically turn him around and give him a stern few words. Lance was freaking out, and Arthur sent him to talk to his girlfriend, Gwen, who seemed to be able to calm him down like nothing else. Geraint was apathic and distracted and nothing Arthur said could make him focus. And the snow -- God. The snow was coming down in big flakes and Camelot High's track team wasn't the only one looking at the thickening slush in dismay.

It wasn't so bad for the shorter-distance races -- those were held inside, but the cross-country runners were expected to go off-road, no matter what the weather conditions were.

Gwaine made it to the semi-finals by the skin of his teeth, but was knocked down to fourth overall by the end of the rounds. Lance did marginally better, and that was only because the number of runners in his category was significantly less than Gwaine. The race organizers were announcing the start of the 12K cross-country and for all runners to come to the line for their electronic timers.

Geraint's shoulders slumped and Arthur could see his confidence erode as he watched the falling snow. Arthur came up to him and gave him all the words of encouragement he could think of. It seemed to work; Geraint nodded grimly and set out to the field.

Arthur felt guilty -- all morning, he had been working with Lance and Gwaine and Geraint, and he hadn't had the time to do much more but nod at Merlin. He spotted Merlin standing under cover of one of the tents, wringing his hands to keep them warm, and went over to him, wondering what he could possibly say to Merlin that Merlin wouldn't think was trite and unnecessary.


Merlin looked at him, serene and calm, the edges of excitement lingering at the fringes. Arthur said the only thing he could.


Merlin grinned, bright and brilliant, and tugged his sweater off. He tossed it at Arthur and kicked out of his shoes before trotting off into the two inches of snow barefoot.

A few nearby coaches cast raised brows in Merlin's direction and dark looks in Arthur's. Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose and hoped he looked appropriately frustrated when all he really wanted to do was laugh.

He picked up Merlin's shoes, shaking his head, and went to stand by the start line the way he always did to see his runners off.

It was far too long a wait to the end. Gwaine and Lance stood with Arthur, dressed in full track pants and heavy sweaters. They cheered when they saw Merlin in the lead, but it was too early to celebrate; there were so many runners that the organizers set them in groups with staggered starts. Until the last runner crossed the finish line and handed in his electronic timer, it was anyone's race.

The numbers and names and times flicked on the board in reverse order. Geraint came in tenth.

Several names Arthur didn't recognize popped up.

Merlin's name appeared. In first place.

Gwaine and Lance whooped and hugged Merlin while Arthur stood off to the side, trying to maintain a professional distance. It was difficult, because the glorious feeling making his heart swell at Merlin's win was far more powerful than winning the race himself.

It wasn't until later, much later, after all the pomp and ceremony and spectators drifting away and everyone gone to gather their things that Arthur felt he could breathe again.

"Arthur," a familiar voice called out, and he turned around to see a slim, athletic brunette coming toward him, an older man with snow-white hair following behind her. "Fancy seeing you here."

"There's never going to be a year that you don't see me at a major race, Mithian," Arthur said, smiling as he returned her hug. "You, however -- how many kinds of underhanded was it to get your national team boys in this race?"

"Only four," said the man with her. Arthur reached to shake Coach Anhora's hand. "Good to see you again, Arthur."

"You too," Arthur said. "I didn't think you'd ever leave Chula Vista."

"To be honest, I'd rather be where it's nice and warm," Anhora said. "But Uther was quite persuasive."

Arthur froze. "Uther?"

"Talked up a storm about your boy -- Geraint. I can see why, though. If he comes out in June, he can make the B team easily."

"Uh. Yes, I'm hoping he can do better than that. He's not much of a severe conditions runner, but I'm having him train through the winter to improve," Arthur said.

"I wonder why he didn't mention anything about this Emrys kid of yours. A bit of a dark horse, isn't he?" Anhora said.

"He is," Arthur said, fighting the urge to smile. "Started at Camelot High in the fall, transferred in from Ealdor."

"See that he comes to the tryouts in June," Anhora said, reaching out to pat Arthur's shoulder. "He's definitely A team material."

"I'll send you his file," Arthur said.

"You do that. The sooner, the better," Anhora said.

"I want a copy of his file too," Mithian said. She thumbed at Anhora. "If this curmudgeon doesn't recruit him, I definitely will."

"Not without me," Arthur said suddenly. Mithian and Anhora exchanged surprised glances that quickly turned into pleased smiles.

"We're finally wearing you down? You'll join the team?"

"If it's still on the table," Arthur said, and the only thing he could think of was how to make certain Merlin found the letter when he accepted someone's offer. It seemed like such a silly thing, to finalize all these plans that Merlin wanted to see through, but Arthur hadn't realized until that moment that these were plans he wanted for himself, too. "I'm also in talks with Yale U and a couple of other universities."

Universities that had excellent track and field teams and law school departments. Universities that Merlin had already applied to.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Mithian said with a scowl. "You couldn't have come to talk to us first?"

"Afraid of a little competition, Mithian?"

Arthur knew he had them when he saw their eyes narrow.

On the drive home, with Geraint in the bench seat at the very rear of the van, Gwaine and Lance behind them snoring away, Merlin turned and gave Arthur such a look and such a smile that Arthur was as hard as a steel bar for the entire trip.

On Monday morning, Merlin came into his office and shut the door behind him. "You're not doing anything Friday, are you? It's just, mom wants to go to Ealdor to see her uncle for Christmas, but we'll be back the day after, and. Um."

"Friday's fine. I'll make dinner," Arthur said, unable to suppress his smile.

On Tuesday, Arthur thought he would burst from anticipation. He went to bed that night with a glance at the box of condoms and the bottle of lube that he hadn't touched since Merlin put it there, suffered the usual heady measure of guilt for what he dearly wanted to do to an eighteen-year old boy before getting himself off to the fantasy of Merlin fucking him.

On Wednesday, Arthur slipped into his office just as the bell rang. He froze in the doorway when he saw Geraint sitting in the chair across from his desk, his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands. Arthur shut the door behind him, and Geraint, realizing he was no longer alone, jumped to his feet.

"Geraint?" The boy's eyes were rimmed red, but there was a resolute set to his jaw, a decision that he'd made and wouldn't retract.

"Coach. Um. Do you have a minute?"

Arthur shrugged out of his coat and hung it up. He gestured for Geraint to sit down. "Is everything all right?"

Geraint sat down a little heavily, and Arthur slipped into the second guest chair next to him.

"Yes. And no," Geraint said with a small, strangled laugh. Arthur waited in silence while Geraint gathered his thoughts, his face twisting as if he wished the conversation was over with already. "Everything's fine. I'm not dying or anything. It's just."

He paused, and Arthur let himself relax a little bit.

"Viv's pregnant." There was a bit of a smile when he said it.

"That's good news isn't it?" Arthur asked slowly, tentatively.

"Yeah, it is," Geraint said, without pausing. "I mean. It's not like we did on purpose. Condoms aren't 100%, right? And we've told our parents. Mine aren't happy but they haven't thrown me out, Viv's dad is having a meltdown and every time I come over he's torn between tying me up and dragging me behind his Hummer for a few miles, or making me marry Viv right now. Viv thinks he's going to try to rustle up a pastor so that we get married on Christmas, or something. I'm just glad no one's pushing us for her to get an abortion or to give up the baby, because, you know, Viv wants to keep it, and I'm warming up to the idea. It's still really early, we're not telling anyone yet, but she's going to show in a month or two, and we're planning on finishing school..."

He trailed off and bowed his head.

"Congratulations," Arthur said gently.

"Thanks," Geraint said, looking up. "Coach."


"You've always been there for me. You put up with my bullshit last year when I stopped showing up for training. You helped me out with my exams when I needed a tutor. God. You picked me up at the police station and talked them out of charging me for indecent exposure," Geraint said, his cheeks colouring. Geraint had been a junior at the time, one of the school's best running prospects, and he took a dare from one of the seniors on the running team.

It involved streaking across the football field in the middle of a game.

"I promised that you'd never do it again."

"Fucking hell, after my picture showed up on Facebook about a million times, never mind on that Fail Blog -- yeah, that was it for me," Geraint said with a grin. His expression turned serious. "Coach. I hate to let you down. I really do. But I have to quit the team. Viv's dad is going to take me on as an apprentice, part time to start, then I'm going to go to trade school in the summer so I can get started as soon as I can."

"You're not letting me down," Arthur said, shifting in his seat to lean toward Geraint. "As long as you do what you think is best for you, you could never let me down. Is this what you want to do?"

Geraint nodded slowly. "Yeah. My GPA's not really very good, and I kind of screwed up my SATs, so I'll be lucky if I get in at the local college even with my dad's money. Besides, I like working with my hands, and Viv's dad is one of the best in the business. I guess I could get used to all the plumber's crack jokes I'm going to get, though."

Arthur smiled.

"Besides, it was never like I was going to make it to the Olympics anyway. I just don't have it. I mean, it hurts to run, and I hate every fucking step. I want to take care of my family. I love Viv, and the baby's like a tiny little jellybean right now, but I think I love it too. Yeah. This is what I want to do."

Arthur marvelled at this boy, eighteen years old and ready to take on the responsibility that most people Arthur's age would run away from. "Then that's all I can ask for, Geraint. If there's anything I can do, just ask."

Geraint's smile was easy this time, genuine. "Thanks, Coach. I knew you'd understand."

"Anytime," Arthur said, watching Geraint fiddle with the strap to his backpack before standing up suddenly.

"Um. Coach?"


"There's one thing." Geraint's hand fiddled with the doorknob. "Would it. I mean. Could you maybe talk to Headmaster Pendragon? Get him off my back? He called me into his office on Monday and read me the riot act. Then he called my mom and dad and told them what a slacker I was and how they needed to push me if they wanted me to succeed --"

"Oh, Jesus," Arthur hissed, standing up.

"-- and, you know, right now, my parents don't need any more bullshit from anyone, they've got enough to deal with right now."

"It's all right, Geraint. I'll talk to him," Arthur said.

"Thanks, Coach. I appreciate it. I mean, everything." Geraint gave him a smile before walking out of the office. The door had barely clicked shut before Arthur picked up the phone and called his father's assistant.

"Is he in?"

"What? Sorry, who is this?"

"This is his son. Is he in? Never mind. I'm on my way," Arthur said, hanging up without waiting for an answer. He was fairly certain he could make it across the quad before Uther was warned and escaped -- not that he believed that Uther would ever avoid a good confrontation.

Uther's latest assistant wasn't at her desk when Arthur arrived, which was either a sign that she'd taken the hint and made herself scarce, or had been recruited into driving the getaway car. Either way, Arthur knocked on the door and walked in when he heard Uther's gruff, "Come in."

Arthur entered and shut the door behind him.

"Arthur. What is it?"

Arthur paused. He hadn't really given any thought to what he was going to say to his father, what great speech he might come up with to slap some reality into him. He took a deep breath, but by the time he managed to come up with something, Uther had lost interest and had returned to the stack of papers on his desk.

"You know, it's one thing to tell me that I'm worthless, that I'm not working hard enough, that I'm an embarrassment to you and whatever old, withered ancestors we've got buried in some mausoleum somewhere, but it's something else entirely when you take it out on people who don't deserve it," Arthur said.

Uther looked up at him, and, after a moment, put down his expensive stylus and took off his reading glasses. "What on earth has gotten into you?"

"Have you been talking to Geraint recently?"

Uther sighed wearily. It was the sort of sigh that Arthur remembered well from his childhood, full of irritated patience that he was going to have to explain something irrelevant and educate someone else in the way things were on his own little, isolated, insane planet. "Someone had to speak to Geraint about his poor performance at the Invitational. Those were national team members that he was running against. He knew that, and tenth place was the best he could do? I won't have him embarrassing the school."

"He's a kid. He doesn't need that responsibility," Arthur said.

"Children these days are coddled. They need to understand that their actions have consequences," Uther said. "And since you're not taking charge with these boys the way you should, it falls to me to advise them of their options and to discuss their futures with their parents."

"It was a race, father. Anyone can have a bad day."

"You didn't," Uther said.

That's because I had you harping in my ear every time I turned around. Do you know how much sleep I missed on during track season?

"That was a different situation," Arthur said.

"How is it different? No one succeeds without putting in the hard work. There are too many teenagers who expect the entire world to be delivered at their doorsteps just because they ordered it on the Internet. You'll double Geraint's training regime in January --"

"If Geraint wants to continue running, it's his choice, and no amount of badgering from you or anyone else is going to change that. In fact, you're going to drive him away." Arthur was not going to inform Uther of Geraint's situation, that Geraint had already made the decision to quit, that he wasn't going to be trying out for the national team or the Olympics team anytime soon. It wasn't his place. But if he could deflect Uther's attention somewhere else, anywhere else, he would. "I'd appreciate it if you'd consult me before you call an athlete's parents and upset them unnecessarily."

"Arthur --"

"I mean it, father. I don't care if you're the headmaster. I'm the coach. I know these kids. I know what they go through. If they have to listen to someone throw conniptions every time they don't win, they're not going to win at all. If you're concerned with their performances, you talk to me first."

"You kid-glove him too much, Arthur --"

"You have no idea what it's like to be a teenager today, Uther. No fucking idea --"

"There's no need to take that tone with me --"

"There's every need. You don't listen. You think we're living in the 1950s where the toughest decision you've ever had to make was whether to slick your hair back or be a little risqué and have a little Elvis thing going on. The only thing you had to worry about was keeping the chain on your fucking bike and making it home in time for dinner. Things are different now. If you'd just look around every once in a while instead of flipping out over some sort of stupid school spirit or reputation, you'd know that --"

Uther stood up abruptly, cutting Arthur off in mid-sentence. They stared at each other for several long seconds before Uther said stiffly, "You appear to be very upset by Geraint's loss. You don't know what you're saying. Why don't you go home early and take the rest of the week off? Consider it an extended Christmas vacation."

Arthur scoffed. He turned away and headed for the door. "Leave Geraint alone. Let him get his head together. It's the holidays."

His hand touched the doorknob when Uther said, "I do hope you will be in a more pleasant mood when you escort Sophia to the New Year's Eve fundraiser."

Arthur turned around. "What fundraiser?"

"The one she invited you to. The one I accepted on your behalf, since you weren't answering her phone messages," Uther said.

"What?" Arthur stalked to Uther's desk. "You have no right to meddle with my private life --"

"You're nearly thirty years old, Arthur. It's time to get on with your life. Get married, settle down, have children. Sophia's a lovely young lady --"

"Oh, fuck off. You like her so much, you escort her to the fundraiser. I have other plans," Arthur said. "Plans I refuse to change."

He stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind him.

God, had that ever felt good.

On Thursday, Arthur saw Merlin in the hallway being ushered off by Gwaine and Lance. He caught Merlin's eyes for a second -- only a second -- and suffered under jealous pangs. He left the school, went shopping for groceries for the Friday dinner with Merlin and the Christmas weekend and bought too much as usual, but Merlin would be back after Christmas and would help him eat all the leftovers anyway.

He went to the mall to buy a few more random presents and fretted for the millionth time that he didn't get the right thing for Merlin, and he stepped into the store that he'd been stopping by for the last month, and finally bought the one thing he wanted to give Merlin the most, only, he hadn’t dared until now

He left the store still not entirely certain if it was too soon.

On Friday, all the clocks in the school stopped.

The seconds hand moved; the minutes didn't, the hours stayed stock still. An eternity would pass and it would still be ten o'clock and nowhere closer to going home so that he could finish cleaning up and cook dinner and shower and change.

Arthur felt like a teenager all over again. The anticipation. The nerves. The excitement. He'd felt all these things before competition, but these emotions were more powerful for a different reason. Arthur had cursed his father -- privately, quietly, where no one would hear him -- for having robbed him of his teenage years, but he cursed Uther again for having taken this from him. Maybe if he'd been a skittish, nervous teenager, he wouldn't be a skittish, nervous adult now.

He saw Merlin in the corridors. Their eyes met for a brief, too-fleeting moment, and thrilling sparks shot through Arthur. He thought anyone looking at him would be able to see written on his face what he had planned -- what Merlin had planned -- for the evening.

Arthur had never driven home so fast in his life.

It was just after six when there was a knock at the front entrance. Arthur checked himself in the mirror, brushing his fingers through his hair. His hands shook a little when he opened the door.

"Hi," Merlin said. His hair was damp from a recent shower and made unruly with a quick brush and the cold walk from his house to Arthur's. He was wearing his usual heavy winter coat and a pair of black jeans. His hands were shoved in his pockets, and he was watching Arthur with an open, happy smile, biting his lips together in something that might be amusement. "Um. Can I come in?"

"Oh, right. Yes. Come on in." Arthur stepped aside, feeling a little stupid.

Merlin put his backpack down near the door. Arthur took Merlin's coat for him, smiling to see that Merlin had dressed up a little, because he wore a button-down shirt open at the collar and tucked into his jeans. He turned to Merlin as soon as he'd hung up the coat, but Merlin was the one who threw himself against Arthur, his arms around Arthur's shoulders, his fingers through Arthur's hair, smothering him in kisses, one after the other, fierce, passionate, hungry, tapering off slowly to sweet and chaste.

Arthur wasn't sure how it was that he was the one with his back to the wall, but he was grateful for it; he wasn't certain he could have held up under Merlin's onslaught all on his own. It was Merlin who nuzzled his cheek with small, laughing kisses, and when he finally pulled away enough for Arthur to see the golden specs in his stormy blue eyes, it was to smile at him with an uncontained sigh and say again, "Hi."

The words were out of Arthur's mouth before he could stop them. "I missed you."

Merlin's lips curled into a smile. "I missed you too."

They clung to each other for a long while, Merlin's weight against him, the wall supporting him, trading little kisses that left Arthur heady and drunk as if they had already had the wine he'd left open on the counter to breathe.

Anything else was interrupted by the beep of the oven timer. "I have to... I have to cook the.."

Merlin silenced him with another kiss and pulled away with a laugh. "Can I do anything to help?"

"No. I have it under control," Arthur said, but he couldn't stop touching Merlin. He dragged Merlin to the kitchen with him, but it was an effort of will to pay attention, or he'd burn the house down.

The tension eased after a few minutes of idle chatter while Arthur cooked the trout and covered it in a steaming sauce of parsley and lemon with toasted almonds. He set out the salad, the sliced roasted potatoes, the steamed asparagus.

"It's just us, yeah?" Merlin asked, his voice teasing. He found the wine glasses and poured two healthy measures before bringing them to the table.

"It's just us," Arthur said, watching Merlin with the wine. "Your mom won't be mad if --"

"Mom knows I drink. Besides, I told her that I didn't think I'd come home tonight," Merlin said, meeting Arthur's eyes, and Arthur couldn't speak. "I think she'd rather I didn't. She's got a date."

"Oh," Arthur said.

"You don't mind if I stay?" Merlin asked, sitting down. His knees bumped against Arthur's, and after an instant, Merlin's feet nudged Arthur's aside until they were wedged together.

"You know I don't," Arthur said, his voice soft.

They ate in silence, sneaking glances at each other and laughing when they were caught.

"This is really good," Merlin said. "You'll have to show me how to make this."

"I could," Arthur said. "Or I could just keep making it for you."

He glanced up, not sure how Merlin would react, relaxing when he saw Merlin duck his smile behind a sip of wine.

"I guess you spoke to Geraint?" Merlin said. Arthur nodded, unwilling to give more detail just in case. "I'm glad he did. He is, too, you know. He told us a while ago, and we're dead happy for him. It's just that everyone else gave him and Viv such a hard time. Their parents, the..."

Arthur knew what Merlin didn't say.

"The Headmaster. I know." Arthur stabbed at his salad. "He's an asshole."

He caught Merlin glancing up at him under heavy eyelashes.

"I told him to back off. I didn't say why. I don't know if he'll leave Geraint alone, but Geraint doesn't need Uther breathing down his neck," Arthur said.

Merlin didn't say anything for a long while. He finished off the trout first, leaving his plate a messy remnant of potatoes and asparagus before leaving his fork on the plate. "You know, it's none of my business, but I haven't been here long, and I've only got hearsay to go on. And you don't really talk about him. But you and your dad?"

Arthur didn't answer right away. "What have you heard?"

"Well, nothing particularly useful. He messes with the athletics department, you tell him to piss off -- but he messes with everyone's department. You ignore each other in the hallways, but I guess that could just be you two being professional. Everyone loves you, but no one likes him. If you break the rules, you're in a world of shit with him." Merlin paused, waving a hand a bit in the air. "And, well. You don't spend Thanksgiving together. I'm guessing all the food in the fridge isn't so that you can cook dinner for him or something for Christmas."

"We don't get along," Arthur said. He let out a heavy breath. "And that's putting it mildly. He wasn't a bad dad growing up. He took me to my races, he lent me the car, he gave me shit if I wasn't doing well in school. But then he found out I was gay, and that was it."

Arthur reached for his wine glass and took a sip.

"He had a paternity test done to make sure I was his kid," Arthur said flatly. "Showed it to me when it came back, said it had to be some sort of mistake."

"Oh, shit, Arthur," Merlin said. "I'm sorry."

Arthur looked up and saw tears in Merlin's eyes. "It's all right, Merlin. I'm fine. Well, I'm fine now. I wasn't before. It's just taking me a long time to get to the point where I can stop caring what he thinks about me."

It was strangely touching to see how Merlin was affected, to see him so upset when Arthur couldn't muster even the slightest amount of outrage for how unfairly his father had treated him. It was abuse -- insidious, psychological abuse -- that had twisted Arthur's outlook so much that he hadn't been able to form a relationship with anyone, hadn't been able to even get off with an one-night stand with some random hook-up at a gay club in an anonymous city that his father couldn't possibly know about, hadn't -- and still couldn't -- get over the very simple fact that this very beautiful boy wanted him.

"You're not there yet, though," Merlin said finally, reaching across the table to take Arthur's hand. His fingers tickled Arthur's skin, skimmed over his palm, rested on the pulse point of his wrist to gently stroke and soothe and tame. Arthur squeezed his hand.

"It won't be much longer," Arthur admitted.


"If I have to make a choice between you and Uther, it's not even a choice, Merlin," Arthur said, afraid to meet Merlin's eyes but meeting them anyway. "I'd pick you every time."

Something changed in Merlin's expression, turning soft and open where Arthur had never realized they'd been sharp and guarded. And what in Merlin's eyes -- Arthur's heart sped up, pounding in his chest, his breath caught somewhere between the tight flutter in his belly and the swell of emotion.

"I knew you loved me," Merlin whispered. He leaned over the table and kissed him, tasting of parsley and lemon and almonds, tangy and bitter and sweet all at once.

"Why me, Merlin?" Arthur asked softly. It wasn't that he needed to know. It was that he couldn't understand. Merlin had everything going for him. Arthur would only slow him down.

"Isn't it obvious?" Merlin asked, his hand brushing Arthur's cheek. He was so close, but Arthur couldn't look away, lost in those blue eyes. "I'm in love with you."

All kinds of things needed to be said. How Merlin was too young to really know love. That this was a crush he would forget in a few months, in a few years. That he would meet someone closer to his age who would love him as much as Arthur did. That it wasn't fair for Arthur to expect Merlin to want him as much as Arthur wanted Merlin.

"You're thinking too loud again," Merlin said, his voice teasing, but there was an undertone of sadness. Arthur closed his eyes when Merlin leaned in to brush their lips together in a chaste kiss. "Don't you think that I don't worry that you'll meet someone better than me? That you'll dump me for someone else -- I don't know. Someone older. Someone younger. Someone smarter. Someone who runs faster than me? Who's got a steady job and a bank account and who can take care of you right now? Don't you think I'm terrified that you'll break my heart?"

Arthur's eyes blinked open and he caught Merlin before he pulled away; somehow, the table had been pushed aside and there wasn't anything blocking them. Merlin needed only the faintest touch in invitation before sitting in Arthur's lap, straddling his legs. Arthur wrapped his arms around Merlin's waist and felt the words strangle in his throat. "I don't think I ever could."

"Then stop thinking," Merlin said. Arthur glanced down and away. Merlin made a soft sound of frustration. "What's it going to take, Arthur? Do I have to go out and fuck a dozen guys before you're convinced that I'm in love with you? Do I have to live like a monk until I'm twenty? Because I will, if I have to. I know what I want, Arthur. And I want you."

Arthur didn't answer. He couldn't answer. He couldn't breathe. The image of Merlin dating other men, of sleeping with them, of their hands all over his Merlin -- it all enraged him. The thought of not touching Merlin again for two more years -- it sat on his chest, heavy as an elephant, suffocating him.

"There's Geraint and Viv. They've been inseparable for a couple of years already. That's like fifty years in teenage years, you know. They're getting married and they're having a baby and they're only eighteen, Arthur. And they're happy. There's Lance and Gwen and everyone knows that they're meant to be and he told me he's going to propose to her when they graduate. There's Will and Freya, if Will starts acting like the good guy he is and not the asshole he can be sometimes, and if Freya stops being mad at Mordred and every other heterosexual male specimen of the human race." Merlin pressed kisses on Arthur's lips every time he finished a sentence. "God, Arthur. Why can't we be meant to be, too? What's it going to take for you to accept that you are it for me, that I'm madly in love with you?"

Arthur opened his mouth to speak but no words came out.

Merlin slipped from Arthur's lap, his hands running down his chest. He crouched on one knee --

Arthur's eyes widened with alarm. He managed to say, "Merlin--"

-- and said, "I'll marry you. I will. It's not how I wanted to ask, how I'd planned to ask, Arthur, but this is me asking. Arthur. Will you marry me?"

Arthur made a strangled sound. It might have been a yes. It might have been a no. It might have been a complaint, a protest, a plead. He wasn't sure. He hoped Merlin knew, because it was Merlin who silenced him with a hungry kiss, who wrapped one arm around Arthur's shoulder, the other around Arthur's waist. They kissed and kissed until they were breathless. They kissed and kissed in a tangle of tongues. They kissed and kissed through an unceremonious shedding of clothes that was a breadcrumb trail all the way to the master bedroom. Arthur was blind to everything that wasn't Merlin. He couldn't feel anything that wasn't Merlin's mouth. His hands. His body.

He was vaguely aware of the bed beneath them, of Merlin tugging at his clothes, of batting Merlin's hands away so that he could take off Merlin's shirt, his jeans.

They were naked, and it was fucking glorious, being under Merlin, to feel his body rub and brush against his, to be electrified by the contact of Merlin's hard cock against his own, to surrender to whatever it was that Merlin most desired, because Merlin was all that Arthur craved. The rough of Merlin's palm down his ribs. His fingers lightly teasing every inch of flesh. His lips and tongue following that ephemeral trail. Sucking. Licking. Kissing.

Arthur took charge for once, because he wanted all manner of inexplicable things, and Merlin's half-laugh of surprise and delight eroded to a bone-rattling moan when Arthur palmed Merlin's cock and stroked it while he kissed all sense out of Merlin. He kissed and kissed. He nuzzled Merlin's throat. He licked those gorgeous collarbones. The firm muscles of his chest. The defined lines of a runner's lean body. He ran his hands down Merlin's legs, feeling the soft skin, the fine hair. He buried his nose in Merlin's crotch and inhaled his scent, musky, aroused, Merlin.

Since the first taste of Merlin's pre-cum in the shower room after a too-long short run and a desperate race to get somewhere no one would see them, Arthur had known that he was addicted to the taste of Merlin's cock. He wasted no time to wrap his mouth around the head, to take its length in as deeply as he could without choking, licking and laving the length for more slip and slide, relaxing his jaw, his throat, taking Merlin in as deep as he could. The salty pre-cum and faint sweet undertone made him think of that first unreal conversation he had with Merlin after Merlin had come into his mouth --

("I heard an urban legend," Merlin said. "I want to try it."

"What's that?" Arthur said, hastily doing up his pants and gesturing to Merlin to hurry up and get dressed before someone came in, though who exactly would come into the locker room at 6 AM, he didn't know.

"If I drink pineapple juice for a week, my come is supposed to turn sweet, and I thought if I did that, you could tell me if it's true," Merlin said, shaking out his shirt and turning it inside out.

Arthur imagined himself licking Merlin's cock like it was a lollipop and couldn't spare any brain cells to process what else Merlin was saying. "Sorry, what?"

Merlin was grinning knowingly, and Arthur knew he was done for. "I already put pineapple juice on mom's shopping list.")

-- and he moaned at the thought that Merlin might have started drinking pineapple juice just for this. Merlin bucked into his mouth unexpectedly, nearly choking him, but Arthur should've known better, because Merlin's cock was sensitive, and he loved it when Arthur hummed or made noises that vibrated up its length. Arthur did it again, this time deliberately, not bothering to hold Merlin down, already prepared for Merlin to start thrusting in and out.

Which he did, once, twice, and a third time he stopped with a gasp, running his fingers through Arthur's hair and grabbing hold roughly, pulling him up until they were level again, and Merlin breathed against Arthur's wet lips, "I want to fuck you."

He must have stared, a little stunned, because Merlin raised both brows in concern.

"Arthur --"

Arthur silenced him with a kiss. "Want you to fuck me," he whispered, hoarse, barely loud enough to be heard.

Merlin pushed him onto his stomach, gentle, almost nervous, but his touch was sure as he ran his hand down Arthur's side, down the outside of his leg, up the sensitive inner thigh to cradle his balls, to massage and rub, to tease and prod until Arthur moved his legs aside. There were kisses down his spine, lingering in the small of his back. There were bites along his ass, following the curves, and Arthur jerked involuntarily at each and every one, his cock rubbing over the sheets in desperate need for friction. Merlin's hands tapped his hips. "Lift."

Arthur groaned, but he complied as Merlin plucked one pillow, then a second, and slid them under his waist, pushing and pulling until he had Arthur positioned the way he wanted him, legs spread, ass up in the air. Merlin's cock rubbed along the crack of his ass, using the bounce of the bed for motion. Arthur pushed back against him, wanting more, but Merlin slapped him lightly on his right ass cheek until he was in position again.

"Merlin, God --" He waved in the direction of the dresser drawer, where he'd hidden the bottle of lube and box of condoms that Merlin had put there what seemed to be ages ago, but his gesture was aborted in a frantic grasp of bed clothes when he felt something else where Merlin's cock had been. Merlin's tongue.


His tongue. It found the dip in Arthur's spine right where the buttocks began and traced it all the way down between Arthur's legs until it reached his balls. Arthur thrust into the pillow and back against Merlin, not sure what he wanted to do more -- fuck the pillow or feel more of Merlin's tongue.

Merlin's hands gripped his hips, hard enough to leave bruises and pinned him down.

Arthur covered his head with his arms with a whimper as Merlin licked his way back up to the starting point and descended again, repeating the motion until he was lewdly dripping with spit. The focus became narrower and narrower until Merlin's tongue lingered on his hole and pushed in the tiniest bit --

"Shit, fuck!" Arthur's hips jerked involuntarily. Merlin's fingers tightened on his bum, pushing him down, holding him open.

-- pushed in a bit more, then pulled out to circle around and around in a maddening circle. Licking, lapping, pressing against the perineum, pressing against the muscle, loosening it, slipping inside. Pulling out, suckling. Circling, circling, pushing, pressing, thrusting in.

"Shit. Merlin. Fuck. Can't. God. Fuck," Arthur moaned, not even sure what he was trying to say other than more. Merlin’s tongue was wicked. It was delicious. It did things to Arthur, but he was ready, he wanted --

Merlin pulled away right then and pushed a finger in before Arthur could complain about the loss. It entered him, slowly, slowly, pulled out, entered more. There was a press at Arthur's back as Merlin leaned forward and opened the drawer that Arthur had pointed to earlier.

Wait, no -- Arthur wanted to say, half in alarm, because he just remembered that he'd hidden something for Merlin in that drawer, but all that came out of his mouth at right that instant was an incoherent "Nnghh -- God," when Merlin curled the tip of his finger and touched that spot that made him see the fucking Big Bang explode in a million million stars.

Merlin pulled his finger out. There was a click of a bottlecap opening. A cool, slippery finger traced around his hole before slipping in easily. There were a few slow, tentative thrusts before a second finger slid in.

"So tight," Merlin said, shaky and rough.

Arthur revelled in the feeling of those fingers thrusting in and out, thumb stroking the outside muscle when Merlin was in nearly to his knuckles. They scissored in, twisted around and worked him open, bit by bit. Just as Arthur made a strangled noise for more, to stop playing around and fuck already, Merlin added a third finger.

Careful, gentle, intent. Arthur felt a soft hand at the small of his back, rubbing in circles.

"So fucking tight," Merlin said again, his voice broken with want.

"Now," Arthur grit out.

"Arthur --"

"Now, Merlin. F... Fuck me. Now."

A sudden sensation of loss lasted far too long, but there was the promise of being taken care of soon in the sound of crinkling condom wrapper. There was another push on his bum, a whisper in his ear. "I want to see you."

Arthur let himself be rolled on his back, his limbs rearranged, the pillows tossed out of the way. His legs were pushed against his chest, Merlin wriggling closer until his thighs were against Arthur's bum, and he leaned down for a soft kiss that contradicted their urgency.

"Merlin," Arthur started to say, but he was cut short when Merlin took himself in hand and guided his cock in.

There was a push. A press. Merlin looked at him in concern, but Arthur hissed something that could have been a threat if he stopped.

And then Merlin pushed in, slowly, too goddamned slowly, and Arthur felt a burn, because it had been so long since he'd last been fucked that he couldn't even remember when. Merlin was seated all the way in, stopping to let Arthur adjust, leaning down to pull Arthur up and kiss and kiss until Arthur was full with want and need and urged him on.

The second thrust was slow. Merlin took his time to find a rhythm they both liked, Arthur voicing his approval when he shifted his angle a tiny, incremental bit, just enough that now he was hitting that spot again and again with every hitch of his hips. Arthur didn't know how loud he was, but whatever he'd managed to say drove Merlin faster, fucking with abandon.

Arthur stroked his cock. He was close -- so close to coming that he couldn't feel anything else but Merlin's thighs against his, his cock filling him with sharp, heavy thrusts.

All it took was a slight shift, the perfect combination of cock-against-prostate and rough-twist-of-wrist and Arthur came in thick roping pulses. Merlin fucked him through the ride, slammed into him with two rough thrusts, and it was Merlin's turn to shudder, his cock twitching inside Arthur.

"God. So gorgeous like this," Merlin said, leaning down on top of Arthur, stealing his breath in a sweet, gentle kiss.

They were cuddling -- Arthur on his back, Merlin's weight comfortable and warm against him, Merlin's arm draped over his chest, his forehead on Arthur's shoulder.

If Arthur was ever hard-pressed to pinpoint a time of bliss in his life, it would be this moment.

"Are you still thinking?" Merlin asked, his voice soft and sleep-rough, as if he'd been stirred out of a deep sleep by the mechanical clockwork of Arthur's mind grinding into operation.

"No," Arthur said, closing his eyes. If he was thinking anything, it was how much he wanted to do this again. Not right this instant, not later on during the night -- although later on had promises of its own -- but the next night, the night after that, a week from now, for the rest of his life. "We didn't finish dinner."

"Can eat later." Merlin pressed lips on Arthur's collarbone.

"I made pie."

Merlin stirred. His leg brushed the inside of Arthur's thighs, and Arthur shivered. "What kind of pie?"

"Pecan pie," Arthur said.

"Did you buy it?"

"I made it, Merlin," Arthur grumbled.

"Mm. Pie." Merlin's hand drifted down Arthur's chest to rest on Arthur's hip, his fingers curling and tickling. "Do you object to eating in bed?"

"I don't fancy sleeping on crumbs," Arthur said, raising a hand to stroke through Merlin's short hair, relishing in the softness.

"But it's pie," Merlin complained.

"Pies make crumbs," Arthur said.

"Pie," Merlin repeated.

Arthur sighed heavily. "Pie."

Merlin hummed. Arthur couldn't help the smile that spread on his lips -- a smile that quickly disappeared when Merlin rolled out of bed.

"Where are you going?"


Arthur raised his head and watched Merlin leave the bedroom. His perfect, pert ass, those long, lean legs, the defined muscles in his back, his shoulders, his arms. The sight of Merlin heading down the stairs to walk naked through his house went right to Arthur's cock.

"Shit," he whispered, reaching down to palm his penis, already half-hard. He was too old to have the stamina of a teenager, but it seemed that his body was intent on making up for lost time. He stroked himself before stopping, because his body might not recognize its own limitations, and it was still very early. Not even nine o'clock yet. He rested his head back on the pillow and dozed, hearing faint rustling sounds. The zipper of Merlin's backpack. The clatter of forks. The thump of the pie plate on the night table. A rummage through the open drawer --

Arthur started to open his eyes, to reach over and shut the drawer before Merlin saw --

The bed shifted under Merlin's weight, jiggled as he crawled over Arthur's body, sitting down to straddle his hips. There was a very, very illegal wriggle going on in a very sensitive area, and Arthur muffled a soft sound of half-protest, half-pleasure even as he ran his hands up Merlin's bare legs. A light weight pressed on his chest, and he opened his eyes.

A soft sound of alarm escaped his lips when he recognized the small square box, velvet and navy blue, with a gold strip around the edge. His breath caught when he saw the second square box, velvet and ruby red with a silver strip around the edge.

"I thought I felt something when I fumbled to find the condoms," Merlin said, his expression inscrutable.

"Merlin. I --"

"I meant it, you know. What I said earlier. I had a plan," Merlin said, touching a finger to the red box. "I meant to wake you up in the morning. I was going to give you your Christmas present. Then after... I was going to kiss you until you didn't know what you were agreeing to and I'd slip the ring on your finger and it'd be too late for you to back out. Will you marry me, Arthur?"

Arthur looked up at Merlin, at his flushed cheeks and bruised lips and sex-mussed hair and the intensity in his eyes, and all he could say was --

"I know you think it's too soon. That I'm too young. That it's too fast. Just think about it -- actually, no. Don't think. Just..." Merlin opened the box and left it open on Arthur's chest. It was a silver ring, an eight of an inch wide, with tiny, whorls and knotwork all the way through. Arthur stared, unable to take his eyes from the ring, feeling as if his heart would burst. "Just. You don't have to wear it. Keep it with you. It doesn't have to be for now. It can be for later. When I finish school. After the Olympics, after Yale, if you're going to make me wait that long --"

Arthur reached for the navy blue box and opened it, turning it around, pushing it at Merlin.

Merlin trailed off and looked at the ring. The ring that was identical to the one he'd just given Arthur. Merlin looked up at Arthur with big, round eyes, his lips parted with surprise and awe.

Arthur remembered the feeling of being a paper plane trapped in a hurricane, unable to get out, and afraid to fight for fear of being torn to shreds. He'd been wrong. It wasn't like that at all. He was a paper plane in a hurricane, going along with the ride, safer here with Merlin than he'd be anywhere else.

Arthur held his breath for a heartbeat and breathlessly said, "Yes."

Geraint and Vivian were married on Christmas Day in a quiet civil ceremony that included only family and very close family friends. Twenty minutes after the traditional vows and what apparently had been a scandalous you may now kiss the bride kiss that mortified Vivian's grandmother and couldn't be blamed on anyone but Vivian in the first place, a massive text bomb to all of Geraint's and Vivian's friends had gone off.

Shotgun wedding reception/Graduation party. Last wknd June. U R ALL INVITED. Save the date.

Arthur looked at his phone for a long time and smiled, thinking about his own wedding.

On the day after Christmas when they returned from their trip out of town, Arthur met Merlin's mother.

He'd been apprehensive and terrified until she pulled him in for a suffocating hug. She was altogether too completely unsurprised by their engagement. She said very firmly, "If you don't realize that you're already part of the family, Arthur, Merlin and I have a great deal of work to do," and Arthur made excuses about having dirt in his eyes. Arthur cooked dinner and sat with them in the messy living room to watch bad B movies and talked and laughed well into the night, and felt, truly felt comfortable in his own skin for the first time since he was sixteen.

Hunith went to California a day later to meet with the law firm's associates to assist with strategies for repealing Proposition 8 and pushing it through to a vote. Merlin moved in with Arthur until his mom returned in the New Year.

Arthur didn't know how Merlin failed to find the letters from Yale, from Mithian, and from Anhora -- he supposed that the trick to it was leaving them in plain sight, something that he was going to have to remember for the future -- but it wasn't until late in the day on New Year's that Arthur sat down with Merlin on the couch and replaced his bowl of popcorn with the letters. Merlin's wide eyes and excited shout to read the offer of employment as the head of the track and field department at Yale was tempered with the knowledge that Arthur needed to be in Connecticut by the end of March.

"March," Merlin said flatly, reaching for Arthur's hand, twining his fingers through Arthur's, twisting the ring that Arthur hadn't taken off since Merlin had slid it on. "That's going to suck."

"Yeah," Arthur said, sighing heavily, rubbing his brow with his free hand. He watched Merlin's expression when he read the other letters -- the one from Mithian, which promised to hijack Arthur from Yale at her convenience for the national team training and the one from Anhora, which said essentially the same thing, except that it was for the Olympic teams and that his claim overruled everyone else's. Merlin's lips tugged in a pleased, thrilled smile, and when he looked up at Arthur, there was no mistaking that however sad he was that Arthur had to leave sooner than either of them would want, he was happy for Arthur.

"You're going to be busy," Merlin said. "You'll forget me."

"I don't think you'd let me," Arthur snorted. He was attacked by a windmill of arms and legs that climbed into Arthur's lap and showered him with kiss after kiss that left him breathless after each, and he looked up at Merlin, wondering how anyone could ever forget him.

He must have said it out loud, because Merlin's expression softened and he leaned in for another kiss, gentle and chaste and full of promise.

Nothing and everything changed at the start of the new school semester.

By mutual agreement -- mostly because neither of them wanted any attention when there was enough drama going around, and Merlin really needed to buckle down and do well in his last semester of school -- neither one of them wore their rings. At least not on their fingers.

Freya and Mordred got back together after Mordred made a sweeping, romantic gesture -- he built a muddy snowman holding a single black rose outside of her bedroom window and serenaded her with the stereo blast of Megadeth's greatest hits.

("That's romantic?" Arthur asked, a little dumbfounded.

"Maybe to a girl. A very, very strange girl. Freya's kind of out there sometimes," Merlin said, shrugging. "Don't worry, they won't last long.")

Will moped until someone pointed out to him that Freya might be back with her ex, but that it counted as a rebound relationship; he promptly cleaned himself up to the point where Freya dumped Mordred a few weeks later and started chasing Will.

("Totally predicted that," Merlin said, snatching the last dinner roll out of Arthur's hand.

"Merlin!" Hunith said. Merlin gave her the same big smile, dimples and all, that could automatically disintegrate Arthur's capability for resistance, and she sighed heavily before going into the kitchen to heat up a few more.

"You'll have a career in fortune telling if the running and law school don't work out," Arthur said.

"Or I could try my hand at picking lotto numbers," Merlin said.

"Start now," Arthur said.)

Lance and Gwen were sent to detention more than once for inappropriate behaviour on school grounds. Arthur made a concentrated effort to "forget" every time he saw them under the bleachers with a blanket.

("You should text me the next time you see them," Merlin said, and there was a mischievous glint in his eyes that made Arthur worry.


"Oh, no reason. No reason at aaaallll." Merlin's attempt at innocence failed miserably, and Arthur decided not to rat out Lance and Gwen for fear of the consequences)

Geraint and Viv might be married now, but they still acted like the besotted teenagers that they were. Uther Pendragon openly disapproved and called them both into his office almost daily to give them long, ranting lectures on responsibility and morality and duty and loyalty to the school. He acted like a wounded General horrified to learn that he'd been betrayed by his most trusted soldier. After three meetings and hours of calming down an enraged Viv, Geraint stood up to Uther and said, "All that's nice, but save your breath. We don't care what you think," and refused to go to the Headmaster's office after that.

Arthur had never been more proud of Geraint, and never more ashamed of himself. Arthur should have stood up to his father a long time ago, and he was long overdue.

("What's the worst that could happen?" Merlin asked, hopping on one foot to pull on a pair of socks. Arthur caught Merlin before he hopped all the way across the bedroom and toppled over the bookshelf.

He thought about it, but he couldn't think of anything worse than the one time Uther brought home one of his rare dates and having to listen to them having loud and raunchy sex. Arthur was nearly a hundred percent positive that Uther had only done that in an attempt to scare him straight -- but the end result had only made him more resolute in his preference for men.

"He might try to hurt you somehow," Arthur said. "I won't be here to get in-between."

"Does he know about me, then?" Merlin said, standing up straight and wrapping his arms around Arthur's waist.

"I don't know. I'm not sure. He might." Arthur didn't like that thought at all.

"We'll be careful. We have been. Besides, if he tries anything, we'll sic my mom on him.")

The house went on the market at the end of January. It sold within two weeks.

Arthur made an appointment on the first Monday in March with the Headmaster of Camelot High. It was late afternoon. School was out, the yard deserted, the teachers packing up for the day. Arthur walked into Uther's office without knocking, shut the door behind him, and dropped the letter of resignation on top of the ream of papers that Uther hadn't even bothered to look up from.

"What's this?" Uther asked, sitting up straight. He didn't look at Arthur; he adjusted his reading glasses and held his hands away from the envelope as if he expected it might explode at any instant.

Arthur thought that would've been an excellent way to quit his job. It was a pity that he hadn't heard about it until just now.

He waited, but Uther showed neither any indication to open the envelope, nor to look at Arthur.

So Arthur did the one thing he'd never dared to do while in Uther's presence. He sat down without invitation and crossed his legs, ankle on his knee, and made himself comfortable. It was a giddy feeling, filling him with adrenaline, and if it weren't for Merlin's encouragements and Hunith's reassurances that Uther couldn't legally do anything against either of them, Arthur would have lost his courage.

He waited some more. Eventually, Uther opened his side drawer, pulled out a letter opener, and cut his way through. He unfolded the letter and read.

Arthur knew the exact moment that Uther read the final line in the letter: "My last day at Camelot High as the Head Coach of the Athletics Department, Track and Field Division, is March 31, 2011."

The language had to be precise, Hunith had told him when she revised his letter. That way Uther wouldn't be able to find a loophole to keep Arthur from leaving.

"You're resigning?" Uther asked, but it wasn't so much a question as an outright declaration of his outrage.

"That's correct."

There was a long silence. Uther made a show of checking his calendar and chuckled lightly. "You were never very good at practical jokes, Arthur."

Arthur clenched his fists, took a deep breath, and refused to rise to the bait. "I can recommend a few good coaches to take my place, unless you already have someone in mind."

"How can I have someone in mind!" Uther held up the piece of paper so firmly, it looked as if it would tear in two at any moment. "How dare -- how dare you resign! After everything that I've done for you -- after everything I've sacrificed --"

"Let's make things very clear, Uther," Arthur said. It should feel strange to call his father by his given name, but it didn't, and he supposed that it was mostly because Uther hadn't been a father to Arthur in a very long time. "I quit."

Uther was staring at him in a mixture of rage and shock, struck too dumb to speak.

Arthur continued, "The board has already received and accepted my letter of resignation. I've signed all the paperwork that I need to sign. I'll be here until the end of the month and will close out all of my files by that time. The school board has already begun to make calls for a temp until the end of the year, but quite honestly, since track is no longer in season, Camelot's athletics department will do well enough until the fall without filling my position."

He paused. There was still no response from Uther beyond an intense glowering.

"I'm only letting you know as a courtesy," Arthur said.

"You quit," Uther said flatly.

"That's correct," Arthur said again. The silence stretched until he could literally feel the straining edges of a rubber band, waiting to snap. He gave Uther several minutes to see if he would say anything, but when there was no response, Arthur got to his feet. "That's all I came to tell you."

He turned for the door.

"Why are you doing this?" Uther asked.

Arthur paused and turned around. "It's time to move on."

"Aren't you happy here? Don't you like your job? What about the students? Arthur, if this is about money --"

"I quit," Arthur said firmly, refusing to be lured into conversation -- or rather, argument, since that was Uther's favourite tactic to ensure he got his way. "That's it. I'm not interested in discussion. It's done."

Arthur reached the doorknob. "What will you do?" Uther asked.

"Don't worry about it," Arthur said. "There are other jobs out there."

"You won't -- I'll make sure --"

"Do whatever you feel you have to," Arthur said.

There was a scrape along the floor -- which was no mean feat considering Uther's plush leather executive chair was on wheels. "This is about that boy --"

That boy.


It was the hatred, the disdain, the absolute disgust in Uther's voice. The unspoken threat, the unformed plans, the veiled vengeance against a perceived slight. That was all that Arthur needed.

He'd never let Merlin come to any sort of harm.

Arthur turned around. He stalked toward the desk, shoving the chairs out of his way.

Uther took a step back, his legs hitting the chair behind him. The chair wedged against the ostentatious cabinet, trapping Uther where he stood.

"Merlin. His name is Merlin. If you ever do one thing against him -- if you look at him wrong, if you say something behind his back, anything -- I'm going to come back here and I'm going to make you suffer every fucking indignity you've ever put me through my entire life. And that's only if Hunith -- that's Merlin's mother, by the way -- leaves me anything to shred after she's beaten you within an inch of your life with a lawsuit and nailed your nuts to the wall."

Arthur walked out.

He was shaking when Merlin came over later that evening to find him sitting on the couch in the sparse living room, the lights turned off, the television dark.

He was still shaking when Merlin pulled him into his arms.

Arthur spent the remainder of his time at Camelot High speaking to each and every one of his athletes, from the freshmen to the juniors to the sophomores to the seniors. He gave them all his contact information, stressed that if they needed anything they should get in touch with him right away, and wrote letters of reference for each and every one of them.

The going-away party was bittersweet. Everyone wished him well and tried to find out why he was leaving in the first place, but Arthur told them, "If Yale offers you a job, wouldn't you take it?"

No one could argue with that. Not even Uther, but that was because he hadn't come to say good-bye.

Arthur hired a moving crew to put everything into storage until he found a place to live in Connecticut. He looked around his empty house and made sure that he hadn't left anything behind.

It was strange to be leaving, but the worst of it was leaving Merlin. He wasn't ready to do that just yet. The timing couldn't be worse -- or better. He was leaving on the eve of Camelot High's spring break, and that meant Merlin would be home alone while his mother headed to California for a week of meetings.

But if everything went as planned, maybe neither one of them would have to be alone.

There was a knock on the door, and Merlin let himself in. He stood in the entrance, taking a deep, shaky breath, and said, "You know, do we have to go now? I know I said I'd give you a ride to the airport, but your flight, it's not for, like, seven hours. Isn't there, you know, something else you want to do first?"

Arthur could hear the unspoken like spend time with me as if it were shouted from the rafters. He tried not to smile.

"Yes, there is," Arthur said, pulling a letter out of his jacket. It was addressed to Merlin; Hunith had given it to Arthur before Merlin had seen it. "I want you to open this."

Merlin eyed him warily before taking the envelope. His head shot up when he saw the return address. The envelope did not survive -- Arthur had no idea how the letter managed not to be destroyed in the process.

He could hear Merlin's whisper as he read the letter again to himself, "... pleased to inform you that you have been accepted..."

"I got in! I got in!" Merlin jumped up and down in a circle before throwing himself at Arthur. Arthur caught him, but only barely. He'd known for a while that Merlin had been accepted into Yale for the fall -- when he'd called a month ago to ask a few questions about his upcoming schedule, he'd asked if the department had a chance to look at Merlin's recruitment application. The assistant coach had been very helpful -- right down to confirming Merlin's scholarship, his placement on the track team, and the date when the acceptance letter and admissions package would arrive.

"Merlin. Merlin," Arthur said, and Merlin relaxed his hold enough for Arthur to reach into his pocket for the second envelope. "Why don't we go to your house to pack? Then you can help me find a place for us to live."

"Oh, my god." Merlin plucked the extra plane ticket out of Arthur's hand and launched himself into Arthur's arms again. "You absolute bastard. You knew." Arthur was smothered in a kiss that deepened of its own volition. "I hate you. Don't ever keep secrets from me again."

Three days after Merlin returned to Camelot following his Spring Break with Arthur apartment-hunting around Yale law school campus, Hunith called Arthur. "He's running again. He didn't come home last night until past two AM."

Arthur had promptly called Merlin's cell phone, and as soon as he heard Merlin's Arthur!, he said, "You're going to ruin your training."

"I can't help it. I miss you," Merlin had said. He'd sounded so forlorn and sad and heartbroken that Arthur had wanted to fly back to Camelot right that instant.

Arthur had sighed into the phone. "All right. Let's figure something out."

And they had. The plan was that they would keep an eye on each other however they could. They kept their laptops open, webcams on, and Skype loaded nearly all the time when they were home. It wasn't anything like being with each other, not hardly, and even though Arthur would like nothing better than to feel Merlin's warmth next to him on the couch, lost in his homework, Skype was the next best thing.

When Merlin was home, he wore his ring. Arthur could tell when he was wearing it now because the silver necklace Arthur had given him was loose and slack around his neck instead of pulled taut by the weight. Sometimes, like now, Merlin was crouched over his homework, his chin propped up by his left hand, and the ring glinted on his finger.

Sometimes, Arthur would pay more attention to the laptop than whatever he was watching on TV.

"You're watching me again," Merlin said, and Arthur saw the tiny curl of a smile.

"Well, what else am I supposed to watch? There's a commercial on," Arthur said, gesturing with the remote.

"Oh, so I'm entertainment now?"

"Yes. Entertain me. Do more homework," Arthur said.

"No, no, if you want entertainment, I'll give you some proper entertainment," Merlin said. He put down his pen, darted to lock his bedroom door, and paused to flip through his iPod before putting it on the speakers and turning up the volume.

"Merlin! What are you doing?"

Merlin was a graceful person. When he ran. When he was dancing with Freya at Homecoming. But on his own he was something of a menace to society. Arthur swore he heard What do you think it looks like, but it was muffled while Merlin pulled off his shirt.

Arthur laughed. Then he bit his lip. He stared at that bare chest, at the ripple of ribs, at the lined six-pack.

Merlin danced. He squirmed and wriggled his hips and puckered his lips at the screen. He unbuckled his belt and pulled it out of the loops of his jeans and flung it over his head. Arthur heard it thump against the wall and land on the floor.

Merlin undid the top button of his jeans. He trailed his fingers down the faint line of dark hair leading into the forbidden land -- forbidden in that it was so goddamned frustratingly far away from Arthur right now.

"Shit, Merlin," Arthur whispered. He rubbed himself through his sweatpants.

Merlin unzipped his jeans. He turned around and shimmied his hips; his jeans dipped down until Arthur saw the crack of his ass. Arthur slipped his hand under the waistband and stroked his cock.

"Merlin. You're -- You're unbelievable. Why aren't you wearing underpants?" On-screen, Merlin looked over his shoulder, giving Arthur that grin -- that knowing, mischievous grin -- and Arthur blurted out, "Jesus. You planned this."

Merlin answered with a twitch of his hips that made his jeans slip even lower, and if Arthur's hand wasn't already down his pants -- if he were thinking a bit more clearly -- he would've hit the screen capture keys, because that was a perfect shot of Merlin, with his jeans bunched down around his hips, his back muscles rippling, the crack of his ass on display. Arthur wanted to touch that ass. He wanted to lick and kiss and bite that ass. He wanted to worship it --

And it was too fucking far away.

There was no graceful way to get out of a pair of pants, but Merlin managed it, somehow. Maybe it had to do with how he was all long lean lines. Maybe it was because he could be quick when he needed to be quick and slow when he needed to be slow. But whatever the reason, Arthur knew it was because Merlin had mastered the art of driving Arthur insane a long time ago.

Merlin turned toward the webcam, his erection bobbing as he walked to the desk, leaning forward. Arthur caught a glimpse of Merlin stroking himself just as he leaned down, adjusting the angle of the laptop's screen.

"Take them off," Merlin said, nodding with his chin. That tone of voice shivered down Arthur's spine, and he was lifting his hips to squirm out of his sweats and boxers before he knew what he was doing. "Want to watch you come. Go on. Lick your hand, get it good and wet for me."

Arthur closed his eyes, doing what he was told.

"Get yourself off," Merlin said. "Nice and slow. Think about the kitchen in your -- in our house. Remember what we did in there when we told the realtor we wanted to take another walk around without her looming over our shoulders?"

Merlin had moved Arthur in front of the glass doors leading to the small patio, dropped to his knees, and opened Arthur's pants. Arthur had been dizzy from blood loss when all the blood rushed to his cock in a nanosecond. Arthur had come down Merlin's throat; Merlin had come in his jeans without touching himself, and the curtains of the window on the house right across the way had been shut. Arthur had been pretty sure that they had been wide open a few minutes before.

"Shit," Arthur whispered.

"I'm going to do that in every room in the house. Twice. Maybe three times. Then we'll start over and you'll suck my cock instead --" Merlin bit his lower lip, his eyes twinkling as he followed the stroke of Arthur's hand. "Like you did in your new office."

Arthur wasn't sure who had started that. He'd brought Merlin on campus, taken him around to get used to the place, introduced him to the assistant coach who had been keen on meeting Merlin and not at all bothered that the two of them were together like Arthur had half-expected. The office had been the last place on the tour, and Merlin had shoved him against his desk and kissed him -- so it had been Merlin who had started it, but it had definitely been Arthur who'd gone to his knees.

If he'd spent three seconds thinking about it, he would've waited, because Merlin had always been vocal, and Arthur's office wasn't as soundproofed as he'd hoped it was.

The assistant coach had only smirked at them when they'd run into him later on their way out.

"Christ, Merlin. I'm --" The memory of Merlin leaning against Arthur's desk, his shirt rucked up, his jeans around his knees, his head thrown back, his penis an angry, spit-slicked red still twitching in the aftermath of his orgasm was just as vivid now as it had been.

Arthur turned to look at the screen. Merlin had moved -- he was sitting in his desk chair, pushed away from the laptop, the angle different now. He was stroking himself, his hand sliding down to expose the head of his cock, the pre-come dribbling from the slit. Merlin ran his thumb over the moisture and stroked it down his length.

"Watch me," Merlin said.

"I thought I wasn't allowed to do that anymore," Arthur croaked.

Merlin made a scolding sound that Arthur interpreted as do you want to see this or not. He shut up, trying to match the rhythm of Merlin's hand, slowing himself when he remembered Merlin's earlier request -- nice and slow.

So he watched as Merlin became almost boneless in his chair, lifting up a leg to prop his foot on the seat, spreading himself wantonly. He watched as Merlin used one hand to rub his cock, the other to fondle his balls. He watched as Merlin pushed two fingers up his ass, fucking himself on them even as he jerked off.

"Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck," Arthur whispered. His hand stroked his cock furiously. He wanted his hand around Merlin's erection. He wanted his fingers up Merlin's ass. He wanted --

"Merlin!" Arthur moaned, his cock pulsing in his hand, ropes of come pulsing out. He leaned his head back, catching his breath, and watched Merlin come undone.

It didn't take long. Arthur heard Merlin shout his name.

"Fuck," Arthur murmured. The sight of Merlin, splayed out on his chair, that orgasmic look on his face, his hand around his cock, splatter of cum smearing on the fine black hairs on his lower belly, covering his hand. Arthur felt his cock twitch in reawakened interest. What you do to me.

He touched the screen. "I miss you, Merlin."

"You know there are rumours circulating about why you left early instead of waiting for the end of the semester?" Merlin asked.

There was a disorienting moment while the webcam showed Merlin's room in a swirl of movement before finally settling down somewhere in the proximity of Merlin's bed. Merlin stretched out, propped up by his pillows, and pulled his history book onto his chest, angling it so that Arthur could still see him.

"What kind of rumours?" Arthur finished the dishes, putting away the last pot. It had taken a great deal of motivation to cook for himself that evening -- he was so accustomed to cooking for two that the idea of making dinner only for himself didn't appeal to him in the least, but Merlin had insisted. He liked to watch Arthur cook.

"Anything from you're in trouble with the Mafia and the Feds put you into witness protection to this really juicy rumour that you got the daughter of someone important all knocked up and you ran for your life. And, oh, you'll love this one. Some students are saying that you're having a wild, torrid gay affair with a student," Merlin said.

Arthur choked and nearly dropped the glass of water he was pouring himself. "What?"

Merlin's eyes were round and innocent. "That was my contribution to the rumour pool. It would've looked odd if I didn't say anything. Besides, no one is putting any stock into it anyway. The girls think you're too hot to be gay, and that it's just wishful thinking on my part."

Arthur stared at the laptop, at the webcam, at Merlin's image on the Skype interface.

"What? They'll never know that it's more than wishful thinking."

Arthur wore his ring all the time, his thumb rubbing absentmindedly over the ridged surface. He felt detached, discombobulated, empty.

He missed Merlin.

So much.

New Haven without Merlin was frustrating and maddening and aggravating. Arthur couldn't settle properly. The job kept him distracted during the day, but when he went home, he turned on the laptop and waited until the time difference caught up and Merlin came online.

Merlin always left his laptop on, the webcam showing an empty room. Sometimes Merlin left him a note.

I think I left my sweater at yours.

I had a dream about you.

I love you.

The sight of the note filling the empty room was only a little reassuring, but it wasn't enough. Neither was seeing Merlin through the screen. Arthur could tell that Merlin hated the separation as much as Arthur did, but Merlin kept it to himself.

Two months became an eternity by some fantastic, cruel twist of physics.

And finally, finally, it was June.

When Anhora summoned, one went, Arthur knew, but it was vaguely annoying to be sent chasing after athletes who hadn't confirmed their participation for the Olympic team try-outs. He wasn't a scout -- he was a coach, but he supposed that Anhora was banking on Arthur's so-called "star power" as a former Olympic medallist and his reputation for sending young teenagers to the national levels before they even reached college to draw out the reluctant.

He went to Michigan. To Texas. To New Orleans. To Arizona. Back to Louisiana when Anhora heard word at the last minute that someone was dropping out entirely. The only bright side was the very last destination. It wasn't a recruitment spot -- Anhora had suggested that Arthur escort his favourite athlete to Oregon to get him acclimated before the trials.

Arthur had been booked for a later flight, but sometimes "star power" came in handy, because the woman at the ticket counter recognized his name and asked if he was the Olympics runner, and was more than happy to change his flight to a much earlier one. Today was the Camelot High graduation ceremonies, and Arthur wanted to be there.

He might as well not have bothered. DELAYED tortured him from the display boards until, by some miracle, it changed to BOARDING.

All the flurry of activity that kept him moving for the last two weeks slowed down to a crawl, and not even wishful thinking could get the plane to Camelot any faster. He lucked out in the end -- Camelot was so far from the airport that there weren't any taxis, but he got the last rental car. He threw his luggage in the back seat, got in the car, and drove.

He despaired of finding a spot to park, but a quick circuit around the lot brought him to his usual slot. The Reserved for Coach Arthur Pendragon sign hadn't been removed or changed. He tried not to read too much into it, and hurried through the school and to the open-air stage where the ceremonies were taking place.

They'd already started. Headmaster Uther Pendragon was reciting the names of the senior graduates one by one. The students rose from the rows, went up the stairs to the raised platform, and accepted the diploma with a grave handshake. Arthur noted that the jocks were maintaining the tradition of modifying their graduation robes beyond all recognition as graduation robes. One of the boys from the football team -- Owain -- went up in a bathrobe and bunny slippers.

Uther was ignoring the abject violation of his rules with the same aplomb he allowed all graduates.

Arthur searched for a place to sit. He spotted Hunith up near the front, an empty seat next to her and started down the aisles. A few of the kids whispered as he walked past and waved at him. Arthur waved back, but held up a finger to his lips to shush them. This was supposed to be a surprise, but it wouldn't be one for much longer if the ripple of whispers through the graduating class was anything to go by.

Uther announced the next name: "Emrys, Merlin."

Arthur froze, startled, because Uther never went out of order. He never deviated from the plan. There were at least a dozen students who hadn't yet been called to the stage who should have come before Merlin.

Merlin rose -- unlike most of the other athletes, at least Merlin maintained the image of a graduation robe, even if it was a ridiculous, completely flaming gold lamé ensemble -- and walked up to the stage, shaking the Headmaster's hand with polite apprehension, taking the diploma with the skittishness of an animal trying to skirt a hair-trigger trap.

Arthur tensed when he saw that Uther wasn't letting Merlin go. He took a step forward when Uther leaned in to whisper something into Merlin's ear. He saw Merlin jerk back, startled, an inscrutable, angry look in his eyes. Uther turned his head and nodded in Arthur's direction, and Merlin followed his gaze.

Uther let Merlin go. Merlin's lips burst into a smile. He took an involuntary step forward, checking himself, remembering where they were.

Fuck it, Arthur decided. He wasn't hiding anymore.

He spread his arms in invitation.

Merlin jumped off the stage without hesitation -- Arthur winced inwardly, and he would lecture Merlin about not hurting himself right before the trials later -- and ran into Arthur's arms.

Arthur closed his eyes at the heady feeling of Merlin against him, solid and strong. At the smell of his aftershave, at the smell of Merlin. At the crinkle of gold lamé and the realization that Merlin wasn't wearing much of anything under his pseudo-robe. At the this-must-be-heaven press of Merlin's lips against his own.

It was only distantly that he was aware of the hushed silence, the awkward mixture of cleared throats and gasped awwws, the growing catcalls and applause drowning out disapproval, and, more importantly, how his heart was racing, matching beat for beat with Merlin's.