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A Beacon In The Dark

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It's raining, and that's so fucking cliché that Merlin would be laughing if he wasn't shivering all over from where the cold water has soaked through his flimsy clothes. He always makes him wait; probably makes him wait longer because it's raining. He really is that kind of bastard. There's no shelter at this street corner either, and Merlin knows there will be hell to pay if he isn't exactly where he's supposed to be when the gleaming, black limousine drives up. He has the scars to show for the single time he dared to defy Angus Aredian.

When the car stops in front of him a few minutes later he simply walks around the back and opens the door, getting in and hating himself a little bit for relishing the warmth that meets him. The beige leather squeaks when he sits down on the backseat in his wet state.

Mr. Aredian sits in the opposite corner. He's not looking at Merlin.

"Put that under your arse before you ruin the leather," Mr. Aredian says, his voice filled with disdain as he gestures to a pristinely folded towel on the seat right next to Merlin.

"Sorry," Merlin mumbles and pushes the soft cloth between his wet, jeans-clad bottom and the luxurious upholstery. The black skinny jeans are sticking to him uncomfortably, and he feels a bit like a dog, being made to sit on the towel rather than dry himself with it. Then again, that's probably what Aredian wants. He likes to show Merlin his place - as if he could ever forget.

The drive to the huge townhouse in Kensington is filled with silence. Merlin wonders what Mr. Aredian has planned. Because he must have something planned if he is holding back like this. Most often Merlin would already be sucking his cock by now. Once in a while though, Mr. Aredian has something special planned - painstakingly prepared and arranged - and Merlin seldom likes it. Mr. Aredian is not gentle or loving on his best days, but it's the special occasions that leave the scars on Merlin's body. He just hopes it won't be the flogger today.

They drive through the iron gates that open as if by the hand of a ghost, and the wet gravel scrunches under the tires as the limousine slowly comes to a stop in front of the main entrance. Merlin sits and waits while the driver gets out and comes around the car, opening the door with an umbrella in his hand to shelter his master. Mr. Aredian steps out, and only then the quiet words are thrown over his shoulder.

"Come with me."

Merlin doesn't wait for anyone to open the door for him. He knows he would wait in vain. Neither does he hope for an umbrella, which, he has to admit, would be pretty much redundant by now. He follows Mr. Aredian up the stairs, always two steps behind and silent. There is a nervous knot in his stomach that becomes bigger the longer Aredian remains this calm and aloof. It never bodes well.

When he enters the hall behind the older man, his stomachs drops. It's not something he has ever seen before, but he knows better than to think that it's a good thing. The entrance hall is bathed in the flickering light of white candles. They are everywhere. On the small table in the middle of the imposing room, on the long winding staircase that leads to the upper level and in iron holders that line the walls and which he never took notice of before.

Merlin doesn't know what this means.

"Go and take a bath," Mr. Aredian orders while he takes off his cloak. He still doesn't look at Merlin. "Clean yourself thoroughly." And now his cold blue eyes lock onto Merlin's. "Everywhere."

There is the barest hint of lewdness around the corners of his mouth, but he already turns and walks away in the direction of the living room, leaving Merlin dripping at the bottom of the stairs.

Merlin takes a deep breath and clenches his trembling hands into fists. His blunt nails bite into his flesh and it helps him to focus, to centre himself and get on with it. He slowly walks up the stairs, trying not to think about the candles and how they give him the creeps. The hall upstairs is the same, as is the bathroom. When Merlin tries to turn on the lights nothing happens. Maybe, he thinks slightly hysterical, it's just a blackout and Mr. Aredian's housekeeper has gotten carried away a bit. He doesn't really believe it, but then he doesn't know what to think so he tries not to think at all. He tries to just concentrate on the task, on the mechanics of getting out of his wet clothes, of turning the water to scorching hot and stepping under the spray, of scrubbing himself meticulously. Behind his ears and under his arms, his cock, and then there, between the cheeks and inside. He doesn't linger. It's just a task. Just skin and flesh.

When he's done and has dried himself he slips into the robe that Mr. Aredian had given him the first time and that he always finds freshly laundered on a hanger at the back of the bathroom door. It's made from heavy green silk, embroidered with a Chinese pattern of silver dragons. Its beauty always makes him sad.

On bare feet he goes back down to look for Mr. Aredian and finds him reclined in one of the leather armchairs in the living room, sipping an amber liquid from a brandy glass. He sits facing the door so that he can watch as Merlin approaches him, his gaze, as always, cold and measured. Mr. Aredian doesn't buy him for comfort, he doesn't even buy him for the pleasure he takes from Merlin's body. He buys him for the power to possess someone like Merlin, to touch him and bend him and break him. For Aredian it's only ever about power.

When Merlin steps closer, Mr. Aredian uncrosses his legs and he sees that his trousers are already open, his cock protruding and nearly fully erect.

"Prepare yourself," Aredian says with a smile and takes another sip from his brandy. The bottle of lube sits on the low table in front of him. Merlin picks it up, smears his fingers with a generous amount and bends over, bracing himself with one hand on the table.

"Lift your robe. I want to see your arse."

Merlin does as he is told. It's just a task. Just skin and flesh.

Aredian calls Merlin to him then. Orders him to straddle him, to ride him. He never orders him to pretend that he enjoys it. He watches him with a smile as Merlin tries to keep his face blank, as his breath becomes heavier with exertion alone. His own cock is half hard from the stimulation but Aredian is not interested in coaxing it further. The only thing he wants from Merlin are his tears. And Aredian knows he will get them before the night is over.

Merlin knows that his attitude is what Aredian likes, but he can't bring himself to change it. He will not give this man anything more of himself than what he takes by force.

Aredian has his head thrown back now, his hips lifting from the leather seat and his hands gripping tight on the armrests. He spills, with a grunt and a triumphant sigh, before going lax, and Merlin slows his movements and then stills, waiting for Mr. Aredian's next order.

After that it's the bedroom, and Merlin can't quite suppress a shudder when he sees the dark red rose petals on the white sheets. Mr. Aredian is not a romantic man. He makes Merlin kneel in the middle of the bed and ties his hands to the bedpost. There are stripes of pain down his back and on his buttocks then, a rough hand pulling back his hair. When Merlin is bleeding Aredian takes him again. He is kneeling behind him, and the pain from where his chest is pressing against Merlin's abused flesh lets his traitorous eyes spill over. Aredian strokes down his cheek, catching the wetness on his fingertips.

"You are so beautiful like this my little Mordred," he whispers in his ear.

Merlin just clenches his teeth and tries to swallow the sobs that threaten to escape his throat.

Aredian always lasts longer the second time and it takes Merlin by surprise when he pulls out a short while later. He doesn't look around but he hears him climb down from the bed and a drawer being pulled open and shut again. A moment later he feels a cool soft fabric at his throat. Aredian enters Merlin again, and now his thrusts are sharp and violent, and then the fabric tightens around Merlin's throat and tightens and tightens -

When Merlin's vision becomes fuzzy he panics. He starts struggling, pulling against the ropes that tie his wrists. Maybe that's what Aredian wants, maybe that's the game for tonight, but Merlin's lungs are burning and there are black spots dancing before his eyes. All he can think is that he has to get away, that he has to breathe. He bucks against his captor, trying to throw him off, but he has no leverage and his strength is dwindling. His vision is greying and his limps grow weak, and then he hears Aredian whisper.

"Don't fight it, Mordred, you know it's better this way."

And suddenly Merlin is blind with fear. This is not a game, he realizes. This is what it feels like to die.

There is a rush in his veins as a power that shouldn't be there breaks from his body. He feels the wind on his face, longing to suck it deep into the fire in his chest. He thinks he hears a dull sound behind him but, before the thought can reach his brain, the darkness pulls him under and then there's nothing.

Chapter Text

It's the shrill sound of his mobile that pulls Arthur out of a dream he isn't sure he wants to remember. For a moment he struggles and twists in his sheets before the world rightens itself, settles around him, and he realises he is at home, in his bed, and his mobile is ringing from somewhere down on the floor. He rolls over, feeling around blindly, and finally gets hold of his suit jacket, which he had dropped where he was standing what he would swear was barely an hour ago. He lets himself fall back against the pillows and answers the call with one eye on his alarm clock. It's half past two.

"This better be fucking good, Morgana."

"Don't get your knickers in a twist. You can't have been asleep already. The sun is barely down," his half-sister replies loftily.

"Morgana." The word is pressed through clenched teeth. His last case has granted him hardly more than four hours sleep a night for the past week, and he has basically been running on coffee until he fell unconscious - hopefully in his own bedroom. He really isn't in the mood for Morgana's kind of humour. Not at half past two in the bloody morning.

"Alright, alright. I need your help, or more precisely, a Magical does. You have to take on his case."

"Now? At half past two?"

"Yes, Arthur, now,'' Morgana says impatiently. ''He has been arrested for murder this evening and they could be interrogating him as we speak. You know how these things go when he has nobody to support and advocate him!"

Arthur sits up again with a sigh, rubbing his forehead. Leave it to Morgana to appeal to what she calls his 'softer side', she is after all one of the few who believe in its existence.

"A murder case? Really?" he asks, because he is mildly interested and he is awake now anyway, thank you very much. He reaches for the glass of water on his bedside table and takes a sip. "Whom did he off?"

"Angus Aredian."

The water he doesn't inhale goes spraying all over his comforter, and Arthur ends up slapping his own chest, coughing.

"The Secretary of State has been murdered?" he asks in disbelief. "When the hell did that happen?"

"This evening. It's only been a few hours, it hasn't hit the press, yet."

"So how come you know about it?"

"Please. You know I have my sources," Morgana drawls and Arthur can hear the smirk in her voice. But then she becomes serious again. "Arthur, this case has the potential to make or break our cause. If this boy is convicted we will be thrown back to the Middle Ages, it will be the perfect bit of propaganda for the government and they might even be able to swing the vote in the upcoming elections. But if you show the world that this boy is just a victim of the prejudices against Magicals, with this kind of public interest... Arthur, this could be the best thing to have ever happened to us."

"Your compassion is, as always, simply astonishing. And how do you know he's not guilty as sin?"

"When they found him with Aredian's body, he was bound to the bed, naked and bleeding."

Arthur takes a moment to let that sink in, then he blurts, "He's a prostitute!?"

"God Arthur," and Arthur swears he can hear her eye-roll, "don't be such a prude."

"I'm not a prude," he feels the need to object, because he isn't. "I'm just trying to come to terms with you demanding I take on the most hopeless case I have ever heard of. Why the hell would I do that?"

"Because you're the best." Morgana's voice is firm and cold now. "Without you that boy stands no chance at all, he's as good as dead. And so will be any hope for a new government that will listen to us in regard to magic rights. The public will be out for blood and we will be back to being lepers." Her voice becomes softer when she adds, "And you're not indifferent to either of those, so don't pretend to be. I know you have been running on fumes lately, and you have Alex to think of, but this boy needs you, Arthur. I really don't think he's guilty. You knew Aredian. He pretty much was the devil reincarnated."

Arthur sighs then, because he just stands no chance when Morgana becomes emotional.

"Alright, let me just put on some clothes and see if Gwen won't kill me if I wake her up at this hour-"

"I already called her, she will be over in a few," Morgana says.

That, finally, makes Arthur laugh. "You called Gwen before you called me?" he asks. "What if I'd said no?"

"Oh, Arthur," Morgana says, and there is a warmth in her voice that makes Arthur a little uncomfortable, "I always knew you wouldn't."

*

Arthur parks his BMW around the corner of New Scotland Yard and throws a look at himself in the rear-view mirror. He immediately regrets it. He looks exactly as he feels: sleep-deprived and unshaven, and just one step closer to the edge than he is comfortable with. However Arthur wouldn't be a lawyer if he couldn't turn that into an advantage.

He leaves his car parked in a no parking zone - it's the middle of the bloody night, nobody is going to tow his car at such an hour - and rushes up the stairs to the Metropolitan Police's headquarters. Just before he enters, though, he slows down to a measured step and approaches the reception desk with all the arrogance he can muster at three o'clock in the morning.

"I'm here to see my client, Mr.Emerson. The sorcerer who's been brought in as a murder suspect? I'm his lawyer."

He flashes the girl behind the desk his identification. She can't be more than twenty and is immediately alert and helpful. While she calls up to whoever has his soon-to-be client in his clutches, she keeps throwing him these bright smiles that Arthur honestly finds a little disconcerting at this hour.

"He's still in the interrogation rooms at level four. If you could wait a-"

"I know the way," Arthur interrupts her arrogantly and turns away before she can stop him.

He does know the way. This is hardly the first time he had to force himself into an investigation where a Magical is concerned - and he rolls his eyes a little at the non-offensive term Morgana insists upon. So he strides confidently down the corridors, his mouth pressed into a grim line, and looks at people down his nose with all the superiority his father has beaten into him since early childhood.

When he reaches level four he spots Leon almost immediately and lifts an eyebrow that clearly says, you called Morgana and not me? Really?

Leon might just be what he considers his best friend these days, and he has proven an invaluable asset due to his position in the Yard. Now the tall, ginger-haired man just shrugs. After a quick look around, he gets up and strolls over to Arthur.

"I guess, I'm not too far off if I assume you're here for the sorcerer," he says casually, taking a sip from his coffee.

"The one who killed the Secretary of State? Yep, that's mine."

Leon doesn't return his grin and that makes Arthur just a little apprehensive. Well, more apprehensive than he is anyway.

"I just wanted to warn you,'' Leon says in a low voice. ''Valiant's on that case. You know how he is, and you know he doesn't exactly like you."

Arthur just frowns, but his amusement is gone. "He doesn't have to like me, he just has to give me the opportunity to speak to my client alone and not dare to interrogate him in my absence."

"Yeah. We're talking about Valiant here."

Arthur's nod is grim. "Which room?"

"Five, the last one down the corridor."

"The Cell, huh? Should have known."

*

Arthur's knock is perfunctory, and he doesn't wait for an answer but steps right in. The room is rather small, but its bareness makes it seem bigger. There's just a table and two chairs, both white and non-descript. The tiny window has bars in front of it and is too far up to show anything more but a patch of dark night sky. It's not a room designed to make you feel comfortable.

There are three people in the room. The one leaning against the wall, opposite from the door Arthur has just stepped through, is a big guy with short-cropped hair. His arms are crossed over his broad chest and his bulging muscles strain the fabric of his shirt. Arthur knows Percival as a decent kind of guy, a man of few words but strong morals. He is Valiant's partner and Arthur is glad he is there. Percival is often the only thing that keeps that fuckwit Valiant from going too far, even though Arthur always worries that one day it might not be enough.

Valiant himself sits in one of the chairs, facing Arthur. He isn't a bad-looking man, but there is a mean glint in his eyes along with an unattractive smugness around his mouth. Right now, he looks at Arthur with badly concealed fury.

Arthur's eyes are drawn to the third man though; the one sitting on the other side of the table, his face partly concealed by too long and dishevelled, black hair. He had not looked up when Arthur entered, his eyes fixed on the table before him, his shoulders hunched as if he was trying to crawl into himself. The clothes he wears look far too big on him, making him look like a boy dressing up as a man. But the sight that takes Arthur's breath away, is the long pale neck, so strangely familiar, and the ugly dark bruises that ring it.

Arthur's heart is hammering in his chest, and it takes a moment for him to realize that Valiant is hissing at him. "What do you want, Pendragon? You have no business being in here."

Arthur swallows and mentally rightens his mask of blank professionalism. "You'll find that you are wrong with that assessment, Valiant, as it is precisely my business that brings me here."

"And how would that be?"

"I am Mr. Emerson's lawyer."

"He hasn't requested a lawyer."

"And I am sure you've asked him if he wants one."

Valiant glares, but it's Percival who turns to the suspect. The man has yet to say a word.

"Mr. Emerson," Percival asks quietly, "Do you want to call upon Mr. Pendragon's legal services?"

The man quickly looks up at Percival, but then his eyes immediately move on to meet Arthur's.

And Arthur's heart stops.

He has dreamed about those eyes; smiling and mischievous and somehow always full of adoration, even when their owner was teasing and scoffing and complaining. They are dull now, their depth veiled like fog over a still lake. There is no smile in them, and for a moment Arthur is afraid that his sleep-deprived mind has finally gone over the edge, has conjured some kind of illusion, and the man in front of him has no idea who Arthur is.

But then the man swallows - and he must still be in pain because he flinches slightly - and the mask wobbles. An array of emotion flicker over the pale face like quicksand. Shame and despair and hopelessness being the most prominent. But there is also, for barely half a second, something like longing. A longing which hits Arthur like a stab in the gut.

The man casts his eyes down again before he speaks for the first time, his voice hoarse and brittle. "I don't have any money. I couldn't pay your fees."

"You don't have to worry about that," Arthur says automatically. "The MRA will cover the necessary expanses."

The man nods with a frown, like he doesn't really get what Arthur is saying, like he is merely placating him.

"Do you want to accept Mr. Pendragon's aid?" Percival asks again, and Valiant snorts, his face showing the contempt he has for the man in front of him.

Arthur ignores the both of them. He stares at the other man, willing him to look up, and when he does he raises an eyebrow in what is challenge and entreaty both.

There is another painful swallow, and then Merlin whispers, "O-Okay."

*


Arthur allows himself one deep breath to gather his wits and at least try to calm his nerves. Then he is all business again.

"All right," he says, shrugging of his coat and hanging it up on the peg behind the door. "As Mr. Emerson's legal representative I disallow you to question my client any further until I have had the opportunity to talk to him privately and without supervision. I also demand that all previous statements my client has made in regard to the accusations are discarded and deleted since they have been made without the legal guidance he is entitled to."

"He is a sorcerer," Valiant spits, crossing his arms, "he's entitled to nothing."

"There is no exclusion for Magicals in the law that entitles a suspect to legal guidance," Arthur replies calmly. This is his game. This is what he is good at. He smirks at Valiant. "Which is something you should well know, since we've had this discussion before. Now get the hell out of here, so that I can talk to my client." He turns to Percival who is already on his way to the door, raising his eyebrows meaningfully. "And you better make sure the tapes are off this time."

"I'll see to it personally, Mr. Pendragon," Percival says with a small nod.

"Thank you."

Valiant snorts again as he pushes past Arthur, sticking a finger into his unimpressed face.

"This isn't over, Pendragon!"

"No," Arthur says coldly. "It most certainly isn't."

When the door falls shut, Merlin keeps staring at the scratched, white surface of the table in front of him. He has no idea what to say, how to act or react. He normally is quite good at gauging what's expected of him, but this is so far out of his field of experience, it's not even anywhere close to a ballpark he has ever played in. Not that he ever played-.

This is Arthur.

It's him. Older, harder and more confident, but still him. He has lost the last vestiges of childhood, his edges sharper and his blue eyes colder. He is, at the same time, more refined in his starched, light-blue shirt and dark trousers, and rougher, with the hints of golden stubble on his jaw and the fierceness in his eyes. But he is still as striking as he ever was. As golden and glorious as when Merlin last saw him.

He can't bring himself to meet those eyes. Whenever he has dreamed about seeing Arthur again, their meeting certainly did not play out like this. Merlin knows what he looks like. He knows what he is, what he has become, and he has no doubts that Arthur knows it too.


~ Merlin was four years old when he met Arthur Pendragon. Or at least that's what he's later been told. His mother had taken on a new job, and Merlin was in a bad mood. A new job meant moving. It meant a new nursery and new people and never seeing Charlotte Merrywether again, who had given him an apple from her lunch pack and might have become Merlin's first real friend - if the new job had not happened. It was not the first new job either. It was the eighth. And yes, Merlin could count that far, thank you very much.

Merlin wasn't really sure why there were always new jobs. He knew that the mothers of other children didn't have new jobs all the time, but that might be because many of them had no jobs at all and it were the daddys that had the jobs. But Merlin did not have one of those either. He once had asked his mother why he didn't have a daddy who had a job, but his mother had started to cry then and Merlin had felt so guilty that he never asked again.

So the thing with the new jobs was a bit of a puzzle, but it wasn't the kind of puzzle Merlin liked to think about too much, because then he would get the nagging suspicion that it might be somehow his fault.

Since Merlin only had a mummy and no daddy there were other people who looked after him when he wasn't in the nursery, like in the evenings or when he was sick. But there always seemed to be a problem with them. They were always on the phone talking to their boyfriend and didn't realize that the kitchen had somehow caught fire. Or they were really old and forgot to pick Merlin up from the child-minder. Or they fell over Merlin's toy car and broke their leg. His mother would become all upset and wring her hands and rub at her eyes so that Merlin wouldn't see that she was crying. But Merlin always saw and he told her he was sorry and promised to not leave his toy cars lying around anymore, but that never really seemed to help and then, soon after, there would be a new job.

This time though Merlin had been on his best behaviour. There had been no fires and no sudden floods and no broken bones. And the one time Mrs Kingsley had forgotten to come and pick him up he had gone home alone and never told. So he didn't understand why there had to be a new job. Also, this new job apparently meant that Merlin wouldn't be going to nursery at all anymore, and Merlin mostly liked the nursery. At least after the first week or two when he knew the games and the songs and he wasn't the new kid anymore. But now there wouldn't be any need for Merlin to go to nursery because he could stay with his Mum while she was working.

The new job was at a huge and imposing looking house behind tall iron gates, and the first day they went there Merlin had to put on his best Sunday clothes. Apparently his Mum wouldn't only work there, but she and Merlin would also be living in a separate set of rooms in the house. His Mum's new job was to look after the boy who lived in the house with his father. Just like Merlin had no daddy, the boy had no mother and so Merlin's Mum would take care of him, just like all the babysitters Merlin had had over the time. Merlin wondered if the boy had maybe set the kitchen on fire too.


*

The boy in question, who lived in the huge house, was named Arthur and he was almost two years older than Merlin - one and a half actually. He had golden blond hair and round cheeks and was a total prat.

Merlin had been able to establish this shortly after arriving at the Pendragon house. He had been waiting in front of the study, while his mother was inside, talking to Mr. Pendragon. He was sitting on an uncomfortable, high-backed chair, swinging his legs and scrunching his nose at the smudge staining the toe of his previously polished black lace-ups, when there was suddenly a voice coming from above.

"Who are you?"

Merlin looked up in surprise, searching for the source of the voice, and found it in a boy. He was sitting at the top of the winding staircase, watching Merlin through the bars of the banister.

"I'm Merlin."

The boy seemed to think about that. After a moment he got up and came slinking down the stairs. He stopped in front of Merlin, looking down at him.


"What are you doing here?" he asked curiously.

"I'm going to live here with my Mum," Merlin said, still a little sullen about the whole new job situation.

The boy raised his eyebrows and blinked. "You can't be. I live here."

"So?" Merlin asked, hopping down from the chair. "Doesn't mean I can't live here too! My Mum's going to work here, and I'm going to stay here with her."

Suddenly the boy looked a little pinched. "Oh," he said, and then he shrugged haughtily. "So your Mum's one of the servants."

Something about the dismissive tone of the boy rubbed Merlin wrong and he glared at him. "She's not!" he said angrily, "We had to come here so she can look after you, because you don't have a mummy!"

It was almost fascinating, how the boy's face slowly turned red like a tomato. Then he started to blink furiously and his bottom lip trembled. But before Merlin could contemplate what he had said and if he should apologise, the boy viciously kicked him in the shin and yelled, "You're lying and I hate you and you have stupid ears!"

And then he ran away. Merlin blinked back tears and rubbed his aching leg. He was pretty sure that he hated the blond boy too.

*

Later Merlin's mother called him into the room and he was introduced to a stern looking man who shook his hand and said, "I hope you'll mind your manners while living under my roof, young man."

Then the door opened again and the blonde boy was pushed in by an older man with long white hair and kind eyes.

"Thank you, Gaius," Mr. Pendragon said before he turned to his son, who looked kind of ridiculous, standing all stiff with his shoulders back and his chin up - like a tin soldier. Merlin rolled his eyes, and the boy must have seen because his stiff pose crumbled slightly as he send a glare in Merlin's direction.

"Arthur," Mr. Pendragon said with a small frown, "I want you to meet Mrs Emrys, your new governess. I expect that you treat her with respect and listen to her, especially when I'm not at home."

"Yes, father," Arthur said seriously, and the laughter that had bubbled up in Merlin's throat died away.

Arthur stepped towards Merlin's mother and held out his hand, just like his father had done before.

"Hello, Mrs Emrys," he said with a little bow. "Welcome to the Pendragon household."

Merlin thought it was the stupidest, most pompous thing he had ever heard, but his mother laughed delightedly and took Arthur's outstretched hand.

"Hello, Arthur," she said warmly. "And thank you. You may call me Hunith, and I am sure we will get along splendidly."

"Thank you, Miss Hunith," Arthur said courteously, and Merlin snorted into his hand, which earned him another glare this time from Arthur and his Mum both.

"Arthur," his Mum said, raising an eyebrow at Merlin, "This is my son, Merlin. He's a little younger than you, but I hope you two can become friends."

Arthur turned to Merlin then and looked him up and down with haughtily raised eyebrows.

"Of course," he said, "I suppose I can show him around the premises."

His mother pressed her lips together, but her eyes sparkled with warmth and laughter when she nodded. "That would be wonderful, Arthur. Thank you."

Merlin suddenly felt his stomach drop. He realized that Arthur had been telling the truth. This was his home and Merlin was the intruder. Merlin often had to find his place in a new environment, but he had always had something just for him, and he had always had his Mum. He didn't know what would be left for him, now that Mr. Pendragon would be paying her to be Arthur's.

Merlin bit his lip to stop it from trembling. It was something that had become a habit of him whenever he felt hurt or upset, because he had learned already that it wasn't good to just blurt out what he was feeling.

He looked at his Mum, who watched him with a bright and hopeful smile, and he just gave a small nod, swallowing down all the things he wanted to say. That he didn't like it here. That he didn't like the Pendragons. And that he most certainly didn't like Arthur. ~

The door falls shut behind the two police officers, leaving Arthur alone with his client. He stands, facing the door, hands still splayed on his hips and has no idea where to go from here. He knows he has to turn around. He knows he has to say something, but the words won't come. The man behind him, whom he has not seen for close to ten years, is his client now. But once upon a time he has been so much more.

Arthur shakes his head. He can't go there now. He has to keep in mind what he is here for. Merlin is a murder suspect and, from the little Morgana has been able to tell him, pretty much all evidence points to his person alone. Arthur's friend has vanished without a word ten years ago, and the man who is sitting behind him now needs a lawyer, and a damn good lawyer at that. If he is found guilty, as a Magical, there is only one possible sentence, and that's execution. So it's a lucky thing Arthur isn't just a damn good lawyer, he is the best.

He clears his throat and finally turns around. "Alright," he says and sits down in the chair Valiant has vacated. "We don't have much time, so you better start by telling me exactly what happened. Tonight. What happened tonight?" He swallows again, and when he looks up he finds Merlin staring at him.

"What do you want to know?" he asks listlessly.

"Did you kill him?" Arthur asks, his voice hard, because he has to know the truth about that.

"Yes." Merlin's voice is still scratchy and raw, but there is not a shred of emotion in it.

"Why?"

Merlin just shrugs.

"Jesus..." Arthur rubs at the bridge of his nose. "You have to give me something, Merlin."

Maybe it's the name, a name Merlin might not even use anymore these days, maybe it's the plead in Arthur's voice, but it's like cracks in the plaster when Merlin bites his lip, burrows his front teeth in the flesh of his lower lip so hard, that Arthur is sure he'll make it bleed.

"I-... it was self-defence," Merlin whispers finally, and Arthur takes a deep breath.

"Okay," he says. "Okay. Tell me what happened."

"He tried to strangle me."

Arthur's eyes are immediately drawn back to the livid bruises around Merlin's neck, and he remembers the expression of pain on his face a little while back.

"Have you seen a doctor?"

"I-...uh, yeah," Merlin stutters, obviously surprised by that question. He swallows audibly. "There was this guy, Dr. Muirden, he said I was fine."

"Fine?" Arthur asks disbelievingly. "Did he look at your throat?"

"No... he just... he just said I was fine."

"Okay, no, that's-" Arthur presses his thumb and forefinger against his eyes, trying to reign in his temper. "Just give me a moment."

He gets up and fishes his phone from the pocket of his cloak. He is prepared to wait, it's after four by now, but the call is picked up after the second ring.

"Yes, Lance, sorry to wake you. Or maybe I didn't? Of course. No, I know. Yeah. Listen, could you come to the Yard? I need you to look at my client. I don't trust Muirden, neither with his health nor with potential evidence."

When he ends the call and turns around again, Merlin is back to staring down at the table. Arthur sighs. He knows it will take Lance a while and he should ask Merlin all the usual questions, but he feels completely out of his depth because there is so much else, so much more, he wants to ask.

Where have you been? What did you do? Why did you never contact me?

He comes back to the table instead and slumps down in his chair. The lack of sleep is starting to make itself known and probably doesn't help him to concentrate on the task at hand. Merlin still doesn't look up, and that gives Arthur the opportunity to study him.

He is almost curling in on himself, like he is trying to vanish or blend with the chair, his folded hands buried in his lap. He looks like he's cold and maybe he is. He is thin, Arthur realises. Not just slender and long limbed, like he used to be, but skinny. He's grown into his cheekbones, but his face is hollowed beneath them. The hair is longer, falling over the prominent ears and into his eyes. He still looks incredibly young, much younger than he is.

Arthur's hand reaches out involuntarily, a reflexive gesture, aborted midway, and he puts it down on the table top between them instead. He stares at it for a moment before his fingers curl into a fist and he pulls it back.

"Listen," he says, feeling resigned, "the call I just made was to a friend of mine. His name is Lance DuLac, and he is a doctor. He is also a very nice guy. Will you be okay with letting him examine you?"

Merlin shrugs but then nods. He still doesn't look at Arthur.



~ When Arthur's father told him that he had hired a governess so that Arthur would have some female influence in his life, Arthur had been very excited. He had been living only with his father and Gaius for as long as he could remember. There was also the cook, Sally, but she left the house after dinner preparations and she was always in a hurry and did not have time for Arthur beyond a quick smile and a biscuit.

Arthur had realized early on, that these were not the normal circumstances. In the books Gaius gave him, and sometimes even read to him, there were families that consisted of a mummy and a daddy and the children and a dog. Arthur knew that his family was different, but he didn't realize how different until his first day of nursery, when he sat on the narrow bench in front of the playroom and watched as all the other kids were picked up by women who hugged them and kissed their cheeks with a happy smile. It had made his stomach ache as if he had eaten too much, or not eaten at all, and he might have cried just a little bit.

When Gaius arrived to take him home, he had looked at him with a sad smile, had ruffled his hair and said, "Come, Arthur." He had taken Arthur's hand and they had walked home together. Back at the house, Gaius had sat Arthur down with a cup of cocoa, and he had explained how Arthur's mummy had died the day he was born, but that she had loved him very much. Arthur had always liked Gaius a lot.

So while Arthur was a big boy, and understood that his mummy wouldn't come back, he always had been a little jealous of all the kids with their hugging and kissing mums. There just weren't a lot of hugs and kisses to be had in the Pendragon household. Therefore, the idea of this governess had Arthur positively beaming. He knew it wasn't the same as a mother, but he was sure it would be the next best thing. He imagined what it would be like to have someone who would play with him and take him to the park and kiss him good-night.

What he did not imagine, what he couldn't even comprehend, was that this wonderful mummy-like person would have a son already. A real one. Someone she probably liked a lot more than she would ever like Arthur.

He had not realized who the boy sitting in front of his father's study was at first. Arthur had been hiding at the top of the stairs to catch a glimpse at his new governess when he saw him. The boy was younger than him and a bit strange looking - skinny, with a mop of unruly black hair and really big ears - but they didn't have a lot of visitors around Arthur's age in the Pendragon house, so Arthur wasn't picky. The boy would make a good squire to Arthur's noble knight. Or so Arthur thought before the boy started yelling and lying. Because it couldn't be. It couldn't be that the one person that was supposed to be for Arthur was already taken.

Arthur had run back to his room, where he sat on his bed with his knees pulled to his chest and rubbed at his eyes. He did not cry. He was a Pendragon, and Pendragons didn't cry his father had said. But Pendragons also didn't give up; they got what they wanted by being better and cleverer than anyone else. So when Gaius came to tell him that his father wanted Arthur to come down to his study to meet Mrs Hunith Emrys, Arthur had already decided on his game plan. He would not be ousted by a little kid. He would be the perfect child, and in the end Mrs Emrys might just like Arthur better than Merlin after all.

And then Arthur met Miss Hunith, and she was all that he had imagined and more. She was kind and soft-spoken and she smiled at Arthur, and after a moment Arthur thought that he would even put up with the Merlin kid, if that was the price for having Miss Hunith.~

After the silence has dragged on for too long, Arthur asks, "Have you talked to your mum?" and Merlin's head snaps up, his eyes so wide they threaten to swallow his face. He is as stiff as a board, and for a moment Arthur isn't sure he's even breathing anymore.

"Merlin?" he asks again, a feeling of dread taking hold of him. "Have you talked to your mum at all? I mean... since..."

"I know what you mean," Merlin says and his voice is harsh all of a sudden. "And the answer is no. I haven't talked to my mother since the day I ran ten years ago."

"I-" Arthur is sure there must be appropriate words in response to that statement, but he has no idea what they would be. "I know where she is," he finally admits. "I- if you want to see her, I could-"

"No!" The answer is immediate. A croak that is layered with even more emotion than the second, whispered, "No."

Arthur swallows against the lump in his throat, and all he can do is nod. "Okay."

The tension in the room is like a living thing. It's brimming with all the things that want, that need to be said but remain unspoken. Thoughts are pressing forward, questions burn his tongue, but he might have said too much already.

There is a line. Between the professionalism and even empathy that is owed to a client, and an involvement that goes beyond that, becomes personal and messy and leaves you vulnerable. It's a line that Arthur has never crossed. Ever since he stepped into the room, though, that line has blurred, and Arthur is lost. He can't look at Merlin and see only a client, but he doesn't know what else they could still be. And it's not even about Arthur, really. For all he knows, Merlin might have long lost any affection he once held for him.

In the end Arthur clears his throat awkwardly, reminding himself that he has a job to do.

"It will take Lance a while to get here" he finally says, trying to steer for safer ground. "Maybe you could tell me the events of tonight. From the moment you met Aredian till... well, till your arrest."

Merlin scowls at him, and it almost makes Arthur smile, because it's the first expression Merlin has shown him that is actually familiar, but he says, "If I'm going to defend you, I need to know what happened, Merlin."

Merlin rubs the palms of his hands against the top of his thighs. It's a familiar gesture as well, and one that tells Arthur that Merlin is nervous. It's something else that arrests him though. Some part of him had known it, that it had to be there, but when he sees the black tattoo of a large M on the back of Merlin's left hand it still hits him like a freight train. That Merlin had been caught, had been branded, and Arthur has no idea how any of this happened.

"I- He picked me up, at the usual place-," the younger man starts almost too quiet to hear, but managing to pull Arthur from his stupor.

"The usual place? So... this wasn't the first time that you... met him?"

"No. It wasn't the first time," Merlin snaps, and the look he throws Arthur is an open challenge to judge him. Suddenly his whole demeanour changes, becomes defiant and almost insolent. "So he picked me up and we drove to his house. When we arrived, there were all these candles, I thought it was strange. That's not his thing, normally, and he had never done anything like it."

Merlin shrugs, trying to make it look casual, but Arthur can see that his hands are trembling slightly. "He told me to take a bath and wash, and I did. Then I went back down, and..." He falters slightly. "We fucked. In the living-room. Then he took me upstairs."

The burst of spirit wanes then and Merlin's voice becomes blank, like he is reading the shopping list. "He bound me to the bed and whipped me. Then he fucked me again. He stopped and took something from a drawer. I didn't see what it was. Then he resumed fucking me. He wound this piece of cloth round my neck. He pulled and I... I couldn't breathe anymore."

Arthur stares at Merlin, whose eyes have gone unfocussed now, gazing into space. It's like he's reliving the events, even his breathing has become laboured.

"I thought... I thought it was a game, at first, I thought... He liked that kind of thing. But he didn't stop. He didn't stop and I... he called me Mordred. I don't know why. I- I was starting to lose consciousness, and my magic... it broke free, I think, because... I knew, I knew this was... he was going to kill me. I knew." A single tear falls from Merlin's eyes, down on the table. He doesn't seem to notice. "There was wind and then a... a sound. That's all I remember."

He swallows and blinks for a moment, his eyes back on the table as he finishes, "When I woke up, the police were already there."

The silence that falls is almost deafening. Arthur realises that his hands are balled into fists so tightly that his nails have drawn blood. He has never killed a man, but he is certain that he would not hesitate for a second to kill Aredian if the man hadn't the good fortune to be dead already. He has the strange and slightly mortifying wish to trample on the man's lifeless body.

Lance DuLac arrives, and Merlin's first thought is that of course he is gorgeous. It might be a bit strange or stupid as far as first reaction's go, but to Merlin the man's attractiveness simply acts as a reminder of how very much out of Arthur's league he has always been.

Apart from being good-looking, in that dark and impossibly charming way, Dr. DuLac is also indeed a good guy. He meets Merlin's gaze with a smile that's kind and professional, and he doesn't ask intrusive questions. He simply tells Merlin his name and holds out his hand for him to shake, which Merlin does after a moment of wary hesitation.

Before the doctor starts with his examination, he asks whether Merlin wants Arthur to leave, resulting in Arthur sending his friend a glare which Dr. DuLac doesn't even acknowledge.

“I will have to ask you to undress, and I will take pictures of any injuries that could be important for your case,'' he explains sincerely. ''Since Arthur is your lawyer, he will have to see them. But it is not necessary for him to be present during the examination.”

Arthur clears his throat. “Actually...”

“No, Arthur,” Dr. DuLac says sternly, but Arthur persists.

Actually,” he repeats, “Merlin has only been granted one talk with his lawyer. As soon as I leave, Valiant will be back in here. I can bring in a medical consultant, but I can't hand him over to you.”

It's Dr. DuLac's turn to glare now. “He has the right to medical aid-” he starts heatedly.

“Which he has been granted by seeing Dr. Muirden,” Arthur interrupts.

“That man is a charlatan and you know it,” his friend hisses, “You said it yourself that you-”

I know. I'm just stating the facts. I might not like them, but that doesn't change them.”

Merlin's face becomes defiant once more. “It's fine,” he says with a shrug, “It doesn't matter to me.”

“Merlin-”

“I said it's fine!” He turns to Dr. DuLac. “Shall I just get naked?”

From the corner of his eye Merlin can see Arthur flinch, and, wow, that hurts. He is kind of surprised that it still does, after all the disgusted looks and snide comments he has become used to. Arthur always held a special kind of power over him though.

Dr. DuLac seems uncomfortable too, but it's clear that he is more concerned about Merlin's privacy rather than his perceived lewdness. It takes him a moment before he nods reluctantly, and he still doesn't look happy. “Just take off your shirt for the moment,'' he says kindly. ''I have to examine your throat, and listen to your heart and breath sounds.”

“I'll just...” Arthur grimaces and makes a gesture towards the wall before he turns around, apparently not even able to look at Merlin.

To Merlin, there couldn't be a more perfect rejection than Arthur turning his back on him like this. He is used to scorn and disgust, but he can't deny that he's scared. He is aware what's going to happen to him, what's waiting for him, and he doesn't know if he'll be able to handle it. He feels small and insignificant, and that's nothing new either, but he has never felt like that in front of Arthur before.

He swallows down his tears though - because he is stronger than that - and pulls up his shirt, wincing a little when the cloth drags over the cuts on his back.

“Oh my god,” he hears Dr. DuLac's horrified whisper, and Arthur must have heard him too, because suddenly he's there, just behind Merlin, cussing.

“God dammit, that mother-fucking bastard! 'Fine', he says,” and Arthur is growling now, “I'll give him fine!”

Merlin throws a quick glance at Arthur and is momentarily shocked by he expression on his face. Arthur looks murderous. Merlin can't say he really understands what the big deal is about, since he told Arthur that Aredian whipped him. It's not even as bad as it looks. Merlin has had worse.

''I won't let him get away with this,'' Arthur fumes, ''this is malpractice. Denial of assistance. Malice, even-''

Merlin bows his head, realising Arthur isn't really angry for his sake but can't stand Dr. Muirden's lack of professionalism. It's not as if he allowed himself any expectations, he knows they only ever make you hurt.

''Arthur,'' Dr. DuLac finally interrupts Arthur's rant.

''What?!''

''Shut up and help me, will you?'' the doctor asks mildly and, from behind his lashes, Merlin sees Arthur swallow. It's obvious that he'd rather keep his distance, but he takes a deep breath and nods silently, his whole demeanour turning back to being professional.

''What do you need me to do?''

Dr. DuLac gestures at the bag he left on one of the chairs. ''Hand me those antiseptic wipes? I need to clean these before I can dress them properly.''

The doctor conducts his treatment in near silence, sometimes asking Arthur to hand him another item from his bag. He is careful, and it only hurts a little when he puts an ointment on the worst cuts, but it's also strangely soothing, it's been a long time since anyone took care of Merlin, even in such a small capacity. Still, with Arthur being right there next to him, Merlin is unable to relax.

When his back is clean and dressed with gauze, Dr. DuLac takes a look at his throat. His hands are cool and gentle and he mumbles something Merlin doesn't catch. Apparently Aredian left no lasting damage, but Dr. DuLac tells him to drink a lot and prescribes a mild pain medication, handing him a bottle of pills. Merlin stares at it a little dumbfoundedly.

Finally, while his friend packs his instruments back in his bag, Arthur takes a step towards Merlin, handing him the loaned shirt he had been wearing since his arrest.

''You should have told me that you were hurt this badly,'' Arthur says, giving him a weird look. ''I'm your lawyer Merlin. I can't help you if you don't talk to me.''

''I didn't-'' He doesn't know what to say, but he suddenly doesn't want Arthur to think he is difficult on purpose. ''It didn't seem important,'' he mumbles in the end, looking away. ''I've had a lot worse.''

There is a long moment of silence, and when Merlin glances back at Arthur, the other man is staring at him furiously. ''From now on, I will decide what is important. You will have to trust me Merlin, or you won't make it out of this alive,'' he says, his jaw clenched.

The chasm in Merlin's chest opens further, sucking him down into the dark and cold abyss.

''It's not like I have a choice, really, do I?'' he asks.

~ When Merlin and his mum moved into the Pendragon house everything in Merlin's life changed. While Merlin's mum had to work long hours before, there had always been time for just the two of them. Now Arthur was there all the time, and suddenly everything was about him.

It already started with breakfast. Most often, when Mr. Pendragon was not at home, Merlin and his mum took their meals with Arthur in the posh dining room on an absurdly long table. Otherwise they would eat in the kitchen. Either way, though, the food was prepared by the Pendragon's cook, Sally, and that meant Merlin sat down in front of a plate full of eggs and sausages and mushrooms and toast each morning, instead of his usual bowl of Coco Pops. Their former tradition of Spaghetti Friday was as much a thing of the past as most of Merlin's favourite dishes now.

Since it was the summer holidays and Arthur didn't have prep school, Mr. Pendragon had decided that Arthur would have lessons in the mornings with Merlin's mum, which consisted of mostly boring stuff about history or geography or maths. Merlin was made to sit in the room with Arthur, even though he would have rather played in the huge garden behind the house. He spent the time drawing or look at picture books - which made Arthur scowl - but Merlin had to be silent and that was getting really old after the first few days. At least in the afternoons they got to play, or Merlin's mum would take them to the park, a museum or, on one special occasion, even the zoo. But the thing was, they would always do what Arthur liked and never what Merlin wanted.

If, at the zoo, Arthur wanted to see the lions, they would go see the lions, no matter that Merlin wanted to watch the apes getting fed. If they were having ice-cream for dessert they got pistachio, never mind that Merlin hated that and would rather have liked chocolate. Who the hell liked pistachio ice cream anyway? And if Arthur wanted to play knights - which was pretty much all the time - they would play knights, and of course Arthur would get to be the noble Sir Artus, while Merlin was made his squire, whose job mostly consisted in being bossed around by the blond prat.

The worst, though, was that Arthur only was all stuck up and polite and weird when an adult was around. Sometimes, when they were alone, Arthur could actually be fun. He would still boss Merlin around, but he always had a plan for some great adventure, and Merlin hadn't had much opportunity for those until now.

So, while they were at it, Merlin would have a good time; it didn't matter whether they were sneaking into the kitchen to pilfer some of Sally's butterscotch biscuits right from the sheet, or built a fort in the breakfast room, or climb on the shed in the garden where Godfrey, the Pendragon's gardener, kept his tools. But in the end, when they inevitably got caught and chastised, Merlin would find out that the biscuits were for some charity event of Mr. Pendragon's, the linen sheets they used for their fort were actually very damageable and also very expensive and now mysteriously had a hole in the middle, and the shed in the garden was forbidden territory because it wasn't very stable and Godfrey's tools were dangerous.

Arthur would be back to his stiff shoulders and manners then, and somehow everyone assumed that it had been Merlin's idea. Only because apparently Arthur was the poster child of excellent behaviour while Merlin had a bit of a background in fires and floods.

''Arthur,'' Merlin's mum finally asked after Arthur had dared Merlin to climb an old oak tree in the gardens and dangle from a branch head-first, ''why would you do that, when I know your father has expressly forbidden you to climb any trees after you broke your arm the last time?''

Arthur looked at her sadly with wide, blue eyes and said, ''I know. But Merlin wanted to. I couldn't let him climb up on his own.''

Merlin's mum sighed then, but her voice was warm when she said, ''All right, Arthur. I understand. It's still no reason to do something you know is wrong, okay? Next time, you come and get me. Now go wash your hands and get ready for dinner.''

When Arthur had left the room, his mum turned towards Merlin, and her eyes were very sad and disappointed. ''I know things are more strict here than you are used to Merlin, but you promised me you would behave. You can't make Arthur do such stupid things. He might be older than you, but he hasn't had much experience with other children.''

''But-''

''No 'but's, Merlin. I expected better from you. Now go to your room and get ready. Dinner's in fifteen minutes.''

From that moment on Merlin only played with Arthur if he had to, and there was seldom any fun to be had. School started for Arthur and he became even more of a stuck up prat, looking ridiculous in his uniform and with his hair combed back. Sometimes Arthur would give Merlin strange looks, almost as if he was hurt by the way Merlin ignored him, but Merlin wasn't fooled any longer. Arthur had only ever wanted to steal Merlin's mum from him, and maybe he had succeeded already. But Merlin would not just give in so easily. Merlin would fight back, and then Arthur wouldn't know what had hit him.

The opportunity arouse on a day in early December. Merlin's mum had to stay in bed with a cold, and Mary, the sixteen-year-old niece of Sally the cook, had been entrusted with the job of looking after the boys for the afternoon. The weather was cold and had been for the past weeks but, since it was the first nice day in a while, it was decided that they would go to the park. Well, Arthur decided.

When Merlin ran over the frozen lawns though, with the sun glittering on the ice-covered leaves and tree branches, he had to admit that it had been worth it. There were few people around, and Mary didn't seem to care much about what they were doing, especially when a young man walking his dog started talking to her and making her giggle. Before she could notice, Arthur and Merlin took off and went down to the lake to watch the ducks. The surface was frozen, and a few of the birds cowered like little fluffy balls at the shore line.

That's when Merlin was hit by an idea. Two winters ago a child from Merlin's neighbourhood had fallen into a lake and drowned. He had to promise his mum to never, ever play on the ice after that. She would never think it had been his idea. Never in a million years. He would beat Arthur with his own weapons.

''Lets go out on the lake,'' Merlin said casually.

''I don't know.'' Arthur looked at the ice with a frown. ''What if the ice isn't thick enough? How will we know whether it's going to carry us?''

''Have you never been on a frozen lake?'' Merlin asked, rising his eyebrows mockingly.

''No,'' Arthur admitted reluctantly. ''Don't tell me you have.''

''All the time,'' Merlin boasted. ''We've lived further North for a while.''

''So?''

''We had a lot more ice and snow in the winters. Come on, it will be fun, or are you too chicken?''

Arthur scoffed. ''Don't be stupid. Of course not.''

There was nothing else, in Merlin's experience, that would make Arthur more determined to do something than being told that he couldn't or that he wouldn't dare.

The sun started to go down early these days, and the lake lay gleaming in the already fading light of evening.

''Come on!'' Merlin cried, and soon enough they were out on the slippery surface. They slithered and tried to catch each other and, without realising it, they went out further and further.

Finally Merlin heard someone yelling their names, and when he turned around he saw Mary running down the slope to the shore, waving her arms wildly. He couldn't hear what else she was saying, but it was pretty clear that she wanted them to come back and wasn't too pleased about their little stunt.

''We better go back,'' Merlin said to Arthur, who'd just landed on his arse a good ten yards away.

Merlin took a few steps towards the shore but, suddenly, there was a deep cracking sound. Before he knew what was happening, his world started to tilt sideways, and then he was plunged into an icy cold darkness. His breath escaped him in shocked bubbles, and he felt like a thousand knifes were stabbing into his body while he was dragged down further into the deep. He kicked and struggled, but everything was so heavy and his lungs were screaming and then, just when he couldn't fight any more, something grabbed him and he was pulled, upwards and into the light.

The first lungful of air burned like fire, but he gasped and gasped and gasped. He was pressed into something warm and a little scratchy, which strangely smelled of cinnamon buns, and he just kept breathing into the slightly wet surface until he realised that there were arms around him and someone was talking.

''Don't cry, Merlin, don't cry. I've got you. You'll be okay. You're okay now, don't cry.''

He hadn't realised that he was sobbing but when he did he couldn't stop and clung to the solid warmth of what he finally recognised was Arthur. Arthur, who had pulled him out of the water, and who picked him up now and half dragged and half carried him towards a shell-shocked Mary.

When they got home - Mary bawling after she had yelled herself hoarse - it was already dark. Merlin's mum was up and white as a sheet, sitting in the living room with Mr. Pendragon.

Arthur went right towards them and said, ''It was my fault. Merlin tried to stop me. I am very sorry.''

Merlin's mum hardly looked at Arthur, but ran towards Merlin and hugged him close, holding him so fast he almost couldn't breathe.

There was a slapping noise, like skin hitting skin, and Mr. Pendragon's voice saying,''You have greatly disappointed me today, Arthur. And you will bear the consequences of your actions from today. Now go to your room. I don't want to see you again tonight.''

When Arthur walked past Merlin, his left cheek was bright red.~

Chapter Text

Dawn is creeping up the horizon when Arthur finally steps out on to Victoria Street again. It's only been a few hours, but it feels like his world has shifted on its axis. His past and his present, which he had managed to somehow keep so quaintly separate for all these years, have suddenly collided, and so maybe it's no small wonder that Arthur feels like a crash victim.

He finds his car, which thankfully hasn't been towed even if the whole endeavour took longer than he expected, and leans against it, pulling out his phone. It takes a while before Morgana picks up the call.

"Arthur? What the fuck do you want that can't wait till morning?"

"Don't be such a ninny, Morgana,'' Arthur drawls. ''You can't still be asleep, the sun is almost up already."

"I hate you."

"Of that I am certain."

There is a small pause filled with shuffling noises, and for a moment he thinks she has simply dealt with him by burying him under a stack of pillows, but then Morgana's back with an annoyed but resigned sigh.

"So? What do you want?"

Arthur hesitates, rubbing at his tired eyes with the hand not holding the phone.

"Did you know?" he finally asks.

"Did I know what?"

"That it's him."

"Arthur,'' Morgana says exasperated. ''I'm not a mind-reader. Did I know that it's who?"

"Merlin.''

For a long moment there is only silence.

"Morgana?" And, god, he hopes he doesn't sound so much like a boy lost in the woods on her end.

"That Merlin?"

Arthur gives a small, painful laugh. "Is there another one?"

"God, Arthur. Fuck. No, of course I didn't know. Do you really think I wouldn't have warned you if I'd known?"

"No," Arthur says quietly, because they fight like cats and dogs sometimes but, apart from Alex, Morgana is the only thing he has for family these days. She has been there for him through some dark times in his life, with sarcasm and scotch, which is, after all, the Pendragon way to deal.

''Leon just said that Aredian was murdered in his house, and that the only suspect was the-,'' Morgana hesitates, ''… the prostitute, who had been with him and who also happened to be a Magical.''

He doesn't say anything.

''Arthur?''

Her voice is softer, something close to pity swinging in it, and Arthur hates it. Hates what she thinks now, about Merlin, but also about him: that Merlin is beyond salvation, and Arthur something of a tragic figure, confronted with the follies of his youth.

''I know this can't be easy for you,'' Morgana says carefully. ''But you will have to put your history aside and do your job. For both your sakes.''

Your history. Twelve years of friendship, of being almost brothers and living in each others pockets, of knowing someone better than you know yourself. It's only an obstacle now. For Morgana this is bigger than the both of them. It's the opportunity to change the public opinion, to change the life of so many people, even her own. It's something Arthur has fought for as well, for many years, and he knows she is right about this, he knows it, but...

''I don't know if I can do that, Morgana.''

''What do you mean?'' she asks sharply. ''You won't represent him? Arthur, if you-''

''No,'' Arthur says firmly. Because that's not even a question. ''Of course I will represent him. I'm just telling you that, for me, this is going to be about Merlin now and nothing else.''

Morgana sighs.

''Arthur, I know what that boy meant to you-''

''No. You really, really don't.''

''I saw you moping and raging and putting your life on hold, dear brother of mine. I was there. But you put that behind you, Arthur, and that's where you have to leave it. You have to concentrate on what's important. On the life you built for yourself. I know it was me who asked you to take on this case, I know I said he needs you, but don't let this boy drag you down with him.''

He has to remind himself that Morgana barely knows Merlin. Arthur and Morgana were adults already when they formed the close relationship they have now. When they were children, Morgana was not around much. She was this older cousin, the daughter of his father's brother, Gorlois, whom Arthur had never met because he had died soon after Arthur was born. Morgana's mother, Vivianne, had kept the interaction with the Pendragons to a bare minimum, like birthdays and the occasional Christmas party. It turned out that she had had her reasons. When Vivianne passed away, she left Morgana a letter, telling her about her true parentage. Apparently Uther Pendragon had had an affair with his brother's wife, and Morgana was the result. They had never told Gorlois.

Morgana didn't take the revelation well but, while she refused to see Uther as her father, she didn't even hesitate to claim Arthur.

Eighteen, left alone with a father he couldn't talk to and as close to going over the edge in his rebellion as he was ever likely to come, Morgana had probably saved him. After a year of getting drunk in seedy clubs, having sex in even seedier toilet stalls and generally being as self-destructive as he could manage, Arthur had nowhere else to go, nothing else to lose. So he had finally let her in and moved into her flat properly.

In the following years Morgana became his anchor. They don't really do the emotional sharing thing unless they are both drunk to the gills, but with time Morgana got the story out of him. So she knows about Merlin, which doesn't mean she knows Merlin himself. And, while Morgana fights with passion and determination for all Magicals to be granted equal rights, between Merlin and Arthur, her loyalties will always lie with her brother.

For Arthur things are so much more complicated. He doesn't even understand it himself really, what he is feeling, how he can deal with this, and he certainly isn't in the mood to try and explain it to his sister.

''I have to get home now, Morgana,'' he says, knowing he is evading a conversation they will have to have at some point, ''I want to be there when Alex wakes up. We can talk later.''

''That's what I have been saying this whole time, Arthur.''

''Yeah. Don't say I never listen to you.''

''Arthur.''

''Hm?''

''Just... you know?''

He has to smile despite himself. ''Yes, Morgana. I know.''

*

Thankfully Alex is still asleep when Arthur comes home and so is Gwen. Or at least she is until he comes into the living room. He can be as quiet as he wants, Gwen is a light sleeper, probably even more so on other people's couches.

''Hello gorgeous,'' Gwen yawns, and she's probably the only person who can call him that without making it sound like a come-on. It must be the side-effect of being a teacher at an elementary school.

''Hi, you.'' Arthur smiles, slumping down on the recliner opposite from her. ''How was the little monster?''

''Asleep for the whole time. How was the case?''

Arthur closes his eyes and lets his head drop back against the rest.

''I don't know,'' he says on a deep sigh. ''Not what I expected.''

''The crime or the client?''

Arthur's head rolls to the side, his eyes staring unseeingly towards the fireplace.

''It's someone you know,'' Gwen ventures a guess. Although she sounds pretty damn certain.

''How do you...?''

''You looked at the mantle,'' Gwen says, inclining her head towards the picture frames.

Arthur doesn't know what to say. Especially since, right there on the mantle, is an old silver frame holding a picture of a smiling woman and two boys, one blond, one dark, grinning at the camera with all the cheerfulness one can only feel when being seven or eight years old, respectively.

Without knowing why, Arthur gets up and walks over, picking up the frame. He senses Gwen stepping up behind him, looking at the picture over his shoulder.

''This, the other boy, that's Merlin,'' Arthur says and it hurts, looking at Merlin's joyful face in the picture when he has just seen him so broken. He doesn't know when he last looked at it. It has stood there, in his living room, for all this time, but he has somehow managed to never look. He does now.

''He's a friend of yours?'' Gwen asks uncertainly, because she sure has never heard of any Merlin from Arthur.

''He was my best friend until he vanished on my eighteenth birthday. He was sixteen, and somehow his school had found out about his magic.''

''He wasn't registered?''

''No.''

''I didn't know that was possible. I mean isn't that a serious crime?''

''It is. That's probably why he ran. They almost arrested his mum, but... someone helped her leave the country. No one else had known.''

''And now he's a murder suspect?''

''Yes.''

''And did he-''

''Yes. He says he did.''

''Oh.'' Gwen looks at him awkwardly.

''It was self-defence,'' Arthur feels the need to explain.

Gwen tries to smile. ''But then... well, I don't want to say that's alright, but... if he had no choice, that doesn't mean he is a bad person, does it?''

''No. But that's not...'' He can't even say it, can hardly think it. It's incomprehensible to him that this happy, little boy he looks at right now can be the same person as the hurt, broken and almost apathetic man, who is his new client. ''He's a prostitute, Gwen. And I don't know how that happened to him. How it is even possible. He was always special somehow, you know? He was shy, but he wouldn't take any bullshit. Smart and sensitive but funny, and really just a brilliant friend. And now... I don't know what happened.''

''Did you ask him?''

Arthur shakes his head and puts the frame back on the mantle. ''No. It seemed... I don't have a right.''

Gwen's hand is warm on his arm and he turns around to face her.

''Maybe it's not about what you're entitled to, Arthur, but what your friend needs.''

''Of course it's about what Merlin needs,'' Arthur says, almost a little too sharply. ''Do you think I don't know that? But what he needs, Gwen, what he really, really needs, is the best lawyer he can get, because that's deep shit he's in. They will be out for his blood.''

''Well, you're the best,'' she says with a small smile.

''Thank you.'' Arthur rolls his eyes. ''I'm really glad you lot have so much confidence in me, but being the best doesn't mean I always win.''

Gwen' smile turns sad. ''No. But I still think you underestimate yourself when you think that your legal services are all your friend needs.''

''I don't know what else I have to offer.''

''Oh Arthur.''

She cups his cheek with her palm, and it's so strangely reminiscent of Hunith, that he can only blink in confusion for a moment. She obviously wants to say more, but then she just shakes her head and doesn't.

''I better leave now. I understand Lance went in as well?''

''Yeah. Merlin was hurt and-...'' He smiles at her self-deprecatingly. ''I'm really fortunate to have friends like the both of you.''

''Any time for you, Arthur. You know that, right? You just have to ask.''

Arthur nods gratefully, but sometimes he can't help but feel like a huge burden on his friends' shoulders. He shouldn't take advantage of them like that but, especially with Gwen, he has little choice. There is no one but him, and he can't be there all the time, not even for Alex. He tries to hold their little family together, but he still ends up working too much and sleeping too little.

The door clicks shut behind Gwen, and for a moment he feels his loss more deeply than he has in a long while. Gwen and Lance have someone to share what ever comes their way, the good and the bad. He, too, had that once.

He slowly walks up the stairs to the upper level. The door to Alex's room is slightly ajar and the night light's on. Alex still has nightmares sometimes. Arthur slips inside and quietly steps to the bed. His six year old son is curled up on his side, his face buried in the pillow, the blond mop of hair feathered out in all directions. In his right arm he has Mr. Bear tightly clutched against his chest.

Arthur watches his son sleep for a long while. Having a child has been incredibly humbling and incredibly scary. Arthur never planned for this but, whatever else has gone wrong in his life, he wouldn't change this part for anything.

The Facility is famous, not only between sorcerers, Magicals, whatever. Everyone in Britain knows about the Facility. The picture of the Georgian two-storey brick-building with the neatly kept lawns has been the backdrop to many newscasts, usually seen behind the anchor, through the iron bars of a gate. What the people don't see is that the gate is set in a high brick wall, complete with razor wire.

The rest is just rumours, whispered and unverified, that the real Facility is deeply underground, where no sunshine ever reaches, that that's where the government holds its magical prisoners, that there are three security levels, assigned not by the severity of the crime, but the level of the magical abilities - at least as far as the officials are able to tell.

Well, Merlin's about to find out the truth.

He steps down from the van in the central court yard, his wrists and ankles heavy with the cold iron, and immediately feels it. The whole place has something about it that weighs down upon Merlin's heart with cold and dread. This place is the end of the line for pretty much anyone who ever came here. It doesn't release its occupants, it only releases bodies. His magic, already dampened and drowned by the drugs in his blood and the shackles on his limbs, curls up in his chest like a wounded pet, trying to get away.

But there is no escape. It feels fitting even, that this will be the end of his journey. A voyage that has been out of his control for a very long time, maybe since the beginning.

The guards don't give him much time to become philosophical. He is led over the old cobblestones, straight to a gate on his left, which has an old-fashioned sign saying 'Registration'. Merlin huffs a laugh, it's really like his life is coming full-circle.

~ Merlin couldn't have said how long he had known he had magic. It had been a part of him as long as he could remember. It had just been there. And he had gotten better at it as he had gotten better at anything: climbing a tree, spitting, eating as many muffins as he could stomach. But what he did know, was when he first realised that it was something bad.

It had been summer. One of these glorious, golden days of July that never seemed to end. That taste of strawberries and smell like hay. He and Arthur had been lying on their backs in the dry grass at the end of the Pendragon property. Arthur was chewing on a stalk of grass. Arthur was eight years old and reading 'Huckleberry Finn', which had led to him lying down his sword for a summer to fantasise about sailing down the Thames on a float. He just didn't know where to get the Negro slave, but Merlin suspected he was secretly planning to paint him black, because it was no question that Merlin would come with him. Where Arthur went, Merlin followed. They were best friends after all.

But for today their plans for faking their deaths and escaping to a life of freedom and fun were put on hold. Their stomachs were full of the best lemonade in the world, the sun was warm on their skin and they were lazily watching the clouds pass by and trying to outdo each other with their claims about what they could see in them.

''That's a horse there! Don't you see it?'' Arthur's voice was slightly distorted by the stalk in the corner of his mouth. He gestured wildly at the sky. ''With the snout and the mane. It's rearing!''

Merlin squinted at the large fluffy cloud above them, cocking his head to the side. It could be a horse... but it could also be a dragon. And just as he was thinking it, the cloud shifted. The snout became narrower, the mane became wings and what Arthur had vaguely made out as hooves were now claws. Merlin smiled. It was becoming more and more distinctive, forming scales and the long tail.

''I think it's a dragon,'' he said smugly.

Arthur gaped. ''Wow. That's... really a dragon, how...'' Arthur shook his head, as the cloud drifted off, slowly disintegrating. ''I never saw a cloud do that before. But you saw it too, right Merlin?''

Merlin grinned.

''What?'' Arthur asked with a frown.

''Nothing. What do you think that one looks like?'' he gestured at a smaller cloud that didn't look much like anything.

''I don't know...'' Arthur frowned. ''A whale?''

Merlin wrinkled his nose uncertainly, but then he could see it and the more he could see it, the more the cloud became a whale. A happy whale with a big tail fin. And then the whale winked at him and dove and swam away.

''Oh my god, what was that!?'' Arthur shouted delightedly next to him. ''Did you see that? Did you see the whale, Merlin?''

''Yeah,'' Merlin said with a happy smile, ''I did.''

The clouds performed very strangely that day. They drew lions and elephants and even a knight on his horse in the sky. And Arthur and Merlin's happy laughter rang over the Pendragon estate. Until-

''Merlin!!''

Merlin had never heard his mother yell in such a shrill and frightened voice before, and the laughter died in his throat. His mother was running towards them, her face pale and terrified.

''Merlin, come inside with me, right now!''

''But mum-''

''Right now, Merlin! You'll do as I say, if you know what's good for you! Now come!''

And then she took Merlin by the arm and dragged him off, leaving a stunned Arthur behind.

That afternoon, Merlin's mum took him to their rooms upstairs, where they hardly ever went during the day. She sat Merlin down on his bed, and then she made him promise that he would never, ever practice magic again. Especially not in front of anybody else. Especially not in front of Arthur. And, for all that was holy, not outside.

''You mean... not at all?'' Merlin protested.

''Yes. I mean not at all. It's forbidden. It's dangerous. Merlin... nobody knows that you have magic, and nobody can ever know. If anyone finds out, they will take you away from me. They will do terrible things to you...''

Merlin started to cry then. He was only six, and his mum was frightening him. He didn't want anyone to take him away. And he didn't understand what he had done wrong!

In the following years Merlin came to understand his mother's fears better, though. As he became older he learned that people with magic were called sorcerers and that other people hated them. And because they hated them they didn't want anything to do with them. Sorcerers weren't allowed to go to the same schools as non-sorcerers, they weren't allowed to work in many jobs, they weren't allowed to marry a non-sorcerer or to vote, and they had to register as soon as their ability showed. Their names would be taken, and they would get a mark; the tattoo of a black 'M' on the back of their left hand. So that everyone would see and everyone would know and they could never hide what they were. ~

Here at the Facility it's just a normal registration. After all, Merlin's name is already down on that list, however much his mother and later Merlin himself have tried to keep it from them. Merlin has thrown away his whole life to escape them. But then, apparently, no one ever succeeds for long.

He is led in another stark room. There's a desk in one corner, a burly man sitting behind it, eyeing him up with a scornful smile.

''So you're the whore then, eh? Well, won't you be a nice little surprise for the boys downstairs.''

Merlin swallows but keeps silent. There is nothing else in the room but a free space in front of the desk and a metal bin. The man behind the desk gestures towards it.

''Drop your clothes for inspection and throw them in there.''

''I-Inspection?''

''Inspection.'' The warden casts him a lewd look. ''There will be a full body cavity search. Then you shower and will be out-fitted with your new garb. Now get on with it.''

He walks stiffly forwards. It's strange, because he should really be used to this. Getting naked. Just skin and flesh, he tries to tell himself, but it doesn't work. It's different here. These men don't want him, he's not a prize, he's just a piece of dirt, a dirty sorcerer, a prisoner. His nakedness is not to entice them but to dehumanize him.

Merlin swallows and gets on with it. It's cold in the room, the tiles icy under his bare feet, and he shivers. He fights the instinct to shield his privates with his hands. And god, when has he started to think about it that way?

There's nothing but disgust on the warden's face as he stands up and slowly walks around Merlin. He grabs an arm and pulls it up with hard hands, then the other one.

''Spread your legs,'' the man says from behind him, and Merlin does.

Rubber-gloved hands slither over his skin. Not in an erotic way, just invasive. One hand cards through his hair, then grabs it roughly, yanking his head this way and that.

''Open your mouth.''

Thick fingers shove into the cavern, almost making him gag. Then-

''Bend forward, spread your cheeks.''

Bile rises up inside of Merlin and for a moment he panics. His magic surges, but doesn't find an outlet. It's trapped inside him just as Merlin is trapped in this place. A cruel hand on his neck shoves him forward, and he stumbles a little.

''Listen, whore-boy, I give you an order and you do as I say. That's how it's gonna be. You won't like it when I get impatient.''

Merlin swallows again, panting a little in his fear. With shaking hands he gropes for his buttocks.

''That's it, whore-boy, I thought you should know how this works, don't you?''

And then a finger is shoved inside him, deeply and violently, questing. It hurts and Merlin has to bite his lip so hard it starts bleeding to keep from sobbing. He gives a pained grunt instead and the warden scoffs.

''Thought you would be looser.''

The finger is withdrawn and the man steps away from him, pulling off his gloves. When he throws them into the bin, Merlin sees the blood on them.

''Shower's through there,'' the man says dismissively, with his back turned, and nods towards a door on the other side of the room. Then he turns around and grins at Merlin.

''Welcome to the Facility.''

*

Things don't get better after that. The water of the shower is cold as ice and the clothes are rough and scratchy, but Merlin isn't one used to many comforts. The cells aren't much different from what Merlin imagines any prison cells to be. Small. A bunk, a table and two chairs, a toilet.

He has a cellmate, though. He is stretched on the lower bunk when Merlin gets shoved into the cell, the door sliding shut with a loud, metallic clang. The man sits up then, looking at Merlin shrewdly through narrowed eyes. He has broad shoulders and a rough beard, but it's his eyes that scare Merlin. They are dark and cruel.

''So you are the newbie. We have heard a lot about you already. Made quite some noise out there, didn't you?''

Merlin looks at the man confused.

''Oh the grapevine works well, even in here.'' The man laughs and pulls a cigarette from a packet under his pillow. He lights it, inhales and blows the smoke at Merlin with a wry smile.

''I'm Alvarr, by the way,'' he says casually. ''And if you want to survive in here, you better stick to me.'' He winks then, and throws himself back on the bunk, watching Merlin through hooded eyes.

''I'm not exactly the socialising kind,'' Merlin says with a small shrug, looking around the cell.

There aren't many personal items to tell him more about the man he will share this cell with, but Merlin doesn't trust his smiles. Something tells him that it's all an act. Alvarr might have a certain charm, but Merlin has a feeling he only looks out for his own hide.

''So...'' Alvarr drawls after a moment. ''How did you do it?''

Merlin turns back to him. ''Huh? What are you talking about?''

''How did you reach your magic?'' Alvarr clarifies with a gleam in his eyes. He's sat up again and studies Merlin with an eager expression. ''They say you were under repressants like everybody else. But you killed him with your magic, didn't you?''

There is excitement in his voice - and enjoyment. As if Merlin has done something beautiful.

''I don't know,'' Merlin says, looking away. ''I don't know how I did it.''

Suddenly there is a hand on his wrist, and his arm is pulled back in a painful angle.

''Why do I not believe you, little boy?'' Alvarr whispers harshly in his ear.

''I don't know,'' Merlin insists, trying to squirm away. ''Do you think I would be here if I knew?''

It makes Merlin's skin prickle, how close Alvarr is to him, at his back, holding him fast. He feels the whisper of fabric sliding over his throat again and shakes his head, trying to shake off the feeling. It's not happening again, it's not.

After a moment Alvarr scoffs doubtfully, but he lets Merlin go. Merlin stumbles backwards until his knees hit a chair and he sinks down on it, rubbing his shoulder subconsciously.

''You better try to remember then,'' Alvarr says. It sounds like a threat. ''Your only other option will be the executioner.''

*

The first night Merlin hardly sleeps. There are too many sounds coming from the open space of the cellblock. There must be about fifty sorcerers on this level alone. Merlin has never thought there were so many of them. There are snores and clanks and grunts. Merlin does rather not think about the origin of the latter. He starts to realise that Alvarr had a point. It won't be easy to survive in here. These men might be sorcerers like him, but they are not his friends; there have been too many calculating looks in the canteen over dinner. He is new, so he is fair game. They know what he is, or was, outside, and he has heard the whispers.

''Look at the whore...''

''...such a pretty mouth...''

''...want to stick your cock...''

''...might get an opportunity...''

Merlin isn't stupid. He knows what happens in prisons. He doesn't expect this one to be anything different. So he tries to keep his head down. But somehow, however much he tries to fly under the radar, it never works. His skin is too pale, his ears are too large, his face is too strange. He just stands out.

So Merlin doesn't sleep. Alvarr is snoring under him, but Merlin is lying wide-awake, staring at the shadows on the ceiling. He wonders how long he will be here for. How long it will take until he is prosecuted. Whether he will still be alive by then. He thinks of Arthur too. He can't not. He thought he was dreaming when he heard Arthur's voice at first. Until that arsehole cop called him 'Pendragon'. Then Merlin's brain switched off.

Merlin allows himself one moment, there inside the bare walls of his cell, to conjure him up inside his mind. Arthur. The golden, ruffled hair. The tendons in his forearms where he had rolled up his sleeves. The firm line of his mouth and the deep rumble of his voice. He hasn't had this kind of material to spur his fantasies in many, many years. But it feels almost too real now. The Arthur he had thought of in past nights was the Arthur of his childhood. Eighteen and boyish and innocent. He couldn't have been further away from Merlin, who had become a commodity to be bought. A good to be damaged. But the Arthur he sees inside his mind now is very different. He has grown up and has walked his own nightmares. You can see it in his eyes. They both are not the same boys they once were. Still, Merlin just wants to crawl into Arthur's arms, like he crawled into his bed when they were kids and Merlin woke up in the middle of the night. He wishes the world was still that simple.

*

It happens in the showers. Where else. Showers are mandatory and Merlin grabs his prison issued towel and soap the next morning. He doesn't know where Alvarr is. His cellmate slunk off with a ''Later.'' as soon as the lockdown ended. So Merlin goes alone.

There are other people there, but the room is huge and Merlin picks a shower head in the far corner. The water is cold and Merlin tries to be quick. He is rinsing off, face turned into the spray and already feeling the relief - because he is almost done and no one bothered him - when he feels the hand on his shoulder.

He gets shoved to his knees, hitting the tiles hard, and the pain shoots through him like a bolt. He tries to blink the water from his eyes, tries to see what's going on around him, but the hands hold him down, and all he can see is a circle of legs around him. More than one. At least three.

Something inside of him gives - just lets go - and after that it's like old news. The hand in his hair and the fingers digging into his cheeks. The grunts and the harsh breaths above him. A soled foot grinding down on his fingers. He feels almost detached, like this is about someone else. A pair of hands grip his hips and another one forces his cheek against the tiles. The water is still running. The pain is sharp and familiar but the violence is not. He gets a kick in the ribs and another one against his cheekbone, tries to shield himself with his arms but they are pulled back and twisted. He feels his skin give when his head connects with the floor and then there's blood in his eyes and in his mouth. His head is pulled up by the hair and slammed down again, and then there's nothing.

When he comes to, he is cold. There's still water running somewhere, but Merlin knows that he's alone. There is a metallic taste in his mouth and he is distantly aware that it's from his own blood. Breathing hurts so fucking much. He tries to push himself to his hands and knees but the pain that shoots through his side leaves him breathless and barely swallowing down on his scream. For a moment he just lies there, panting against the tiles. Then he tries again.

It's then that he hears footsteps, and he freezes. They might be coming back. But no, it's just one person. There's a gasp and someone says, ''Oh god, shit!''

Merlin tries to look up through his swollen eye and matted hair and thinks he recognizes a boy around his age, he doesn't know his name. The boy turns around and runs off, and Merlin curiously wonders if he's going to tell someone, if there is someone who'll care, whether it matters either way. It's the end of the line here, anyway.

Arthur might be a lawyer, but sometime he hates the law. He especially hates the laws concerning sorcerers, which is why he will forgive Morgana for being a rude and pushy bitch sometimes. Arthur knew it wouldn't be easy, he's been here before, but that doesn't change the fact that he is fucking frustrated and annoyed like hell. He has spent most of his day just making sure that he can actually defend Merlin at all, never mind the way he needs to. It's a paper-war each time Arthur takes on the case of a sorcerer, but this time it's even worse.

He knows he is running himself ragged, which is probably his way of coping when he is still reeling from the impact of finding Merlin. Now, when he has long given up looking for him. He blames his lack of sleep for being emotional and on the edge like this, but he doesn't get it, can't really comprehend it how the man he met last night can be the same person as his Merlin.

It seems impossible.

~ The arrival of Merlin and Miss Hunith changed Arthur's life completely. Not only that, it changed Arthur himself. Until then, the most important thing in his life had been his father's approval, and he still longed for that, he always would, but his father was gone more often than not and Miss Hunith and Merlin were there.

Miss Hunith filled the house with warmth and smiles, things that Arthur had never known were missing, and they were given freely. There were still lessons in the mornings, but Miss Hunith had a way to make them interesting. She didn't only give him lectures; she encouraged him to read a story or paint a picture too.

The first time she smiled at him and touched his cheek because he had done well, Arthur sat in his chair, frozen, for what felt like an hour, still feeling her smooth cool fingers on his skin. No one had ever touched him like this and he hated Merlin a little for being loved by her when no one really loved Arthur.

He had been very determined to hate Merlin from the day the boy had moved in with his mother, wondering whether he could get rid of him somehow. What Arthur had not been prepared for was Merlin himself.

Arthur had always been a lonely child. Even in nursery and later in school he didn't really have friends. The other kids thought he was weird, too posh, too formal and too polite. Arthur felt awkward because he didn't understand their interactions. They talked about TV programmes Arthur was not allowed to watch, and they had no idea about the things Arthur was interested in, like history and legends and adventure books.

But then, suddenly, there was Merlin. One and a half years younger and different somehow. He understood what Arthur was talking about. He saw the genius in Arthur's plans and, really, all the good games were better when you had someone else to play with. Merlin liked the same things as Arthur. He could climb like a monkey and run like a rabbit and, when they flopped back into the grass afterwards, he would turn around to Arthur and there would be a grin on his face that was broad and open and so cheerful that Arthur couldn't help but smile back.

As a squire Merlin was useless, though, he complained all the time, whining why he couldn't be a knight, although that should have been obvious.

''Knights are strong, Merlin, and you are skinny. Also, they don't have ears like jug handles.''

Arthur thought that was a pretty reasonable argument and was honestly surprised when Merlin glared at him and then threw Arthur's sword, which he should have been polishing, down in the dirt and stomped back to the house.

Merlin was a puzzle sometimes. He would become sullen and mulish at the strangest occasions, and then, from one day to the other, Merlin stopped. He didn't smile at Arthur like he was the next best thing to chocolate pudding anymore. He didn't join him for his adventures and games any longer. If he looked at Arthur at all, he would glare at him and Arthur just didn't understand it.

School started again and Arthur missed his lessons with Miss Hunith, even if he had always thought it slightly unfair that Merlin got to read picture books while he had to learn about Henry VIII. There were still the afternoons and the weekends but things just weren't as cheerful as they used to be. Arthur missed Merlin and that made him angry. Merlin should be glad that Arthur wanted to play with a little kid like him. But he wasn't. And if Arthur begged for Pistachio ice-cream every time now, even though he knew that Merlin hated it? Tough luck.

It might have been that their friendship would have come to an end before it really started, if the incident at the lake had not happened. It was the first time in such a long while that Merlin wanted to play with Arthur again, and he couldn't care less if running around on a frozen lake was stupid or dangerous.

And then it happened. One second Merlin was laughing and grinning and the next he was gone. All that was left was the dark rippling surface of the lake where Merlin had broken through the ice.

It was the scariest moment of Arthur's life and he didn't really know how he managed to drag Merlin out. He was heavy. So, so heavy. Arthur clung to his friend then, shaking like a leaf and trying to comfort him. Because it was Arthur's fault. He was the older one. He had the responsibility.

It was only later, when Merlin came to apologise, that Arthur realised that it had been a ploy. That Merlin had wanted to pay him back for the Pistachio ice cream.

''I don't want to get rid of you!'' Arthur blurted. ''I... I can't be a knight if I don't have a squire.''

And then it was back, the smile that was almost splitting Merlin's face in two, and Arthur felt his stomach lurch and his heart stutter.

''Well, Sir Artus,'' Merlin said, still grinning, ''then I will be happy to serve you until the day I shall die!'' ~

Arthur can still remember that. Merlin, as a boy, saying those words, and Arthur believing them. Believing that Merlin would always be by his side. He was a boy then and has grown up since, but some part of him still whispers in his ear that it is destiny, that Merlin belongs with him. Arthur's shakes his head, dispelling such idiotic thoughts from his mind. There is one more thing he needs to do.

He drives out to Aredian's town house, a big imposing box behind iron gates. He doesn't have a right to it, but he wants to see where it happened. Where that bastard hurt Merlin. Where Merlin struck back.

He rings the doorbell and a young, Indian woman, opens the door. She apparently was Aredian's housekeeper and, when he tells her who he is, she lets him in. Sometimes being blond and posh has its advantages. It's the combination of charm and intimidation that gets Arthur what he needs in his job.

The girl leaves him alone and Arthur takes a look around. Aredian's house seems like a tomb to him, but maybe that's just because of recent events. Looking at the staircase, he can see Merlin walking up the steps, resigned to his fate, and when he goes through to what seems to be the living room, he has to clench his fists, hearing Merlin's dead voice.

We fucked. In the living room.

He wonders about the where, and the how, and he feels slightly ashamed about it, but tells himself that it's his job; he needs to know the story so that he can work it for the jury.

He goes up to the bedroom then and it's a fucking disaster zone. It looks like a whirlwind went through it, uprooting anything from papers to clothes to bottles that now lie in glittering shards strewn on the wooden floors. There is a bed, a monstrosity of carved wood, and Arthur sees a cut piece of rope dangling from one of the bedposts. He has to close his eyes, but it doesn't stop the images playing in his mind, and he swallow down the bile when he thinks about Merlin, curled in on himself, looking broken.

He turns away from the ugly site and goes to search for the housekeeper. Most often they are keepers of much more than their master's possessions, and what Arthur really needs are Aredian's secrets.

*

The next day the murder of the secretary of state hits the papers like a bomb, each trying to outdo the other with their headlines and front pages. They are scrambling to get more information and someone has tipped them off that Arthur is on the defence for the sorcerer who was arrested on the scene.

They descend on him like a swarm of flies when he jogs up the stairs to the Yard that morning, and Arthur scowls when someone shoves a microphone in his face.

''Mr. Pendragon, you are yet again defending a sorcerer - this time a murderer! Is there anything that's sacred to you at all?''

''What does your father have to say about you defending a man who has killed a personal acquaintance, a follow member of the government?''

''Mr. Pendragon, is it true that your client is a prostitute?''

Arthur pushes through them with his jaw set firmly and doesn't even dignify them with a ''no comment.''

''Fucking magic-lover,'' he hears one of them whisper when he pushes through the doors and into the building, and he turns around on his heel, staring down at them with a glare.

''Yes, I'm defending Mr. Emerson. I'm doing it because it's the right thing to do, and I couldn't give a flying fuck what anyone else has to say about it! There has been great injustice done to him – even worse than what's been done to all Magicals in our country – and I will do my best to set it right. Now, if you would excuse me, I have a job to do.''

He curses silently as he takes the lift to the 4th floor. It must be the sleep deprivation. He normally wouldn't lose his temper like this, not in front of the press, but there is a headache building behind his eyes and he is worried, truly worried. Those scribblers and pen pushers have already decided that Merlin is the perfect example for the depravity of sorcerers, they are baying for his blood.

He squares his shoulders and takes a deep breath before he enters the area of command unit one, looking around for Leon. This is what he needs to concentrate on - gathering information and getting to the bottom of this mess. Because there is something wrong about this whole case, and Arthur needs to find out what it is.

*

He finds Leon in the corner that houses the coffee maker. When he sees Arthur he sighs in relief.

''Thank god, you're here. Let's go for the real thing, yeah? This stuff tastes like shit.''

Arthur sees it for the ploy that it is, but he goes along with it. Then again, if it's anything like the brew the vending machine at the courthouse insists is coffee, then Leon might be deadly serious.

They choose a coffee shop around the corner. It's not one of the big chains and not too frequented at this time of the day. They pick up their brews – black, thank you, because they are no girls – and go for a table in the far corner.

''So,'' Leon says sitting down and stretching his long legs under the table. ''What have you got for me?''

Arthur smiles wryly. ''Shouldn't that be my question?''

Leon shrugs. ''Probably, but I know you. You don't trust us to do our job.''

Arthur rolls his eyes. ''I would trust you to do your job. Valiant? Not so much. And in a case like this nobody has any interest in finding evidence in favour of the suspect.''

Leon inclines his head in concession. He drums his fingers on the tabletop and studies his friend. ''But you found something,'' he says after a moment. It's not a question.

Arthur takes a deep breath before he sighs. ''There is just something that makes me suspicious. I was at Aredian's house yesterday-''

''Arthur.''

''Yeah, yeah, I know.'' Arthur waves away the rebuke. ''But I wanted to see it and it's not like I forced entry. The housekeeper let me in. She wasn't there when Aredian died because he gave her the night off, which he apparently had never done before.''

''The woman never had a day off?''

''Not when Aredian had visitors over.''

''I'm not sure your client qualifies.''

Arthur ignores the jibe and continues with his story. ''She also told me that wasn't the first time Merlin had been there. That Aredian had been bringing him to the house regularly, and that she'd always been there. He would tell her to stay in the kitchen, but he wanted her there in case he needed something afterwards. He trusted her, and while he didn't exactly flaunt them, he didn't hide his... perversions from her.'' Arthur scoffs. ''Apparently he paid her very well for her discretion.''

Leon frowns. ''Hm. Could still be a coincidence. That he gave her that day off.''

''There is no such thing as coincidence,'' Arthur dead pans. ''And Aredian also lied to her. He told her that 'Mordred' would be visiting, and had her prepare the house. She told me she had been quite surprised, but had assumed that it was a special occasion with someone Aredian might actually date, and that he wanted privacy for that. He had sometimes referred to a Mordred in passing. At first she had thought it was Aredian's son, but then she found out he never had children.''

''So he told her Mordred would come over when it was really Merlin? Could he have just confused the names?''

''Only if he had become demented. Because he called Merlin 'Mordred' when they had sex and when he tried to strangle him. Merlin said he had never done that before.''

Leon looks pensive now. ''So who is this Mordred? A past lover Aredian was still hung up on?''

''Maybe. But he tried to strangle Merlin. So if that Mordred was a lover once, it seems there was a bit of a history that Aredian had yet to put to rest.''

Leon raises an eyebrow at Arthur's obvious pun.

''So let me guess... you want to find this Mordred? And then what?''

''Well, wouldn't you want to hear his story? Why he was so important to Aredian? That man never seemed overly emotional or nostalgic to me.''

''True,'' Leon grudgingly agrees. ''But how would you find him? Mordred, I mean. It's a very unusual name, but still not much to go on.''

''It is a strange name, isn't it?'' Arthur says with a glint in his eye. ''Like the names sorcerers used to give their children. What if he was a sorcerer too? Why else would Aredian hire Merlin?''

Leon coughs, and Arthur glares.

''It's not that common a thing for members of the government to hire a Magical for sex, wouldn't you say? Seeing as it's actually against the law?''

Leon inclines his head with a smile. ''Okay. I see where you are coming from, so what do you want me to do?''

''I want you to see if you can find Mordred. Ask Gwaine for help. If Mordred is a sorcerer, he should be registered-''

Arthur's phone starts ringing and he grabs it, looking at the caller ID with a frown. It's an official number from the Yard. ''Pendragon,'' he answers the call. There is a bad feeling settling in his stomach. The only person from the Yard who would call him is sitting right in front of him.

''Mr. Pendragon, this is Percival Lang. I'm calling to inform you that there has been an incident with your client.''

Arthur's breath catches and his chest is flooded with cold. ''What kind of incident?'' he asks with deceptive calm.

''He was attacked.''

Percy sounds apologetic and Arthur closes his eyes. He is dead, he thinks. I only just found him and now he's-... Blood. So much blood, smeared on pale skin. A long neck bowed back and a mouth open in a silent scream. Once blue eyes clouded and staring. Time grinds to a stop as everything around Arthur drifts away. He breathes in. He breathes out. Somewhere far away someone is talking.

The phone is pried from his hands. He blinks and Leon is in his face, his voice urgent and demanding.

''Arthur. Arthur! He is not dead. Do you hear me? He is injured. But he will be fine. Arthur?''

The words sink in slowly. Arthur blinks rapidly and when he becomes aware of his surroundings again he is already up and moving. Leon is behind him, cursing.

''Fuck, Arthur, you better tell me what this is about after.''

''After what?'' Arthur asks without interest. His movements feel robotic.

''After I drive you to the Facility, because you, my friend, are in no state to do so.''

Arthur doesn't argue. Arguing only costs time. Time he doesn't have. He needs to see Merlin and make sure. He has to make sure... Arthur can't really think properly right now, but he needs to see Merlin.

When they get there, Leon speaks with someone through the lowered window and the iron gates move backwards like huge black wings. Arthur has been at the Facility before, but now the familiar driveway is the path that leads to Merlin. Leon stops the car in front of the main entrance and then grabs Arthur's arm.

''Arthur,'' he says, and Arthur turns around to him. He knows what Leon wants to say - Arthur can't let show his true level of concern – and he nods. When he steps out of the car he is Arthur Pendragon, a man who doesn't ask but demands that whoever-the-fuck he has in front of him does as he is told.

The corridors seem endless and with too many doors that have to be opened and locked again after they pass through. Arthur keeps his face arrogant and doesn't say a word.

Then they are in the infirmary.

A man with thinning hair and a white overcoat tells Arthur that Merlin had been found in the shower. His injuries are minor, apparently.

''Two broken ribs, a broken wrist and some bruises,'' the man says dismissively and adds, almost as an afterthought, ''and some rectal tearing. Nothing to worry about.''

Something in Arthur breaks and shatters, and then he has the man pinned flat against the door.

''You will worry about it, do you hear me?'' he whispers harshly. ''Because if my client gets so much more as a broken nail, I will have your job. And believe me, it will have been the last one you have ever had. Do we understand each other?''

Apparently they do, because the man nods frantically and then, when Arthur lets go of him, leads him to a door with a small window. In the room beyond is a single hospital bed surrounded by machines. In the bed is Merlin.

''Ah... I will leave you with your client then,'' the man says hastily.

Arthur doesn't answer, doesn't even look at the man, his eyes are on Merlin alone. There are bruises all right. The right side of Merlin's face is a swollen, mottled mess of colours, one blue eye hiding away in the tissue. His lip is split, Arthur notices, and he can see the stark white of bandages. Arthur's hands curl into fists as it all starts rolling in his stomach, the anger and the self-disgust, the guilt and the despair. How could he have let this happen? How could he let it come to this? He is the older one. Merlin has always been his responsibility. And Arthur has failed him.

Merlin looks small and utterly broken and Arthur punches the wall next to the door.

The impact on the plaster splits the skin on his knuckles and pain shoots up his arm, thrilling and violent. It helps to curb the rage a little, but he still wants to tear and hit and rip something apart. He wants to grab Merlin and run. He knows he can't, though. The cards have been dealt and all there is left is for Arthur to make his bet.

Merlin turns his head towards the door when it's pushed open, expecting the doctor with the cold eyes and the indifferent face. Merlin hates that man; his disregard is almost worse than the contempt that Merlin is used to. At least, if there is contempt, that means he is acknowledged as a person. The doctor who has patched him up is treating Merlin like an object, something that simply needs repair because it's broken.

But it isn't the doctor who stands in the doorframe, it's Arthur, and Merlin can't do much more than stare. He wouldn't have any words, even if his throat didn't feel like the desert.

Arthur's blond hair looks slightly dishevelled and his eyes are stormy. He holds his left hand awkwardly in front of himself, the knuckles bloody. Combined with Arthur's pristine shirt and suit, the sight is so strange and strangely familiar that Merlin is totally thrown. He wonders what happened. Whether Arthur has fought his way in here, like the knight in shining armour that he used to play as a child. Merlin dispels this absurd idea quickly, though, because it can't be that Arthur would still care that much.

The thing is, Merlin can't read Arthur anymore. He used to be an open book, at least for Merlin. After Merlin begun to understand the strange and often awkward ways in which Arthur showed his emotions, Merlin realized that Arthur really wore his heart on his sleeve. But apparently that has changed too.

It makes Merlin nervous, that he doesn't know what Arthur is thinking. His mind conjures up those reactions he doesn't get. He imagines the horror and disgust at seeing what Merlin has become. The anger, maybe cultivated over years, because Merlin lied to him. Maybe even pity for Merlin's pathetic uselessness. Here he is, battered and bruised and a mere shadow of the person he was in another life.

The silence is stretching too long. It makes Merlin feel smaller and smaller until he wishes he could just shrink into the sheets and vanish. Then Arthur suddenly moves forward. He only needs a few paces and then he is standing next to Merlin's bed. He stares some more, at Merlin's hands on top of the flimsy sheet now. And then it happens.

Arthur's hand reaches out and takes hold of Merlin's uninjured one. He doesn't squeeze it or pick it up, he just holds it. His eyes come up to meet Merlin's then, and Merlin's lungs are suddenly empty. There is no air and no breath, just Arthur's eyes on him and that look, that old, familiar look that says, you are mine and I will protect you - I dare you to stop me!

~ The first time Merlin saw that look on Arthur's face was at the party for Arthur's tenth birthday. Arthur being Arthur had wanted a big party with cake and balloons and a magician. No clown, though, because Merlin thought they were creepy and scary. Mr. Pendragon had agreed on condition that he would manage the guest list, and Arthur really didn't care that much about who was at the party as long as Merlin was there.

It was a big party. Apart from Arthur's classmates from school, there were quite a few older boys - sons of Mr. Pendragon's important business associates. The job of hosting the party fell to Gaius and Merlin's mum though as Mr. Pendragon had more important appointments than his son's birthday party.

At first things seemed to be running smoothly. The cake was actually chocolate and not some crap like pistachio, the magician had some nifty tricks and Arthur's delighted laughter was ringing through the garden. Even Arthur's classmates were not so bad.

Later, when it was time for hotdogs, Merlin's mum sent him to Sally in the kitchen to ask for more paper napkins. The kitchen was further back, in a side wing of the house, and next to it was the storage room. When Merlin strolled down the corridor, he was surprised to find the door to the latter standing ajar. He pushed it fully open and entered, casting a look around the shelves. At the other end of the room stood three of the older boys, munching on Sally's caramel apple tartlets, smoking cigarettes and drinking from a flask they were passing around.

''What do you want, Dumbo?'' one of them sneered when he saw Merlin standing there, shifting on his feet.

Merlin bit his lip. He didn't know what to say really, but this was his house too now, and he knew how much work Sally had probably put in those tartlets.

''You can't be in here,'' he said, feeling unsure. ''This is just for the staff.''

''Is it?'' another of the boys asked meanly. ''And what are you then, little boy? The boot-licker?''

He laughed like a hyena at his own joke.

''You can't eat that,'' Merlin said bravely. ''And you can't smoke. Mr. Pendragon doesn't allow it in the house.''

''Mr. Pendragon isn't here though, is he?'' the third boy asked, raising his brows. ''Couldn't be bothered to spent time with his little snot-nosed brat, could he?''

He grinned at his companions and they all laughed.

''Why would he? That retarded little idiot is pathetic!'' the first one said, braying with laughter.

Merlin's hands balled into fists and he could feel an angry heat flooding his cheeks.

''Arthur is really smart,'' he hissed. ''Probably a lot smarter than the bunch of you!''

The three boys turned towards him; they weren't laughing anymore.

''Is that right?'' one said snidely, stepping closer to Merlin, who made an involuntary step backwards. ''It seems to me that you think you're really clever too, isn't it?''

He was crowding Merlin slowly backwards, until there was the wall in Merlin's back and there was no-where left to go.

''Well, let me tell you, you don't look so clever from here.''

He took a drag from his cigarette and blew it in Merlin's face, making him cough.

''But we're feeling generous today,'' he drawled, looking back towards the others. ''Don't we boys?''

The others came closer now too, building a semicircle around Merlin.

''We will teach you a lesson,'' the first boy promised with a nasty smile.

He stepped even closer, looking down at Merlin who stood pressed to the wall, and lazily put the cigarette to his lips, inhaling. The hand holding the glowing stump fell forward, closer and closer to Merlin's face. Merlin couldn't help it, he pressed his eyes closed, his small frame tensing like a coiled spring. Then suddenly-

''What do you think you are doing?''

It was Arthur's voice, but it had a different sound, unlike anything Merlin had ever heard coming out of his best friend's mouth. It was cold, haughty and commanding.

Merlin blinked and suddenly all he could see were backsides. Between the shoulders of two of the boys he got a glimpse of Arthur, though. Arthur had about a head on Merlin, but these boys dwarfed him so much it was ridiculous. And still, Arthur stood there with his chin high and his lips pressed together and glared.

''I will tell my father about this, and you can bet your stupid heads he won't be pleased,'' Arthur said coldly.

The boys hesitated, but then one of them apparently decided that a boy so much younger than them wouldn’t give them a slating.

''You seem pretty sure of yourself, Pendragon. But your daddy isn't here, is he? He's got better things to do. And where's your mummy? Awwww, I forgot! You don't have one, do you? You just have that stupid bitch of a nanny!''

There was laughter again as the boy turned around to his friends, seeking approval. And then he stumbled, landing on his arse, as Arthur stormed forwards and pushed him with everything he got.

''You don't talk about her like that, you hear me? And you leave Merlin alone! Because if you don't, you'll regret it!''

Arthur stood there, seething and bristling, like a small force of nature. Merlin wasn't stupid, though. It was three against two and those boys were a lot older and bigger and probably stronger. So he turned to Arthur worriedly.

''Arthur,'' he said beseechingly. ''Don't...-''

But Arthur just didn't know how to back down. It wasn't in him. So Arthur ended up with a split lip and a torn shirt that day and, when his father came home late that night, he got a dressing down for fighting instead of a 'happy birthday'.

Merlin had never felt so guilty. It was Arthur's birthday, his big party, and Merlin had spoilt it. He waited for Arthur outside of Mr. Pendragon's study, and when his friend finally stepped out with a face that tried very hard to hide how upset he was, Merlin rushed forward. Only to come to a stop in front of Arthur, not knowing what to say to make it better.

''I'm sorry!'' Merlin blurted, his voice pleading.

And there it was. That look. Fierce and protective and determined, daring Merlin to say something, to tell Arthur it wasn't his job to protect his friend. But Merlin didn't say anything. Because that look also gave him a wonderfully warm feeling inside. After a moment Arthur's hand reached out for Merlin's, but Merlin simply wrapped his arms around Arthur and held on tight. There were no more words needed, and if Merlin found a slightly wet patch on the shoulder of his shirt later, he didn't say anything about it.~

Arthur sits down on the bed next to Merlin's knees. He looks at him, and Merlin is left without a thought, without a tether, with nothing but Arthur's blue eyes, serious and sad and with something else in them that Merlin can't decipher. His nose starts clogging as the tears rise up, threatening to pool and spill, and Merlin swallows, eyes wide open. There is a mulish expression around Arthur's mouth, so awfully familiar that Merlin can only stare, utterly at Arthur's mercy.

''I won't ask you what happened,'' Arthur finally breaks the silence, looking away for a moment but tightening his grip on Merlin's hand. ''You don't have to tell me anything. But I want you to know that I will get you out of here.''

Something shudders in Merlin, trying to escape out his throat, and he's not sure whether it is laughter or a sob. Because Arthur is still so stupidly heroic, still so helplessly idealistic it seems.

''There is no getting out of here, Arthur,'' he says, his voice quiet and with just a trace of bitterness that he hates himself for. ''I'm a sorcerer. I killed someone with my magic. This is where my kind ends up. This is the reality. There is no use trying to escape it any longer.''

''No.''

It's quiet but, god, nobody can do stubborn quite like Arthur. That determination on his face, it's burning and chipping away at Merlin's walls, but Merlin knows he can't let him do that. He can't let himself get wrapped up in Arthur like that again, because things have changed and will never be the same, never innocent and easy again.

''I won't give up on you, Merlin. And I won't let you give up either.''

He laughs then. It's an ugly, broken sound.

''You're about ten years too late, Arthur.'' He looks up, forcing Arthur to meet his one good eye by pure will alone. ''I'm nothing but a broken toy. It's too late. You can't save me.''

He lies back on the pillow, letting his body make the argument for him. Look at me, Arthur, he thinks. Look at all the ugliness.

''We'll see about that,'' Arthur says, determined, challenging. He still doesn't know how to back down.

The tears spill over. ''You're too late, Arthur,'' Merlin insists. ''There is nothing left of me.''

But Arthur's hand is still holding Merlin's, almost like a lifeline, an offer, and a promise made a long time ago.

Chapter Text

The sun has come out when Arthur leaves the Facility, and the birds are chirping in the trees around him as if Arthur's world hasn't come to a stop, isn't on the brink of shattering into a thousand pieces, never to be put together again. The birds don't care.

Leon is waiting in the car outside and thankfully just puts it into gear when Arthur lets himself drop into the passenger seat. They don't talk as the car rolls through the gates and turns back towards the centre of London and its busier streets. Arthur's mind is running a mile a minute, formulating plans, discarding ideas and coming up with new ones.

In the end Leon can't hold back his curiosity, though.

''So... are you going to tell me what's the story with this one?''

Arthur grimaces. It's just... you can't explain Merlin in a few sentences. So he settles for, ''He was my... my best friend when we were children. His mother was my governess and they stayed with us till I was eighteen.''

From the corner of his eye, Arthur sees the stunned expression on his friend's face. He knows what Leon is thinking. Arthur has never talked about Merlin. Of all the people who are a part of his life now, Morgana is the only one who knows of Arthur's past.

''You know that he is a Magical,'' he continues, ''but back then nobody knew apart from his mum. He wasn't registered. So, when people found out... he vanished.''

Leon is silent for a moment. ''How old was he?''

''Sixteen.''

 

~ It had been Arthur's birthday, his eighteenth, and they did have plans. After the official party was over, they were going to celebrate - just the two of them – and Merlin had hinted at getting him something special, looking all excited and nervous and smiling that big, goofy smile of his. It had been the start of a summer full of plans. About going to the beach and camping and how it would be just them, just Arthur and Merlin, all summer long until Arthur would go to university. Even then Arthur would be staying in London, at Uther's alma mater, the prestigious King's College, and in a year, when Merlin was done with school as well, he would study history there, and they would move in together. They had it all planned, and the future seemed bright and endless and glorious before them. Until Arthur got called into his father's office.

Arthur was a bit put out, because Merlin had promised to be home by now, and there was still no sign from him. He hadn't called either. But it still came completely out of the blue when his father regarded him with cold and angry eyes, and asked, ''Did you know?''

Arthur frowned, sinking down on the chair in front of the desk. ''Did I know what, father?''

''About Merlin.''

That was when Arthur's heart started to gain speed as if it was trying to escape his chest. Arthur didn't know what, but he knew something bad had happened. Something really, really bad.

He swallowed. ''I...what... what is with Merlin?'' he stuttered.

Arthur's father regarded him through narrowed eyes for a moment. ''He is a sorcerer,'' he said matter-of-factly, then. ''Do you want to tell me that you didn't know about this?''

Everything shattered then. The future. The brightness. Arthur's heart.

''I-...''

''This is a crime, Arthur!'' Uther Pendragon hissed. ''An unregistered sorcerer! A friend of my son! Living in my own home! Do you have any idea what this could do to my career?''

But Arthur was frozen. He heard his father talking, but the words were like echoes far in the mountains. There was just one word ringing loudly in his head: Sorcerer. Merlin was a sorcerer.

It can't be, he thought desperately, Merlin would have told me. They didn't keep secrets from each other. Merlin knew everything about Arthur. But something niggled in Arthur's mind, memories of sunny days of summer, many years ago, of clouds turning into dragons, of flowers bursting into bloom, of butterflies impossibly bright and colourful...

Merlin was a sorcerer.

And he had not told Arthur, his best friend, his-.

And only then did Arthur realise what his father had said. Merlin had not been registered, and that meant Merlin and Hunith had committed a serious crime. Oh god...

''Where... where is Merlin now?'' Arthur croaked.

His father watched him again for a moment before he answered, as if he was trying to gauge whether his son was lying to him. But Arthur had no reasons to lie. He didn't know anything after all, because Merlin had not told him.

''They don't know,'' his father said after a while. ''Apparently he ran away when a few of his classmates saw him doing magic.''

''But... why would he...?''

Why would Merlin be so stupid? He had managed to hide his abilities for so long, why would he be so reckless now?

''He is a sorcerer, Arthur,'' his father snapped coldly. ''They do not need a reason. The magic taints them and poisons them. In the end they all succumb to their hunger for power and their need for destruction. This boy is no different.''

Arthur shook his head. This wasn't right. He knew Merlin. Even if he had not known about his magic, he knew Merlin.

''That... that's not how Merlin is at all,'' he tried to object, but his father interrupted him.

''Don't argue with me, Arthur. You are in enough trouble already. If this boy contacts you, you will tell me immediately. He is dangerous and he is a criminal. It is of the uttermost importance that he is caught and put to justice. Do you hear me?''

Arthur stared at his father, at the cold expression, the unfeeling eyes. He wasn't talking about any boy he didn't know. He was talking about Merlin, who had grown up in his house, whose mother had been a trusted employee and as much of a mother to his son as he could have ever hoped for. But in his father's eyes Merlin was nothing but a parasite now. Something evil in their midst that needed to be weeded out.

Arthur didn't realise it in that moment, but this, right there, was when he lost the last respect he held for his father. He didn't know what to feel about Merlin, but he knew one thing for certain: Merlin was still everything to him, and he would still do all he could to protect him. ~

 

Leon keeps his eyes on the road. There isn't too much traffic, but enough to demand his attention. ''Can't have been easy for him. Suddenly being on the run when you're still so young,'' he says, changing lanes and overtaking another driver.

''No,'' Arthur says bitterly, acid rolling in his stomach when thinking about all the stuff he still doesn't know. ''I can't imagine it was.''

''You know what I think about these things, Arthur. If you need my help...''

Arthur nods and gives Leon a wry smile. He really is a good friend. ''I know.'' Arthur sighs and reaches into his suit jacket to pull out his phone. ''Can you drop me off at my office? I have to push for a hearing at the magistrate's court as soon as possible.''

The car swerves a little, as Leon splutters. ''You want him to be released on bail? A sorcerer?''

Arthur just grits his teeth and stares out the windscreen on the street ahead. ''You didn't see him. And you didn't hear that son of a bitch who calls himself a doctor. I have to get him out of there while he's still alive.''

''Arthur,'' Leon tries carefully, ''you've been there before. You defended sorcerers, you know how it is.''

''This is different, Leon.'' He can't even begin to explain how different it is.

Leon releases a deep breath. ''Okay. It's your call. What about your car though?''

When Leon stops at a red-light and turns his head to look at him, Arthur reaches into his jacket again and hands Leon his car keys. Leon raises his brows at him.

''You do realise I'm not your butler, do you?''

Arthur rolls his eyes. ''Bring it around tonight, and we'll have a few beers.''

Leon just keeps looking at him as Arthur presses a few buttons on his mobile. Arthur shoots him a grin when he hears the dial tone.

''Morgana will probably be there,'' he says innocently, knowing his eyes give away the mocking.

Leon glares at him and puts his foot down when the signal changes. ''Remind me why I am friends with you again?''

''Because you fancy my sister?''

Arthur laughs when Leon elbows him in the ribs, but it is half-hearted. His mind is spinning already. He only gets Morgana's voicemail and tells her to come round to his office as soon as she is free, emphasising the urgency of the situation.

*

Leon drops him off in the city, in front of the steel and glass construction that houses Arthur's office as well as the office of the MRA, the Magical Rights Association, Morgana's pet project and a lobby for Magicals that is finally starting to get heard. Arthur gives Leon a meaningful look before he slams the door closed, and Leon just nods. Arthur knows he will do what he can. He watches for a moment as Leon's car drives off in the direction of the Yard, finally vanishing in between other vehicles. He takes a deep breath and then walks through the revolving door.

His secretary waves at him frantically when she sees him and Arthur sighs, knowing that this isn't a good sign and not in the mood to deal with any more shit today.

''What's wrong Elena?'' he asks, trying not to show his annoyance because whatever it is, it's probably not her fault.

''I'm so sorry, Mr. Pendragon, but he just went in, I tried to stop him, but... when I asked him whether he had an appointment he said he didn't need one, and I said he had to wait till you're back, but-''

''Elena!'' Arthur interrupts the frantic rambling, but giving her a reassuring smile. ''Who is in my office?''

Elena sends him a guilty look. ''Your father,'' she says with a grimace, shifting on her feet as if she expects Arthur to blow up, right there in front of her desk.

Arthur's face becomes grim. Wonderful, he thinks, just what I needed. It probably says a lot about his relationship with his father that sarcasm is the only way he seems able to deal with him.

''It's alright,'' he tells Elena, ''it's not your fault. I know how he is. But next time? Call the police on him.''

Elena's eyes go wide and she splutters a little, but Arthur is already on his way to the door leading to his office.

He finds Uther Pendragon, sitting in one of the leather armchairs in front of his desk, legs crossed and expression stony. But Arthur is not a boy anymore, and the times when this man could intimidate him are long gone.

''Father,'' he says calmly. ''I don't believe we had an appointment. What are you doing here?''

Uther Pendragon turns his head towards him, regarding him with badly concealed anger and agitation. Or maybe it's just that Arthur can read the signs: the pinched line of his mouth and the slight drumming of his small finger on the armrest. Arthur deliberately takes his time to shrug of his coat and hangs it up on the stand in the corner.

''Do you really need to ask why I'm here?'' Uther asks, pressing out the words through gritted teeth. ''I would have thought it was obvious, seeing as the papers are full of your impertinence. A Pendragon. Taking on the case of the sorcerer who murdered a respected member of the government.''

''Was he?'' Arthur asks sardonically, raising his eyebrows at Uther while he walks around his desk.

He knows putting an obstacle - and with it a measure of distance - between them might actually help him to keep his emotions in check. He doesn't bank on it though. He shifts some of the papers on his desk around, aware that his father knows that he isn't really looking at them.

His voice is casual when he continues, ''Your dear colleague, the respected member of the government, hired a Magical to have sex with him – which is against the law, if I recall rightly. He also tried to murder said Magical,'' and here Arthur looks his father square in the eye. ''Which, I hope I don't have to remind you, is most definitely against the law.''

Arthur doesn't sit, preferring to stare down at his father across the desk. Uther is becoming old, the grey in his hair more prominent than the last time they have seen each other. ''So you see,'' Arthur continues, crossing his arms in front of him, ''It doesn't seem to me as if it is my dealings that besmirch the family name.''

''You're being impudent, Arthur,'' Uther says coldly.

''I'm being-'' Arthur chokes out a laugh. ''You come into my office-''

''Do you honestly want to put this man before your family?'' Uther has risen up from the chair now, glaring at Arthur. ''Have you thought about Alex at all?''

Arthur leans forward, clenching his fists furiously. ''You leave Alex out of this. I hardly think you are in a position to advise-''

''And for some sorcerer who-''

''Some sorcerer?'' Arthur cries disbelievingly. ''You honestly want me to believe that you don't know who my client is? You-''

Uther looks away to the side and that gives Arthur the final certainty.

''You do know.'' He still can't quite believe it.

''It is of no consequence who the sorcerer is-''

Arthur growls, ''It's of consequence to me.''

''I told you before-''

''He was my friend! He was everything to me!''

''Don't be so over-dramatic, Arthur, that boy-''

''His name is Merlin. He and his mother lived with us for twelve years. He was the best friend I ever had and now he is... I can't even talk about what your government has done to him. Aredian nearly killed him. He did nothing wrong-''

''He is a sorcerer! A sorcerer who didn't register, and you know as much as I do that's a serious crime according to the law.''

''The law is stupid!'' Arthur shouts.

''Sorcerers need to be detained and controlled, if we don't do it they will always try to-''

''No one makes you register that you are a bigot!''

''They are dangerous, without repressants they are like weapons! You have to register a gun-''

''But you can choose if you want to have a gun, you have no choice about having magic! You judge them for their abilities rather than their actions!''

''I know more about this then you do, Arthur. You weren't around when sorcerers were roaming freely, spreading death and destruction. Your mother thought she could trust them and they killed-''

''Don't talk about my mother!'' Arthur's eyes are blazing now. ''You can't bring her into this argument every damn time when you won't even acknowledge her existence otherwise!''''

''I loved your mother more than my life and sorcerers-''

''I didn't even have a picture of her! All I know about her is what Gaius told me. Remember Gaius? One of the best men I have ever met, who was loyal to you, even though he had latent magical abilities!''

Uther's face has become pale, hectic red spots prominent on his cheeks, he is breathing heavily, but so is Arthur.

''I didn't come here to dig up the past,'' Uther grits out.

Arthur lets himself fall into his desk chair. ''Then what did you come here for, father?'' he asks, feeling tired. When Uther doesn't answer, he looks up. ''You want me to choose? Because I thought I had done that a long time ago. Actually, I thought you had done that for me when I moved out and you didn't talk to me for two years.''

''You were disgracing yourself,'' Uther snaps. ''You quit your education, all our plans-''

''They were your plans, not mine. They never were.''

Uther huffs, looking away. ''And now look at this, what you are doing here...'' His eyes roam Arthur's office with open dislike. ''Is this some childish retaliation for all the time I spent in parliament rather than coming to your football games?

Arthur lets his head drop to his desk, mumbling, ''I can't believe you.'' He looks up at this man who is his father and who sometimes still seems like a complete stranger. ''You think this is about you? Let me tell you something: the choices I have made in my life, the good and the bad, were never about you. Why would they be, when you never really cared? Yes, I had some bad times after Merlin vanished. I did a lot of stupid things. But this, right here, is who I am, father, and I'm proud of it. I will defend Merlin Emrys with my last fucking breath, you can either accept it or not, but if you don't, I really don't have anything more to say to you.''

''You are my son,'' Uther says, as if that is the final argument.

Arthur sighs. ''Yes. I am. I just never understood what that meant to you.''

''Am I interrupting something?'' a sarcastic voice comes from the open office door then. ''Some father and son heart to heart maybe?''

''Morgana,'' Arthur groans, burying his hands in his hair.

''What, Arthur?'' his half-sister asks in smug innocence, something really only Morgana can accomplish. ''I'm deeply hurt I wasn't invited to the family reunion!''

The moment he heard Morgana's voice, Uther's whole demeanour has changed. Where he was patronizing a moment before, he seems uncertain and awkward now. ''Morgana,'' he says, turning towards his daughter, trying for a smile. ''How are you my dear?''

Morgana looks at their father then - and sometimes Arthur still can't get over the fact they share Uther Pendragon in that regard – and her face becomes one of cool aloofness.

''Uther.''

Morgana doesn't call him father, not ever. For her, her father will always be Gorlois even if she can hardly remember him. But still, behind her mask of dismissive distance, Arthur sometimes thinks he sees a hint of longing, but she would never show that to Uther. Morgana is a lot more uncompromising than Arthur ever was.

She comes around the desk now, all elegance and grace, and kisses Arthur on the cheek. He sighs but gives her a small smile. He knows what Morgana is doing, how she is using her show of affection for him to hurt Uther. The cruelty that lies in her behaviour makes him uncomfortable sometimes. It is not his business though, how Morgana chooses to handle her issues with Uther, which he knows has never been easy for her. His alliance has been decided upon years ago, and he has Morgana's back as much as he knows she'll always have his.

''Arthur, darling,'' Morgana says now with exaggerated sweetness, ''You mentioned something about an urgent issue with your new case?''

Arthur rolls his eyes at her, but before he can answer Uther snaps in his direction, ''Arthur! Now you are dragging your sister into this scandal?''

''Actually, father, it was her who dragged me into it.''

''I wouldn't exactly say I dragged you...''

''You practically bullied me. Emotional blackmail one might call it, I think.''

''Well, it's not my fault that you're such a pushover.''

Arthur laughs, but Morgana, it seems, is not done yet. ''With your talent, Arthur,'' she drawls, all the while looking at Uther, ''We might finally convince the government - the new government we hopefully will have soon - to stop the sickening enslavement of Magicals.''

Arthur almost feels sorry for Uther then, his father, who is standing there, in the middle of the room, face straight and radiating bitterness, looking on while his children so easily disregard everything he believes in, everything he worked for. But then Arthur remembers what his father's stubborn believes have caused or at least helped to enable, how many people have suffered because of them. Uther is a relic of a dark age, unable to see past his hate and his prejudices. He watches his father almost curiously as he tells Morgana the reason he called her.

''I want to push for a hearing at the magistrate's court.''

Morgana frowns in confusion. ''The magistrate's... why would you-''

Uther scoffs. ''He thinks he can convince the magistrate's court to release a sorcerer. On bail. A sorcerer who has murdered, using his abilities! Don't be an idiot, Arthur! Even you can't believe the court would allow such a thing.''

''Merlin was assaulted. He is not safe at the Facility.''

''Well there you have it!'' Uther sneers. ''They are like beasts, tearing each other apart if they have no other outlet.''

Arthur clenches his fists, trying hard to step on his anger so he won't stride over and punch his own father. His sister has no such compulsion, though, and she turns towards Uther with a glare.

''They are not beasts!'' Morgana hisses, coming around the desk. ''What do you expect when you incarcerate them, abuse them and hold them prisoner with no sunlight, no future, no hope left?''

''These are criminals, Morgana, dangerous criminals!''

They are almost in each other's face now, Morgana seething and Uther indignant, and Arthur watches it with dawning horror.

''Some can't even do much!'' Morgana spits. ''How is a seer dangerous?''

''They are all the same! They are devious and vindictive-''

''Yeah? Well, I'm a seer!''

Arthur's heart stops, his breath caught somewhere on the way to his lungs as the words keep ringing in the silence of the room. Morgana's eyes are wild, her lips parted and her chest heaving. She starts shaking as the shock of her own admission slowly turns to fear.

Arthur's eyes fly to his father, whose face has turned ashen. Arthur moves forward, but Uther is already turning on his heel. He stumbles a little but he is out of the door before Arthur can even think of what to say. He turns to Morgana instead, whose eyes are staring at him, unseeing.

''Morgana.'' Arthur takes her by the shoulders, trying to catch her eyes. ''Morgana, listen to me. You have to breathe. It's going to be alright.''

''He will have me arrested,'' Morgana whispers horrified.

''No,'' Arthur says firmly. ''He won't.''

Morgana looks at him disbelievingly.

''He won't, Morgana. You are his daughter. He might not be much of a parent, but he won't give you up. Besides, it wouldn't just be you. He would have to have them arrest the both of us, because I knew about it.''

Morgana sags against him then, and Arthur wraps his arms around her, holding her tight. She's still shaking, and he strokes her hair just like she has done it, once, for him.

*

It's late already when Morgana parks her ridiculous car in front of Arthur's house. It's a Mini Hatch and it's obviously not made for people whose ancestors weren't dwarves. Arthur opens the door grumbling about it, trying to unfold his legs without kneeing himself in the chin in the process.

''Stop being such a grouch,'' Morgana chides him with an eyeroll as he trots up the steps to the front door, patting his pockets to locate his keys. ''You should be grateful I gave you a lift and put my evening plans on hold for you.''

Keys in hand, Arthur turns and looks down at her from the top step, his eyebrows raised. ''Explain to me when exactly this became you doing me a favour? Because I could have sworn it was the other way around when you called me night before last.''

Morgana gives him that look that shouts, god, you're stupid, but it's kind of cute.

''I don't know, Arthur, maybe when that boy turned out to be your long lost childhood love?''

Arthur is not blushing. Pendragons do not do blushes. ''He's not my childhood lo-''

Morgana holds up her hand. ''Don't even finish that sentence! I might have pictures of you crying on the couch while holding a stuffed monstrosity that apparently belonged to him when he was a kid.''

Arthur's face turns into a pained grimace. ''Kilgharrah,'' he groans, turns and clonks his forehead against the painted wood of the door. ''Sometimes I hate you so much.''

''There, there,'' Morgana says, patting his shoulder. ''You know you couldn't live without me.''

She takes the keys from his lax fingers and opens the door, taking away his only support.

''Come on, you idiot,'' she says with a smile in her voice, ''we better get started on getting your lover-boy out.''

Arthur leans against the doorframe, head tilted, looking at her with a saucy grin. ''Speaking of lover-boys... I invited Leon to come around.''

Morgana shoots him a glare, but Arthur is pretty sure he sees a blush creeping up her cheeks as she stomps past him, her ridiculous high heels a staccato of annoyance.

Arthur shakes his head in fond amusement that only grows when he hears his son's voice squealing from the living room.

''Aunt Morgana! I didn't know you were coming!''

''Hello moppet! Come here and give your favourite aunt a smooch.''

There is the wet sound of lips smacking that can even be heard in the hall and then Alex's excited voice, ''Come, come, you have to see the picture I've made in school today! It's... it's a statement! That's what Gwen said. Some of the kids said really mean things about dad and I wanted to punch them, but Gwen said I couldn't because vio- ehm, violence is no so-lu-tion.''

The stab in Arthur's heart is an old ache. It's not the first time that this has happened. Arthur's job, which is a reflection of his believes, doesn't only put him in the public spotlight but in the focus of people who vehemently oppose what he stands for. And Arthur knows that his son has suffered for it. It's a regret he carries with him every day.

He slips out of his shoes and hangs up his coat with a sigh, picking up his brief case to take it with him into the living room.

''Dad!'' Alex cries as soon as he sees him, running up to him and taking his hand, pulling him into the direction of the dining table, where Morgana is looking at a large sheet of paper with an expression somewhere between amusement and pride.

''Come and see my picture, dad!''

Alex doesn't give him much choice as he drags Arthur with him to the table. The picture shows some more or less crudely drawn figures. The smallest is in the middle, Alex, surrounded by a blond man in a suit, a dark skinned woman wearing a big smile, holding hands with a dark haired man, and a woman with a wild head of black hair and black boots that cover the whole of her legs. Next to her is another man with orange hair. Above the group is what looks like a transparent that says: FREE ALL MAGEICALS

''That is a great picture, Alex.'' Arthur says, pulling his son against him in a half embrace. ''I especially like Aunt Morgana's shoes.''

Morgana pokes her tongue out at him and Alex giggles.

Arthur crouches down next to his son then, looking at him with a serious face. ''Alex? You told Aunt Morgana some kids said mean things about me at school. Were they mean to you too?''

Alex bites his lip, shaking his head. ''They just said that... you are a magic-lover and... and a traitor and that you shouldn't be allowed to defend that man... the sorcerer who killed the man who worked with granddad.''

''But they didn't hurt you?''

Alex shrugs looking at his toes. ''I don't want them to talk like that about you.'' Arthur pulls Alex in a hug and he comes easily, still so eager for this kind of contact. ''Is it true?'' Alex asks, ''Is the man you are defending a murderer?''

''He has killed someone, yes, but he did it in self-defence. He has been through a lot and that man was hurting him and tried to kill him. Do you understand the difference?''

Alex nods, pulling back to look at his father. ''He had no choice,'' he says.

''Yes. Exactly. He is not a bad man. He only tried to defend himself.''

''What will happen to him now?''

Arthur smiles at him sadly. ''I will try to show the court what you already understood. That he had no choice. And then they will hopefully let him go.''

''And if they don't let him go?'' Alex asks.

Arthur hesitates. ''Then-''

''Well, that's not going to happen,'' Morgana interjects with fake cheerfulness, kneeling down on the other side of Alex. ''Because your dad is awesome, and he will win the case.''

Alex grins and nods happily. Then he runs off towards the kitchen, yelling, ''Come, daddy, come, I'm hungry and Gwen made chicken curry!''

Arthur takes a deep breath and releases it, sharing a silent look with his sister. Morgana smiles wryly and pats his leg.

''Come on then, let's see if there's garlic naan,'' she says getting up.

When Arthur stands and follows her towards the kitchen, he picks up the picture his son as drawn from the dining table. He studies it for a while, with a smile that's equal parts sad and proud.

*

Leon arrives while Arthur is putting Alex to bed, reading him a story and kissing his forehead when he turns off the light. When Arthur is almost out the door, Alex mumbles,

''I hope they let him go. The sorcerer. He looked nice.''

''What? Where did you see a picture of him?'' Arthur is pretty sure there wasn't a picture in any of the papers.

''I didn't,'' Alex says with a yawn. ''I saw him in my dreams.''

Arthur stands in the doorway, stunned, as Alex's breath evens out. There is fear in his heart, even more then there was before, and an abyss in front of his feet that is threatening to swallow him whole.

 

 

Merlin spends another day in the infirmary, being handled by careless hands and ignored by cold eyes. Then it's back to the cell he is sharing with Alvarr. He is far from being healed, his face still black and blue, only now there is green and yellow in the mix too. His ribs have been bound and he feels clumsy with the bandage around his wrist, but at least it's an excuse to avoid the showers for now.

Alvarr just grins at him from his bunk when Merlin slips in that evening.

''Told you, didn't I? Should have stuck with me.''

Merlin very much wants to punch that smile out of Alvarr's face, but he opts to ignore him instead. He steps to the toilet pan and pulls out his cock to take a piss. The creak of the springs alerts him to Alvarr getting up from his bunk, but Merlin forces himself to stay where he is. He's pretty sure he has figured Alvarr out. He's a manipulator, someone who gives himself the appearance of being important by using charm and threats in equal measure, but he holds no power over Merlin, not if he doesn't hand it over himself.

''Think you can ignore me now, boy, do you?'' Alvarr hisses from behind him.

Merlin shakes and tucks himself in again without any haste. It's not an easy feat, his heart is beating wildly in his chest. Turning around, he regards his cell mate with a calculatedly bored look.

''Was there something you wanted?''

Alvarr narrows his eyes. ''So now you think yourself something special, do you? Because the MRA is all over you and Arthur Pendragon took on your case. Well let me tell you something, you little shit, that stuck up glamour boy won't be able to save you. He doesn't give a fuck about you, no one does.'' Merlin walks past him without another glance, ignoring Alvarr's rant even while it's getting louder. ''Once you're here, there's no way out but through the gallows. So enjoy your time while it lasts, boy. I'm sure you'll learn to appreciate the company.''

Alvarr's laugh is mean and makes Merlin cringe inwardly, but he schools his features and tells himself not to react. He climbs up to the top bunk a little awkwardly, due to his broken wrist, and settles himself facing the wall.

''Goodnight, Alvarr,'' he says.

And apparently that's all it takes to shut his cellmate up.

*

Merlin can't sleep, though, even when Alvarr has stopped muttering curses and bumbling about, and his occasional snores drift up from the bed below. Merlin's ribs are torturing him and his wrist throbs, but that's not really what's keeping him awake. He is used to pain, is used to sleeping through it.

No, it's Merlin's brain – or maybe it's his heart – that won't let him find some rest in slumber. It's the memory of Arthur, sitting at his bedside. That one moment. That one look. The feel of Arthur's hand around his. Merlin has taken it with him, hidden it inside himself like a glowing ember in the dark. He doesn't want to give in to it. He doesn't want to listen to Arthur's voice, fierce and almost growling, promising the impossible. But he feels like he is lost at sea, nowhere to rest and nothing to hold on to, and Arthur has always been his beacon and his buoy, even when all Merlin had were memories of a time long gone. Merlin needs that anchor now, however much he tries to deny it. He doesn't know if he can survive in here, has tried to accept that he won't, but there is still something stubborn inside of him that refuses to give up.

It's even harder, now that Arthur has become real again. With skin that feels warm under rough calluses, a touch that lingers like it has infused Merlin. The smell of Arthur, which used to be so simple, like fresh grass and summer, has developed layers. It has matured and roughened, just like his face. Still, everything about him remains so unerringly Arthur, and he fits so perfectly into the hole that has yawned in Merlin's chest for all those years, as if he had been at home there all along.

He lets the memory of Arthur's face rise before his eyes, imagines them together, lying in the back yard of the house, just like they used to do. He imagines Arthur above him, propped up on his elbow, grinning down at Merlin. Imagines Arthur leaning forward, his smiling mouth hovering for a moment of anticipation above Merlin's, and then their lips meeting, soft and warm and tasting of apple pie.

He lets the sensation linger in his mind. He's not letting things go further, not even in his imagination. Just the thought of sex makes him slightly sick these days and thinking about sex and Arthur makes him feel dirty and ugly and depraved. Arthur could never want him that way and Merlin is glad for it.

Some things, he thinks, are just beyond fixing.

*

It's the next day at breakfast, which Merlin takes with the boy who called for help when he got hurt. They started to sit together, although all Merlin knows about him is that he's called Gilli. They don't really talk much. One of the guard approaches their table, just as Merlin gulps down a spoon full of what's supposed to be porridge.

''Emerson! Your lawyer is waiting for you in the conference room.''

Merlin's heart skips and he chides himself for it immediately. This is probably just business as usual for Arthur, he shouldn't get excited about it. Merlin gets up though, leaving the rest of his breakfast behind on the long table, and follows the guard with the two steps distance he has learned are deemed respectful.

The corridors all look the same to him by now, and so he is almost startled when they come to a stop before a door that's thick and heavy and holds a small windowpane. The guard opens the door with a key and, when Merlin steps through, there is Arthur.

He's wearing another one of those crisp shirts, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, revealing strong and slightly tanned forearms. His dark blue suit jacket is hanging over one of the ugly brown plastic chairs and, while he bends over some papers that are spread on the table, the trousers snuggle his arse in a way that makes Merlin look away quickly.

He clears his throat awkwardly and Arthur whirls around. He's once more all shining blond hair, deep blue eyes and tailored clothes, and Merlin is painfully aware of his own appearance.

''I- they said you wanted to see me,'' Merlin croaks out, fiddling with the hem of his prison issued shirt.

''Yes.'' Arthur studies him for a moment, calm and serious, almost as if he was taking stock. Merlin doesn't react well to being scrutinised, though. ''How are you?'' Arthur asks finally, and maybe his voice has become a bit softer with that question, but Merlin already feels on the defensive.

''Fine,'' he says petulantly. ''You don't have to check up on me all the time, you know.''

Arthur raises an eyebrow. ''Checking up on you is actually my job, Merlin.''

Merlin scowl deepens. ''Of course it is,'' he says with a sneer, looking away to the side. His hands bury deep into the pockets of his trousers and his hunched shoulders are probably a dead give-away for how uncomfortable he is feeling, but Merlin can't help his responses. He just doesn't know how to act around this business-like Arthur.

There is a sigh and, when Merlin looks back at him, Arthur is leaning forward with his hands flat on the table.

''Merlin,'' he says, and Merlin knows he is trying Arthur's patience by the way he says his name alone. ''You said you wanted me to represent you, although I admit I might have forced that decision a little. So... if you want another lawyer, I can put you in contact with one. Is that what you want?''

He sounds almost resigned.

''I can't imagine that it makes much difference,'' Merlin mutters reluctantly.

''Well it does,'' Arthur replies curtly. ''I can find you someone else, but I am the best. And you will need the best.''

''Yeah, right. I get it. You're a hot shot lawyer and all that,'' Merlin says, rolling his eyes. And yes, he knows he is being an idiot, especially when he adds, ''your dad must be so proud.''

Arthur stares at him for a moment, his expression between disbelief and outrage, before he shakes his head. ''Are you stupid? Were you actually dropped on the head as a child? You know, I always had that suspicion.''

''Well your dad always wanted you to become a lawyer, didn't he?''

''Yes, Merlin,'' Arthur says patiently, like he is talking to a very small child. ''So that I could then go into politics. Not for me to defend sorcerers.''

''Oh.'' Merlin bites his lip. He can feel the blush rising up in his cheeks when he recalls Uther's stance in regard to sorcerers again. ''Yeah. I guess not.''

Merlin shuffles his feet awkwardly. Okay, so maybe that was a stupid thing to say, but how the hell would he know, really? He doesn't know anything about Arthur's life apart from that he is apparently all famous and special and what not. It's not like Merlin had much time or inclination to read the papers when he was with Nimueh. Better not to know too much about your clients.

''Yeah. Well.'' For a moment Arthur looks as uncomfortable as Merlin feels, then he says, ''Lets get down to business, then.''

Merlin can't help it, but this professional Arthur just rubs him wrong in all the right places.

''And what business would that be?'' he sneers.

''What I already told you, getting you out of here.''

''Out of here.''

''Yes, Merlin. Out of here. God, do you have to be this obnoxious about everything?''

Merlin glares. How could he have forgotten what an utter clotpole Arthur could be?

''I don't know,'' he says bitingly. ''Do you have to be such a prat?''

That just makes Arthur grin at him though, and he crosses his arms in front of his broad chest. ''Yes, as a matter of fact, I do, Merlin,'' he says, obviously amused. ''Me being a nice chap will not get us anywhere.''

''You know,'' Merlin counters, ''if it wouldn't mean insulting Gaius, I'd ask you whether you were dropped on your head as a child.''

''Really.'' Arthur's voice dripping with sarcasm. ''And why is that?''

''This is the Facility,'' Merlin explains, his whole expression saying duh. ''There is no getting out of here, Arthur. Especially not when you killed someone. And not with... not with my background and having avoided... having not registered as a child and all that.''

''That might be an argument for the prosecution, yes, but it should hardly matter, because now you are registered. The fact that you committed a crime, on the other hand, has no bearing on the question whether you get bail. Because if you had not committed it, you wouldn't be here.''

''Bail,'' Merlin says disbelievingly.

''Yes.''

''As a sorcerer.''

''Yes, Merlin,'' Arthur says impatiently. ''You really do need to question everything I say, don't you?''

''Sorcerers don't get bail,'' Merlin says stupidly, because, really, Arthur should know that.

But apparently Arthur has bunked off law school a lot because he doesn't seem bothered at all. ''We'll see about that,'' he says, and there is that look again.

Merlin doesn't know whether he wants to laugh or cry or just lay his head down on the table and not think about it anymore. He sighs and finally pulls out the chair opposite Arthur. He drops down in it, feeling strangely defeated.

''Why would you even bother?'' he asks quietly.

It's the first time that Merlin sees Arthur falter and losing a measure of his composure.

''Well- I am your lawyer and it's-''

Merlin's laugh is bitter and all too self-deprecating, and Arthur breaks off mid-sentence, actually blushing. After a moment of silence he says, ''You are my-''

When nothing more is forthcoming Merlin looks up in exasperation. ''I'm your what, Arthur?''

Arthur clears his throat. ''My friend, Merlin. You... you never stopped being my friend.''

 

~ The thing is that they had always been friends. The kind of friends where you somehow stop being two separate persons and become a single identity of ArthurandMerlin. They didn't bother much with other people. They had acquaintances and classmates and fellow members of the footie team in Arthur's case, but none of that could have ever come close to what they had with each other. Something that didn't even need to be defined, that had just always been there naturally and irrevocably.

They didn't go to the same school because Arthur, of course, went to some posh private institution while Merlin went to the local state school. Arthur was admitted to the prestigious Westminster School at age thirteen, but when the question of boarding came up Arthur somehow convinced his father to let him remain a day pupil. He still spent a lot of time at the school with all the things he got involved in like debate club, football and fencing. But he was home in the evenings and on the weekends, and during that time Arthur's attention belonged to Merlin alone.

When it was raining they would curl up on Arthur's bed around the same novel, somehow effortlessly pacing their reading so that neither of them had to rush or wait, laughing at the same things and discussing their favourite parts. In the summer they would be out exploring the parks, riding their bikes and eating ice-cream cones while splashing their feet in some pond or fountain.

There was always something to see, something to talk about or fight over. As much as they were inseparable they were also different, and things more often than not would end in a shouting match of, ''Well, that's because you're an idiot, Merlin!'' and ''Better an idiot than a prat, Arthur!'' Apart from their differences, though, their teasing and their name-calling, they fit into each other and around each other like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

It stayed that way for a very long time, until that one autumn afternoon when Merlin was almost fifteen. They were sitting at their favourite pond, the sun still warm on their bare arms and faces, but the leaves already in their dying dance of orange, gold and red. Arthur had just come from football practice, and was still wearing the crimson jersey with his jeans, glowing in the sunlight as much as the trees. He was skimming stones, or well, trying to do so with questionable success.

''Are you coming to my game this weekend?'' he asked decidedly casual when the last stone had sunk into the murky water.

Merlin knew it was an important game for Arthur. He was playing as a central midfielder and had finally gained the captaincy for his team. '''Course,'' he said with a knowing smile. ''Are you coming to my play next week?''

''Of course,'' Arthur replied, mirroring Merlin's expression.

Merlin's school was performing A Midsummer Night's Dream and Merlin had earned the part of Puck. He was pretty excited about it and next week was the premier. It meant a lot to Merlin that Arthur would come.

Such was their friendship. Whatever one of them would come up with, the other would be there to support him. No matter how much each of them might have changed over the years, it had never been able to touch them. Arthur had become popular in senior school when he had taken up football. He was on the student council, and he had gained a new confidence that was present in every step he took and every smile that lit up his face. Merlin saw the looks the girls were giving him when he walked past – before they started to giggle in the most annoying way. Merlin on the other hand still felt awkward in his gangly body and his too big ears. He wasn't unpopular but he wasn't great with sports, he liked other stuff better too: books and writing for the school paper, and now maybe acting could become a new passion. But all that did not change how easy it was to be with Arthur. How they could read each other without the need for words and could erupt into fits of laughter by sharing a look alone.

''Is your father coming?'' Merlin asked, glancing at Arthur while ripping at the grass around his feet.

Arthur gave him a look. ''Did you really just ask that?'' He shook his head with a sigh. ''He has an emergency meeting, apparently. Wonder how much of an emergency it can be, though, if it can wait for five more days...'' Arthur shrugged, aiming for nonchalant but Merlin could always see the layer of old hurt in his friend's blue eyes.

Arthur got up, strolling a little further along the shore, and Merlin kept watching him. His hair was streaked with the gold from the sun, but his expression was dark. What Merlin couldn't understand was why Arthur kept hoping to gain his father's approval when it was obvious that nothing short of a lobotomy on Uther's part would ever achieve that. He knew there was a lot of pressure on Arthur, being the son of Uther Pendragon was no easy task, but Arthur was holding up amazingly and Uther just never saw it. Arthur was in the top three at least in each and every one of his classes - apart from art, because Arthur couldn't draw a convincing stick-man if his life depended on it - but to Uther anything short of the best counted for nothing.

Sometimes Merlin hated Uther Pendragon with a passion.

''Is your mum coming?'' Arthur asked, crouching down and looking for something in the grass.

Merlin nodded. ''Yeah.'' His mum would always be there to support and embarrass him, whether he liked it or not. ''She would come to your footie game too if you asked her.''

''Nah,'' Arthur shook his head without looking up. ''It's her free weekend and she's been to so many of them already. Even though she has no clue about football.''

Arthur's voice was fond and Merlin smiled. He knew his mum loved Arthur probably as much as she loved him. Unlike in those first months, and maybe even years, it didn't bother him anymore. Merlin loved Arthur too, he could sympathize. It was very hard to not love Arthur Pendragon.

He said, ''You just don't want your friends making fun of you for still having a governess at sixteen.''

Arthur glared at him, but Merlin could tell it was good-naturedly. The tension had been broken, and Arthur was coming back towards their place with his hands cupped around something, grinning again. Grinning pretty obnoxiously even, and scoffing, ''If I was easily embarrassed, I wouldn't have asked you to come, Merlin.''

''No, that's different,'' Merlin said lightly, ''They know me already, it can't be embarrassing anymore that you have a friend who is so much smarter than you,...'' That's when Arthur lunged. ''Better looking than you...'' Merlin tried to roll away, but he was pinned under Arthur's weight, and then there was a spider. A spider! On Merlin's chest and his neck and Merlin screamed.

''Arthur! You arsehole! You complete, utter pillock! Take that thing away, oh god, where is it, where is it?''

Arthur was laughing like it was the best joke ever, his face buried in Merlin's shoulder as Merlin beat with useless fists against his arms and back.

''You clotpole!'' Merlin finally grumbled, going lax under Arthur's weight. ''You know I hate them, you bastard.''

''Yeah,'' Arthur mumbled. ''Sorry.'' He didn't really sound all that apologetic.

The thing was, Arthur was not moving, and so they just lay there in the late afternoon sun. Arthur was heavy, but not so much that it was uncomfortable. His breaths tickled Merlin's skin, but that too was strangely all right. And then, suddenly, Merlin felt Arthur's lips against his skin, and not in the way that could be explained as accidental brush. Merlin tensed and something fluttered in his stomach.

''Arthur?''

Arthur had gone tense as well now, but he didn't raise his head. ''Yeah?''

''Are... did you-.. Were you kissing my neck?'' Merlin croaked, a nervous little laugh erupting from his throat.

There was a long moment of silence, then, ''Would that be strange?''

''I... I don't know,'' Merlin floundered. It did feel strange, but more in a good way. He wriggled a little under Arthur and Arthur groaned and now the lips were accompanied by teeth and tongue. Merlin gaped. ''Are... are you biting me?''

Arthur went stiff above him and then, lightning-quick, he pulled away, turning his back towards Merlin, but not before Merlin had seen his red face. ''I'm sorry,'' Arthur whispered. ''I shouldn't have done that.''

Slowly Merlin pulled himself into a sitting position. ''I... it wasn't that bad. You just... I was surprised. Why would you...?''

Arthur buried his face in his hands, groaning. ''Oh god... I'm so stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.'' He sounded horrified.

''Arthur.'' Merlin shuffled forward on his knees until he could put a hand on his friends shoulder. ''It's not... you're not stupid.'' But Arthur obviously didn't believe him, and so Merlin leaned forward and planted a soft kiss on his cheek.

Arthur froze. The hands dropped away from his face and then his head turned towards Merlin, and Merlin found himself drowning in the crystal blue pools of Arthur's eyes. His gaze dropped down, to Arthur's pink lips, which were slightly parted, huffing out stuttering breaths.

There was a strange heat pooling in Merlin's stomach and his cock... oh god. Merlin felt the heat spread up over his cheeks now and his eyes widened in mortification. Before he could pull away though, Arthur's hand came up to rest against his burning face, cool and strong. He lifted Merlin's face up so that their eyes met again and he was closer, so much closer now, and then Arthur's lips pressed against his, warm and tender.

It was a dizzying feeling, like rollercoasters or free fall, but Arthur was there with him, holding Merlin close and keeping him safe, and Merlin's heart gave a jerk and plummeted down in that abyss that was Arthur.

He lost it that day, his heart, and he never got it back. ~

 

''How can you say that?'' Merlin asks now. ''You haven't seen me for ten years. You don't know what I have done, you don't know anything about me.'' He feels the anger welling up inside him, lapping over the self-disgust. ''I was just a stupid boy back then. You know nothing about me anymore, Arthur! Nothing!''

He is standing Merlin realises, staring at Arthur with burning eyes. Arthur's face has closed off again. Unreadable in its perfect poise.

''Well the first reason still stands,'' Arthur says and his voice is cold and cutting now. ''So, if it is all right with you, I would like to do my job now.'' He sits down and picks up some papers, speaking without another look at Merlin, who is still standing across from him on the other side of the table. ''I have managed to procure an appointment in front of the magistrate's court at Tower Bridge in two days. That doesn't give us much time to prepare, so it's all the more important that we go through the procedure as soon as possible.''

Merlin stares at Arthur's stony face for a moment longer before he reluctantly sits back down in his chair. There is a guilty feeling nagging inside of him, telling him that he has just broken something that was entrusted to him, that he slapped a hand that was held out and, worst of all, that he has somehow managed to hurt Arthur. Again.

 

 

The old building on Tooley Street has surpassed its days of glory; the once white pillars framing its entrance having turned grey and washed out from air pollution a long time ago. It can't hold a candle to the Old Bailey, the central criminal court which deals with all major criminal cases in London and has become somewhat of a tourist attraction. Tower Bridge Magistrates' Court is like the uncared for step-sister, but it holds the same power, the same significance to the lives that pass through its court rooms.

There are only a scarcely few journalists, holding paper cups of coffee with bored expressions, testament that Arthur's stunt has not yet leaked out. One of them recognizes him though, when he walks up the steps to the entrance, and the journalist's eyes widen. Arthur knows he can expect a different scenario out here when the hearing has been concluded.

Arthur is still a bit early and there are two other cases being heard before Merlin's, so he gives in and draws himself a coffee from the vending machine. It tastes like dishwater and has the consistency of tar, but he finds that it puts him in the right combative spirit.

He wanders up and down the hall outside of courtroom two, preparing his arguments in his mind and wondering if Merlin has already been transferred to the holding cell inside the courthouse. They won't have the chance to speak before the hearing and Arthur can just hope that Merlin will let him handle this. He hasn't exactly been cooperative thus far, and Arthur doesn't really understand it. Merlin seems to realise how severe his situation is, but it's almost as if he has given up already. Well, Arthur won't allow that.

When the usher finally calls their case Arthur is ready for battle. He walks in with his posture straight, as if he was wearing armour, and takes his place at the right side, facing the Bench. The rows behind him, which are reserved for the public, are filling up quickly. The journalists outside have obviously been quick in broadcasting the news.

Merlin is brought in a few minutes later, flanked by two bulky security people and chained in cold iron. The shackles look obscene around Merlin's slender wrists and ankles. He looks like he might crash down from their weight alone, and Arthur finds himself clenching his fists, wanting to rip those damn things away so badly it hurts. In the artificial light of the courtroom, Merlin himself looks even paler and the bruises still paint dark shadows across his face and throat. That's good, a nasty little voice whispers in Arthur's mind, he doesn't look like a dangerous sorcerer, he looks like the victim. Arthur bats that thought away but he can't deny its truth. Now all he needs is for the judge to see Merlin's humanity and not look at him like he is a parasite of society.

And then Judge Annis Caerleon enters. She is a severe looking woman in her sixties, walking tall and commanding authority. Her hair is pulled back in a loose bun and still has its natural light brown colour, only a few strands of silver streaking through. She lets her eyes roam over the assembly, and Arthur finds that they hold strength and determination with just a hint of shrewdness. This is a woman who will take no bullshit.

''All rise!'' rings through the room and everyone falls silent, standing for the judge.

''Number three on the list, your worship, Mister Merlin Emerson represented by Mister Arthur Pendragon,'' the court clerk announces.

''Ah, yes,'' Judge Caerleon says, raising an eyebrow in Arthur's direction. ''I was actually looking forward to that.''

Arthur inclines his head, but keeps quiet.

The clerk speaks up again, this time turning towards the dock, where Merlin is sitting on a narrow wooden bench. ''Are you Merlin Emerson?''

''It's Emrys, actually,'' Merlin says, voice shaking with nervousness. ''Emerson is an alias.''

The clerk makes a note of it and proceeds. ''There is no current residence noted for you, Mr. Emrys. Where do you live?''

''Ehm...'' Arthur can see Merlin blushing. ''I- I guess I don't have an address anymore. I lived at a boarding house and now, well... the Facility.''

The clerk scribbles something down and turns to the bench. ''Current address is the Facility for Criminal Sorcerers, your worship.''

Judge Caerleon narrows her eyes but nods.

''Proceed.''

''Mr. Emrys, it is said that five days ago you had sexual relations with a non-sorcerer, the Secretary of State Sir Angus Aredian. Afterwards you killed Mr. Aredian with the use of your magical abilities. Do you understand the charge?''

''Yes. I do.''

''Sit down then. I believe there is to be an application from the defence. Mr. Pendragon?''

Arthur gets up, shuffling his papers a little and clears his throat, addressing the Bench. ''Your Honour has indicated already that you will sent Mr. Emrys case forthwith to the crown court on prima facie, since Mr. Emrys is charged with murder, which can only be dealt with accordingly there. I won't object to this. But this is a case that has more than one victim, Your Honour. I will show in the proceedings, that Mr. Emrys himself was a victim rather than a culprit that miserable night five days ago. He acted in self-defence. He had to fear for his own life, as Mr. Aredian tried to strangle him and would have killed him had Mr. Emrys not taken action.''

A murmur goes through the crowd but Arthur is not to be deterred.

''Unfortunately the danger for my client has not passed. As you can see for yourself he has fallen victim to further assault at the facility he has been committed to. I therefore deem it not only appropriate but absolutely essential that he is released on bail.''

The uproar breaks out just then, as journalists and random members of the public explode in outraged shock.

''That is ridiculous!'' the prosecutor, Cenred Mercian, cries. ''He is a sorcerer! What's next? Taking him of the repressants?''

''Silence!'' Judge Caerleon doesn't even have to shout, her voice has such a natural authority that everyone shuts their mouth mid-sentence, chided. ''This is not an open panel, this is a royal court room and I won't allow a commotion!'' She turns her eyes to the prosecution. ''And Mr. Mercian? It will be for me to decide whether an application is ridiculous or not. I am sure you will want to oppose this one, but lets give Mr. Pendragon the courtesy to listen to his reasons.''

Arthur inclines his head once more, unruffled. ''Thank you, Your Honour.'' Then he proceeds, ''As I have already said, my client was assaulted while in custody. It is obvious that the FCS can't ensure his safety. My client has no criminal record, and there is nothing that indicates that he would abscond or interfere with witnesses.''

''No indication that he would abscond?'' the prosecutor scoffs. ''He ran away when he was found out to be a sorcerer, went underground to avoid registration. He didn't register according to the law as a child - and you say he has no criminal record?''

''He doesn't,'' Arthur replies calmly. ''He turned himself in and registered when he was nineteen and was therefore not charged with eluding registration. His disappearance was the kneejerk reaction of a scared teenager, Your Honour.''

''He also has no place of residency. No family or acquaintances where he would be welcome. This makes him a flight risk.''

Judge Caerleon looks at Arthur with a pensive expression. ''I have to agree on this with the prosecution. If Mr. Emrys is without shelter, the FCS seems like the best option for him. What do you have to say to that, Mr. Pendragon?''

Arthur takes a deep breath. He has been aware that this would be a critical point. ''Mr. Emrys has a place to stay, Your Honour. His place of residency will be with me. And I will vouch for him and guarantee his attendance at the trial before the Crown Court.''

There is another small uproar.

''Your Honour, this is unheard of!'' Cenred Mercian protests. ''And may I remind Your Honour that we are talking about a sorcerer here? There is no precedence of granting bail for a sorcerer.''

Arthur doesn't even glance in the direction of the prosecution. His eyes remain on the judge that holds Merlin's fate in her hands. ''I am aware of that, Your Honour, but there is also no law that prohibits it.''

Judge Caerleon narrows her eyes, and Arthur knows he almost has her.

''Your Honour, for a long time this country has been very sure about how some things, and some people, should be handled,'' he says carefully, ''but it hasn't always been to its benefit. The times are changing, and it is upon us to decide if we want to stride ahead with our head held high, or be dragged behind by circumstances.''

He holds his breath, holding eye contact, until Judge Annis Caerleon finally smiles.

“There is something about you, Mr. Pendragon. Something which indeed gives me hope for us all.'' She stands then. ''The Bench will retire to consider the application.”

''All stand.''

Arthur's hands are shaking when he sits down again, he will never admit it, but he might not be as confident about this application as he let everyone, and especially Merlin, believe. He only knows that he needs it to be granted. He can't protect Merlin if he's not with him, and he can't go on to sweep up the broken pieces until one day Merlin is beyond fixing.

He knows Merlin quite possibly doesn't want Arthur to protect him anymore. He has been right about one thing: they were just boys back then and Arthur hardly knows this Merlin at all. But there are moments, when Merlin scowls at him, when he rolls his eyes and calls Arthur a prat, that Arthur can see the old Merlin inside this thin and bristly man. And Arthur wants to learn him again, just like he did before. He wants to grab him and drag him home and keep him there until he smiles at him again. He wants to make right what can never be fixed, but damn if Arthur won't try it anyway.

He casts a glance at Merlin then, and finds him staring at Arthur with a mixture of awe and disbelief. Okay, so maybe Arthur should have told Merlin about this part, should maybe have explained and asked him whether he was all right with it. But Merlin has been fighting him every step on the way so far and Arthur has never been in the habit to ask for permission. So he gives Merlin a tight smile and a nod, and then keeps his eyes on the papers in front of him.

Judge Annis Caerleon comes back after only half an hour and sits down in the elaborately carved Magistrate's chair. For a moment her gaze wanders over the assembled public again. She looks regal, like a queen. Her eyes find Arthur's then and there is something unreadable there before she minutely inclines her head. Her voice is clear and self-assured when she speaks her judgement.

''Mr. Merlin Emrys will be released on bail, on condition that he takes residency with his lawyer, Mr. Arthur Pendragon and does not leave the city limits. He will also supply the court with proof that he remains under the influence of magic-repressant drugs at the highest possible dosage that won't have any undue influence on his health.''

''Court is adjourned.''

Then it's over, and Arthur blinks still struggling with his disbelief and the surge of elation that is starting to take hold of him. He has won this battle. The war is still on, but he has proven that there is the possibility of victory, that he is not alone in his belief that things can change. Arthur doesn't really know where they will go from here, but he has Merlin back, and this time he will hold on to him and keep him safe and not allow anything bad to happen to him again. Whether Merlin wants him to or not.

Chapter Text

To say Merlin is shocked would be an understatement. He still isn't really sure what has just happened. He heard the words, released on bail, but they have yet to settle in his brain and connect to anything that makes sense. The same security guys that brought him in lead him out of the courtroom now, but this time they leave just a little bit more distance between them and Merlin. It almost makes Merlin falter and stumble, this sudden change in handling.

He is brought to a room close to the court room, similar in size to the one at the Facility but less dreary. There is honest to god wood panelling and the chairs are plush. It is as if Merlin has suddenly been dropped in a whole different world.

One of his guards pulls out a key and bends down to open the shackles around his ankles. They don't speak to him though, and Merlin warily looks at the second man who watches him with a blank expression. It pretty much says, I'm just doing my job and I couldn't care less about you. Then the cold iron is released from Merlin's wrists as well, and it's like a huge weight has been pulled off him. He rubs at his skin with shaking hands and swallows nervously when the first guard steps out of the room, taking the chains with him and leaving Merlin alone with the other man - who just keeps watching him. Merlin can feel his muscles tensing and his heart rate picking up. He can't keep the eye contact and looks away to the side, bowing his head. He has no clue what's going to happen now, but every instinct in his body tells him to run. Which is impossible. He tries to fight it, this feeling of being trapped, skewered like a butterfly and displayed in a glass-covered box, but his breathing becomes quicker and he starts feeling like there is not enough oxygen in the room.

It feels like an eternity has passed when the door opens again, making Merlin jump and flinch away, while throwing a fearful glance towards it. It takes him a moment to realise it is Arthur standing in the doorframe.

Arthur glares at the guard and says, ''Mr. Emrys has been released. What are you still doing here?''

Merlin's legs start shaking then and, when the guard leaves the room with a glare at Arthur, he finally sinks down on one of the padded chairs. The room is wobbling a little around him and there's still not enough air in his lungs until, suddenly, there is a warm hand on his shoulder. It shouldn't feel that good, he should shrink away from the touch, but it's like warm golden light floods into him from this connection and Merlin sags in the chair as if all his strings have been cut.

''Just breathe. It's okay.'' Arthur voice drifts into Merlin's consciousness. ''Did he say something to you? He shouldn't even have been in here.''

Merlin tries to shake his head in negation, but he's not sure Arthur comprehends his meaning.

''You don't have to worry. They can't do anything to you now.''

Merlin tries to take deep breaths, forcing the air down his lungs until he feels the tell tale prickling of hyperventilation around his mouth. ''Why... why would you do something like that?'' he wheezes.

He casts a glance up at Arthur from the corner of his eye. Arthur still looks all kingly and formidable, even with the frown that mars his face.

''I'm afraid you will have to be a bit more specific here Merlin. What are you even talking about?''

''You- giving me a place to stay. It... You can't be serious about that.''

''Merlin,'' Arthur says, pulling the second chair up to sit down in front of him. He leans forward, elbows on his knees and hands dangling between his thighs, trying to catch Merlin's eye. ''The judge made it a condition for your bail. Of course I am serious about it.''

''But... but why would you do that?''

''It was the only way to get you out of the Facility.''

''Oh.'' Merlin swallows down all the bitter reproach that wants to drown him from the inside. ''You... you really care about winning this case do you?''

Arthur's face is frozen in what looks like disbelief for a long moment, then he says very slowly, ''Seeing as losing this case would mean having to watch your execution... yes, Merlin, I am rather adamant about winning this case.'' And then he adds, ''You idiot.''

Merlin can't help the small smile that creeps up in his face. It's just that this feels so familiar. His name coming from Arthur's mouth. The fond insult. It's painful in a way ripping off plaster and setting bones is painful, a hurt that lingers but that gives you hope for things to become better.

''Still...'' Merlin tries again, because he can't just hand himself over to Arthur like that. Can't let himself be wrapped up like that again when there is pain at the end of that lane as certainly as death and Merlin's magic. ''I'm not sure this is such a good idea. It must be difficult-''

''It won't be. Don't worry yourself.'' Arthur gets up, all purpose and determination. ''Let's just get you home to Notting Hill.''

Merlin stops. ''N-Notting Hill? You... you don't live at the house anymore?''

Arthur looks at him puzzled. ''The house?'' Then the penny drops and his face grows dark. ''Oh. You mean the house at Campden Hill. No, Merlin. I haven't lived there for a long while now.''

There is something hard around Arthur's mouth and Merlin suddenly understands that ten years have been a long time for Arthur as well. It's confusing how Arthur can still be so familiar while it is painfully obvious that he isn't that boy, who was once Merlin's best friend and the centre of his world, anymore. Merlin doesn't know what circumstances have brought that change about in Arthur, but it can't have been easy. He's been blinded by Arthur's posh and self-assured demeanour, all suits and cuff links and artfully cut hair. He has seen that and has forgotten that being well off never had any bearing on being well, and certainly not for Arthur. He realises that Arthur might have been set on a path to accomplishment since birth, but that doesn't necessarily mean he arrived there without any bends and turns and wrong exits. The idea gives him an odd ache in his chest, because in Merlin's mind, Arthur has always been that smiling boy in the golden sun. When things were bad, when they got to the point where it was almost unbearable, the idea of Arthur in the sun made Merlin feel better. Now that seems strangely selfish somehow.

''Still,'' Merlin picks up the thread of the conversation again, fighting every instinct to just take Arthur's hand and follow where ever he might lead. ''Having me sleep on your couch for however long this might take... that can't be convenient for you.''

''Couch?'' Arthur asks him with a frown that turns into an amused smile. ''Why would you be sleeping on the couch, Merlin, when there is a perfectly comfortable bed waiting for you?''

Merlin's breath catches and his smile drops. Bed. Oh god... does Arthur expect...? He's been generous to give Merlin a place to stay, but maybe...no. Merlin scoffs at himself. As if Arthur would have any need... he can probably go out and just has to throw one of his haughty looks around to have people lying down at his feet. Why would he- but maybe he thinks...

''Merlin,'' Arthur says firmly. ''Stop being stupid. I have a guest room.'' He looks at him with his brows raised, waiting for Merlin to understand. ''I'll even give you the key.''

''Oh.'' Merlin really does feel stupid now. ''Thank you.''

*

They leave the courthouse through a side exit, but the journalists still fall upon them like a flock of vultures. Arthur steers Merlin through them with a hard face and a firm ''no comment'' until they reach a sleek dark blue BMW. Of course Arthur wouldn't drive a Volvo.

Merlin gets in on the passenger side, gingerly sitting on leather seats once more, and they pull away from the curb in a flurry of camera flashes. They drive in silence. Merlin sends Arthur sneaking looks from the corner of his eyes. He has never seen Arthur drive a car before and it is oddly appealing in a way that pushes a flush up in Merlin's cheeks. This mature Arthur does things to him he didn't expect to be possible anymore. After all that he has done, after all that has been done to him, he didn't think he would be able to feel this kind of attraction anymore. Not that he would ever act on it, not that he wants to, it's just interesting to know that it hasn't been lost to him completely.

Finally Arthur stops in a quiet, tree-lined street, in front of a row of white buildings with tall windows. It looks impressive in a more modest way than the Pendragon house they grew up in.

''Listen,'' Arthur says not looking at Merlin, ''there are some things you have to know. Some things we need to talk about in regard to you living here.'' He winces, and Merlin's heart plummets. Arthur probably wants to tell him not to misunderstand what his gesture means, that this is not them being friends again, that Arthur won't be able to go back to that, which... of course, Merlin knew that, right? He didn't get his hopes up. He's not stupid. Right?

''Let's just get inside first,'' Arthur says after a tense moment and opens the door of the car, not looking back to see whether Merlin follows him.

He does, of course, and Arthur pulls out his keys and opens the door, entering first, and now he throws a glance over his shoulder, indicating for Merlin to follow him. The house is nothing like the Pendragon house. It's narrow, like London houses are, but flooded with light and a lot more modern in its furnishings. It's not what he had expected at all. Apart from the comfortable air from the warm wooden floors, the open spaces and the pictures, it has a lived in feeling the Pendragon house always lacked. Arthur waves for him to go through to the living-room, while he hangs up his coat, and Merlin does, letting his eyes wander over this space Arthur has carved for himself.

That's when he sees the boy.

He's standing next to the couch, looking at Merlin with curious eyes. And it's not only the shock of finding another human being in what he expected to be an empty room. It's that Merlin is sure he is seeing a ghost from the past. Because, apart from having a slightly more slender face, the boy looks exactly like Arthur the day Merlin has first met him.

Arthur steps into the room to the delighted squeal of ''Daddy!'' and freezes. Oh shit. Okay, so maybe he should have told Merlin about Alex sooner, but the squit should be in school right now, and he thought he still had time.

''Alex. What are you doing here?'' Arthur asks, even as he sinks down to his knees to accept the hug from his little boy. Over his sons shoulder he meets Merlin's eyes, but he can't read them. Merlin's whole face is a perfect blank.

''School ended early because of the fire alarm!'' Alex explains excitedly and Arthur pulls back to look at his son in alarm, unconsciously checking for injuries already.

''Don't worry, it was a false alarm. Some technical failure they said.'' Gwen steps in from the kitchen with a smile. Then she sees Merlin standing there in the middle of the room. ''Oh! He-Hello. You're... I mean, I didn't see you there, or well, I did kind of see you but I didn't realise who uhm... welcome?''

She walks up to Merlin, who is looking at her with a faint expression somewhere between amusement and horror. She is wringing what looks like a dish-towel in her hands and when she sticks out her right one, presumably for Merlin to shake it, it's the one holding the towel. Arthur has to look off to the side to hide his grin. Merlin is giving Gwen a dubious look and that makes her realise her mistake. She drops the rag, blushes and bends down to pick it up again, just as Merlin is doing so too and they bump heads on their way down.

''Okay,'' Arthur says. ''I see you two will get along splendidly.''

They sent him almost identical glares, although Gwen's has that hint of exasperation while Merlin's holds a lot more heat. Gwen holds her hand out for a second try, towel free this time, and says, ''Hi, I'm Gwen. I live next door to this smartass.''

Merlin blinks, obviously surprised, and his eyes fly first to Arthur, then on to Alex and back to Gwen. Arthur winces. It's obvious what Merlin has thought, although how anyone can get the idea that his blond and blue-eyed son could be Gwen's is hard to comprehend. But, Arthur thinks with a fond smile, Merlin has always been a bit of an idiot.

''Gwen is the kind soul who looks after this little monster,'' Arthur turns Alex around by the shoulders until he's facing Merlin and Gwen, ''when I have to work and he isn't at school. She also takes it upon herself to cook for us, which is a blessing all in itself.''

Gwen's smile is wide and open, just like her whole personality, and Arthur finds himself hoping that she will spend a bit more of her time over here in the next days. She would make a good buffer, at least until he and Merlin have somehow figured out how to act around each other.

''I'm Alex!'' his son declares enthusiasticallyjust then and runs forward to hold his little hand out to Merlin. ''I'm glad you're here, daddy gets lonely sometimes and it would be nice if he had a friend around.''

And just like that Arthur wishes he could somehow sink into the floor. Gwen's amused look isn't helping either, and he can feel the heat creeping up his cheeks. Damn it. Pendragons do not blush.

''Thank you, Alexander, I'm sure that was very illuminating for-...'' he falters a little, unsure if Merlin would prefer to be called by his last name, but the other man picks up the ball fluently, grasping Alex's hand and softly telling him his name.

''Merlin,'' he says, and there is something like wonder in his voice that Arthur can't really place.

''I know!'' Alex says with a happy smile. ''I knew you would come and I already put my second favourite teddy bear in your room.'' Arthur's heart stops for a second or two and he swallows down the feeling of dread, trying to smile when his son turns towards him. ''Can I show Merlin his room, daddy?''

''Um, yes, sure. Why don't you take him up and I'll be along in a moment.''

Alex beams, taking Merlin's hand again without hesitation and dragging him in the direction of the stairs. Arthur watches them go: Alex chattering on about something... the park and how one could see the people playing with their dogs from the window of the guest room, and Merlin still with this strangely blank, if friendly, face. Arthur sighs and turns back to Gwen who is watching him with raised eyebrows and a knowing smile.

''So, uhm, what happened at the school?'' he asks, trying to avoid the topic of Merlin which he can see is already burning her tongue.

''Nothing much. Like I said, it was probably a technical failure, but they had to search the whole school, that's procedure, and it just didn't make sense to keep everyone there.''

''Ah. Okay. Great. Uhm...so... does he have any homework at all?''

Gwen's smile becomes sympathetic. ''Arthur. Are you really going to pretend you didn't just bring your client, a murder suspect and a sorcerer, back to your family home? To meet your son?''

Arthur shrugs, feeling a bit uncomfortable under her scrutiny. He knows this is more than unorthodox, but then Merlin can hardly be compared to any other client he ever had.

''Is he going to stay here now?'' Gwen asks again, and when Arthur pulls a face she sighs. ''He is, isn't he? Oh Arthur. Do you really think that is a good idea?''

''It was the only option.''

''Somehow I doubt that.''

Arthur glares a little since Gwen is too sweet to give her a full on glare. ''It was the only option that would keep him safe.''

Gwen bites her lip and the look she sends him is almost apologetic. ''I know you care for Merlin. But I worry about you - and about Alex.'' She sighs, running a hand through her curly hair. ''The atmosphere has become so heated, Arthur, first with the poll numbers being so tight, and Morgana and the Magicals campaigning with the Liberals, and then the murder of a member of the government... you've always been in the focus of people who oppose change in regards to magic people, but now... I just want you both to be safe.''

''I know,'' Arthur says with a sigh and hugs her. ''And you know there is nothing that's more important to me than Alex's safety, but...'' he looks into her warm, brown eyes then, because he needs her to understand. ''You've seen Merlin's bruises, and believe me there are more hidden under those clothes. You must know that he wouldn't have stood much chance to survive until the trial if he had stayed at the Facility. It might have been other inmates who attacked him, but I have a strong suspicion that they had been instigated. Whatever Merlin can tell about Aredian, it's not something our government wants to become public.''

''That's not really reassuring, you know,'' Gwen says with a worried face.

''It's not Merlin's fault, though, is it? He is the victim here! What do you want me to do? Abandon him because I'm too scared to stand up for what I believe is right? Is that the kind of lesson Alex should learn?''

Gwen looks guilty then and shakes her head. ''No. You are right. I'm sorry. I worry you know? I love that boy like he was my own.''

Arthur nods. He knows that, and he clamps down on the jealous but he's not, that wants to escape his throat, because he would be stranded without Gwen and it's not her fault he doesn't get to spent more time with his son.

''I think I will go up and see how those two are faring,'' he says and turns towards the stairs.

''Oh...okay, I'll finish the salad for lunch.''

Arthur looks back at Gwen, at the worry and guilt and the sadness in her face. Arthur knows she and Lance have been trying for a child of their own for a long time, and he feels for her and he needs her help, but sometimes he worries that Gwen is blurring the line, that she lives a double life and that it isn't healthy. He loves her and he knows Alex does too, but Gwen is not his wife and neither is she Alex's mother.

''Thank you, Gwen,'' he says seriously and gives her a nod, hoping it conveys all he doesn't have words for right now. That he appreciates her worry, that he isn't angry, that he is grateful for her care.

Then he starts to walk up the steps, listening to the excited voice of his son that's drifting down to him, and follows it to the guest room on the first floor.

''See?'' Alex asks eagerly the moment Arthur stretches his hand out to fully push the door open, ''Isn't he awesome? He's a Labrador mix and really clever, his name is Max. His owner said Max will become a daddy soon and that means there will be puppies. I really, really, really want a puppy but daddy said I'm too young. But now you are here and maybe we can have a puppy. Do you think we can have a puppy, Merlin?''

Alex is kneeling on the window seat of the guest room, looking out over the park which Arthur and Alex often frequent on the weekends. A lot of people from the neighbourhood walk their dogs there and Alex knows them all by name. He's apparently been pointing them out to Merlin, who is gingerly sitting next to Alex on the edge of the window seat as if he is unsure whether he is allowed to.

A few stray beams of midday sun fall through the windowpane, forming a halo around Merlin's longish hair and putting his bruised face into shadow, but Arthur can see the small, shy smile on his face, the curious amusement in the wrinkles around his eyes, while Merlin watches Arthur's son with rapt attention.

For a moment Arthur stays there, frozen, just looking at something so perfect it seems unreal. There is a longing in his chest that he doesn't quite understand, or maybe he's just too scared to give it a name. He doesn't want to disturb the scene in front of him but, at the same time, he feels an almost overwhelming urge to do so before it has branded itself behind his eye-lids.

''Alex,'' Arthur says, finally pushing the door open and clearing his throat a little, ''Why don't you go down and help Gwen with lunch?''

Alex pouts but when Arthur just raises his eyebrows at him, he shrugs and climbs down from his seat.

''See you later, Merlin!'' he calls and waves and then brushes past Arthur with a bright smile.

Arthur stands there, only half a step into the room, feeling strangely awkward in his own home. Merlin is still sitting on the window seat, but he seems to have curled in on himself again as soon as Arthur entered and is pulling his fingers now, a nervous habit he picked up in his teenage years. It's so ridiculously familiar to Arthur that it helps to ground him somehow.

''I hope Alex didn't talk your ear off,'' he says, and then suddenly has to purse his lips when a totally inappropriate grin is threatening to spread over his face. Merlin is looking at him, eyes narrowed suspiciously, and, after another moment, Arthur gives in. ''Although I guess there would be enough to last him till dinner.''

Merlin's eyes widen and then he splutters, ''Sh-shut up!'' but for a moment glee flickers in his eyes before he looks away, mumbling, ''I see you haven't learned anything about hospitality in all these years. You are still acting like a prat.''

Arthur smiles, bowing his head with a sheepish look, hands buried in his trouser pockets. ''I guess you've got me there,'' he says wryly. Then he heaves a deep breath and looks up at Merlin. ''I'm sorry,'' he says sincerely, ''I didn't want to catch you off guard, I just thought I had time until he normally comes home from school.''

''It's- it's okay,'' Merlin tries for a quick smile that flickers on and off his face like a slack joint. ''I was just a bit surprised.'' He bites his lip and studies the tips of his boots. ''Where is his mother?'' he asks.

''She's dead.''

''Oh,'' Merlin swallows audibly. ''I'm sorry to hear that.''

And just like that any tension that had been dissolved returns full force. Arthur clears his throat again, aware that this is a nervous habit of his own. ''Mithian had a car accident when Alex was just a little over a year. Someone ran a red-light. It hasn't been easy, but... yeah. Gwen helps out if she can. She's working as a teacher at Alex school.''

There is so much more Arthur could say, but he has no idea whether Merlin would even be interested, or whether he would even care. And Arthur doesn't exactly want to explain about the years before, the years after Merlin vanished. It had been a dark time for him. With Mithian, Arthur had thought he could reinvent himself, become someone else who didn't have that burning hole inside of him. It didn't work, but Arthur has no idea how to explain that to Merlin without cutting himself open all anew.

~ Of course the whole thing had been Morgana's idea. His half-sister seemed to think he needed her to plan his life, ever since she had got Arthur to clean up his act and he had left the angry months of self-destruction - full of drugs and alcohol and meaningless sex - behind. So since Arthur had his law degree and was training to become a solicitor now, she thought it was his love life that needed shaping up.

Mithian had been a friend of Morgana's, a class mate from her all girls boarding school, and she had just moved to London to work at an investment bank. Arthur didn't date much – okay, he hardly had dated at all for the last four years. He studied and he worked hard and when he got home he studied some more. Arthur didn't mind the long hours, the work took his mind of things, although he was aware that he had simply exchanged one drug for another. Working until his brain threatened to bleed from his ears was just a more elaborate way to kill himself.

Arthur had just turned twenty-two, and it had been four long years in which he had tried not to think about his best friend, almost brother, and probably the only person who had ever made him feel complete. There had been no word from Merlin – nothing at all – and there probably never would be. So when Morgana asked, Arthur agreed to a date with Mithian, because it seemed to be an opportunity to try something Arthur had not really considered till then: to actually live without Merlin

Surprisingly, their first meeting for lunch, in a pub, went really well. Arthur had a great time, because Mithian was easy to talk to, smart and a bit mischievous. She was also beautiful with all that dark hair and pale skin. And, yes, maybe that should have clued him in on the fact that he was transferring, that he was still trying to compensate what could never be replaced, but Arthur needed a break and Mithian was good company.

They met again and Mithian made him laugh - snort really - because she looked all proper in her suit after work and then came out and made a farting joke. She ordered a beer to go with her steak and when Arthur told her he'd played football in school she started to argue with him about which Premier League team was the best. Arthur had a really good time and they agreed to go to a game the next week, and when Mithian jumped up and down in her seat during the match, hollering at the referee, Arthur thought that he might be able to fall in love after all.

But then came what had been inevitable. They had had three dates. Arthur had kissed her on the cheek and even, very chastely, on the mouth once, but Mithian obviously knew what she wanted, and she wanted more. After the game, when Arthur took her home and tried to say goodbye at the door, Mithian simply grabbed him by his shirt, pulled him towards her and shoved her tongue in his mouth.

It was a bit like riding a bike, you didn't just forget how it worked, but while it didn't feel bad, there weren't any butterflies in Arthur's stomach either. It was different than all the one night stands he'd had right after Merlin's disappearance too, because this time he couldn't really blank his mind and he wasn't drunk either. He really liked Mithian, but maybe he was just expecting too much. Maybe this was how falling in love worked when the other person wasn't someone you had known your whole life, someone you were attached to at the hip and so in tune with that you could practically read the other's mind. So Arthur just went with it.

Mithian took him up to her flat and it wasn't like Arthur didn't know how this worked, all the steps of undressing each other, of kissing and touching and falling into bed. He tried to be enthusiastic about it, and felt ashamed that he wasn't. When he kissed down Mithian's neck, all that pale smooth skin brought back memories though, and he felt himself hardening, finally, with thoughts of Merlin running through his mind. It was still a bit awkward in the end, and Arthur felt completely mortified that he hadn't been able to be with Mithian without having to envision someone else, someone he hadn't even seen for four years.

He didn't stay the night, and Mithian didn't seem surprised when he told her with an apologetic face that he had an early appointment the next day. Arthur kissed her goodbye and they agreed to talk, but Mithian was about to fly to the States on a business trip for a week and, really, the all-round awkwardness of the situation couldn't be missed. Especially since they had been so at ease with each other before the sex.

The week long trip turned into two and by the time Mithian was back in London they had only had one stilted conversation over the phone, in which they settled a date for another lunch. Arthur went to the restaurant with a calm resignation. He knew he had to break things off with Mithian. They just didn't work as a couple, maybe no one would for Arthur, maybe he really was t just hat fucked up.

Even though he was prepared for a slightly uncomfortable lunch, Arthur was a little shocked when he saw Mithian waiting for him with a stony face. He had somehow expected, that she would agree with him that their romance didn't work out. He kissed her on the cheek and sat down across from her with a feeling of trepidation.

''How was your trip?'' he asked, ordering a water since it didn't look like this would be a very relaxed meeting.

''It was fine, thank you,'' Mithian said stiffly.

Arthur nodded. His stomach felt like lead. When Mithian didn't elaborate any further, just kept staring at the tablecloth, he cleared his throat. There really was no use in putting it off any longer.

''Listen, Mithian, you... you know that I like you a lot. We really had a great time, but... I think we both know this isn't really working, yeah? I mean not in the way we thought it would.''

Arthur broke off then, because Mithian just kept staring down on the table, biting her lip, and then there was a single tear rolling down her cheek and Arthur suddenly felt like the worst kind of jerk.

''I'm sorry...,'' he said helplessly. ''I really thought this could work, but... please... don't cry, really, I'm so not worth that.''

Mithian looked up at him then, and the look on her face was one of such despair that Arthur was left speechless for a moment. Because girls had fallen for him before, and he might have misjudged Mithian, but that was not a normal reaction to ending what had basically been a very short affair.

Then Mithian said, ''I'm pregnant.'' and Arthur felt the floor slipping out from under his feet.

Mithian started to cry in earnest then, and Arthur jumped up and came around to kneel beside her, taking her small, slender hand in his.

''Hey, hey, don't cry. It's okay, we'll sort it out. We'll manage. You are not alone with this, okay?''

Mithian looked at him through a veil of tears and then slung her arms around him sobbing into his shoulder. Arthur patted her back, aware that they were making a bit of a spectacle. He pulled her up and left a bill on the table, so that they could find a more suitable place to talk. Because with the first initial shock ebbing away, Arthur realised that something big had happened, something that would throw his life of course forever.

They went to a park nearby and sat next to each other on a bench facing the pond. It was strangely fitting with all the small children running around with their mothers in tow. Arthur was still a little numb but that was more and more being replaced by a feeling of awe. He had never planned for anything like this, had never consciously sought it out, but now that it was happening, he realised that he wanted it. There was going to be a child and it was going to be his.

Then Mithian said, ''I don't know if I want it.'' and Arthur's heart plummeted.

There was a long silence, before Arthur managed to speak. ''Okay,'' he said. ''Why not?''

''I'm... I'm too young, and I want to work and I... I knew you were going to break up with me today.''

There were more tears running down Mithian's cheeks, and Arthur grabbed her hand again. ''Listen, I know we haven't known each other for long, and this must be scary and I-'' he swallowed against the lump in his throat, ''I will accept whatever you want to do, but... I want you to know that I will be there for you. For you and for our child. You don't have to-... we can do this together.''

Mithian looked up at him, blinking back the tears. ''Really? But... but you don't love me. I know you don't.''

Arthur bit his lip and took a deep breath. If there was any chance for them, he had to be honest. ''I think... I think I have always loved just one person. But...'' He glanced at Mithian. ''He is lost to me.'' Mithian's eyes widened, and Arthur continued. ''I thought I could put it behind me, let it go and start anew, but... it seems it isn't that easy.''

''So... you are gay?'' Mithian asked uncertainly and Arthur let out a self-deprecating laugh.

''I don't know what I am. Maybe I was just... it might seem silly, but I always thought I was made for him. Just for him.''

''What happened?''

Arthur studied Mithian's tear-streaked face for a moment, then he said, ''He was found out to be a sorcerer and vanished.''

''Oh. I'm... I'm sorry.''

She really looked like she was, and maybe that was what gave Arthur the final certainty.

''I might not have chosen this,'' he said. ''But if you'll let me, I will choose it now. I don't know yet how we can make it work, but I promise you I will do whatever it takes to do right by you and that child.''

Very slowly a smile crept up on Mithian's face.

They married a month later in a small, private ceremony. They weren't in love with each other, but they became good friends. Mithian kept working and Arthur tried everything to live up to being a good husband and a good father, even if that sometimes meant working insane hours so he would be there to play with his son or put him to bed. He wanted to be there for his child like his own parents had not been, even if that had been out of very different reasons.

It was a bit of a horrible cosmic joke that Arthur's son still was left as a half-orphan only a year after his birth. Arthur grieved for Mithian, though. She had been his friend and he would always be grateful to her, because she had gifted him with the most important thing in the world. His son.~

Arthur does not tell Merlin any of this, and when the silence finally stretches into uncomfortable, he just motions at the other door in the room, saying, ''The bathroom is through there, if you want to freshen up. I will bring you some clothes that might fit. We can buy you some stuff tomorrow, but I assume you'd rather get out of that prison garb.''

Merlin does that smile that is actually more like a wince, and mumbles, ''Thank you, yeah.''

After that, Arthur is all to eager to leave, so he nods, probably a bit stupidly, and turns to the door.

''I'll leave you to it then,'' he mumbles, and then he flees.

*

It's when Arthur comes back, with some jogging pants and a t-shirt that's always been a bit on the small side, that he suddenly realises the whole range of implications of Merlin's staying here, implications he somehow has managed to block out till now.

The door to the bathroom is standing ajar and there is the sound of water running. Arthur's feet must have carried him without a conscious effort, because a blink of an eye later he is standing in the door frame watching Merlin's long pale back through the shower screen. The glass is just starting to fog up, and the marks on his body are blurry like this. He is so beautiful, with the black hair plastered to his head and neck, the long lines of muscle and a surprisingly perky arse. The sight takes Arthur's breath away, and he swallows, trying to turn away, but his stubborn feet won't move.

He has no idea how long he's been standing there when the water stops and Arthur is shaken out of his reverie. He leaves the clothes folded on the bed, and flees with his heart beating much too quickly and an uncomfortable tightness in his trousers.

The shower is a luxury. Merlin didn't have the possibility to indulge in the warm spray of water, cascading over his body like this, for what feels like ages. He has had few luxuries in all those years since he ran away from home and, if he had them, they always came with a side order of humiliation and pain and self-betrayal.

When Merlin finally turns off the shower though, his breath catches in his throat. He's sure there was a noise just beyond the door which he didn't remember to close and lock. Old habits die hard. He stands there, in the shower, for what feels like hours, naked and wet and starting to shiver, unable to move, just breathing hard and listening. He tries to tell himself he is safe, that he is in Arthur's home and the only people here with him are Arthur, his six year old son and a sweet-faced woman that is unlikely to attack him. It doesn't help. He is still waiting for the door to be slowly pushed open and a man stepping into the room with cold eyes and a gleeful smile. Maybe shedding his own clothes and... Merlin closes his eyes, hearing the voices in his head.

''Aren't you a sweet little boy? Open up for daddy now...'' ''I will fuck you up against the tile till you break, you little whore!'' ''Spread them. Show me how hungry your arse is.''

Merlin's hands go white around the shower fitting, fighting the instinct to curl up on the floor of the tub. He casts his eyes around wildly until they fix on a pile of fluffy white towels, swallowing hard and breathing heavy through his nose. His head is feeling dizzy and he stumbles a little when he climbs out of the shower, grabbing for a towel like its a security blanket. He wraps himself up in it before sinking down on the toilet seat, his hands curling into fists on his knees and his head bowed. There are black spots dancing in front of his eyes and his whole body feels like he's on a stormy sea, being tossed about the waves.

He doesn't know how long he has sat there, but his hair has started to dry when he becomes aware of a soft knocking on the door to the guest room.

''Merlin?'' Arthur's voice drifts in. ''Are you alright? Did you drown yourself in the shower?''

Merlin makes a choking sound between a sob and a hysterical laugh, because Arthur has no idea how close he comes to the truth.

''I- I'll be down in a minute,'' Merlin calls, his voice weak and wavering, but Arthur seems satisfied because Merlin can hear the faint sound of footsteps on wooden floor and then the creak of the stairs as he leaves again. He takes a deep breath, feeling calmer now. Somehow Arthur's voice has managed to ground him in the here and now, and the visions of his rapists or clients or... well, the men who fucked him like he was a commodity and didn't much care about his consent or his pride... they fade, until they are barely an echo in his mind.

Merlin gets up on wobbly legs and walks out into the guest room then. He was too overwhelmed to take much notice before, but it's a nice room: held in colours of blue and sea-green with a cherry wood bed, wardrobe and dresser as well as a little desk with a chair. The tall bay window floods the room with warm light, making it look homey and welcoming. Someone has left a pile of clothes on the patterned bedspread and Merlin gingerly picks them up. They smell faintly of Arthur and Merlin has to suppress the urge to bury his nose in the cloth.

When he puts them on with shaking hands, he has to blink against the moisture in his eyes because it feels weirdly like a familiar embrace, and it is still not enough to stop him from longing for more.

~ The winter when Merlin had just turned fifteen Arthur went on a skiing trip to Switzerland with friends from school. Merlin of course had to stay at home, since he was not a pupil at Arthur's stupid posh school. It was the first time that they had been away from each other for so long and the first time Merlin wouldn't be able to talk to Arthur daily since their first, fairly awkward kiss three months ago.

They had kissed some more since then, mostly shy and chaste, but Merlin felt an ever growing urge for more, and he just knew Arthur felt the same. He was just too fucking noble to make a move. Merlin realised that Arthur was afraid of taking advantage, but couldn't he see how hopelessly in love Merlin was with him? So Merlin was lying on Arthur's bed, in Arthur's room now, curled up on his side and his face buried in Arthur's favourite red hoodie. He imagined it was Arthur who was lying next to him and Merlin was actually pressing his nose to his chest and not just his clothing.

He was getting hard. Merlin was always hard these days because Arthur was a prat who kept walking around in his boxer shorts, parading his broad chest and shoulders and his enticingly flat stomach with that trail of hair that had Merlin all nervous and excited and scared. He had not yet seen where it led. Well not since they stopped skinny dipping when they were nine and eleven respectively. But he had felt Arthur when they were doing their thing that was not cuddling but involved pressing against each other from head to toe and winding arms and legs around each other. And, just a week ago, there had even been some grinding against each other, which had felt so incredibly good.

Merlin remembered that day now, a rainy afternoon just a few days after Christmas. They had been reading, and then Arthur had turned towards Merlin and had started mouthing at his neck - Arthur seemed to have a thing for his neck - and they had started kissing, really kissing with tongue and all, and Arthur had pulled Merlin on top of him. It had just felt natural to press his hips down against Arthur, arch his back and... god, Arthur had made this guttural sounds that turned Merlin breathless and-

Merlin pulled his sip down and reached inside. His cock was impossibly hard as the memories played out in his mind, became alive again only to turn into fantasy. Pulling Arthur's shirt over his head, gliding his hands over those strong arms, touching that hard, smooth plains of his shoulders and chest and then... maybe letting his hands stroke down further, to Arthur's stomach, down that soft trail and to that tantalizing bulge...

Merlin licked his lips and then bit down hard on them, swallowing a moan as he stroked himself - lazily at first - and then more urgently as he imagined doing the same to Arthur. Pulling Arthur's boxers down, freeing that cock that was standing at attention for Merlin alone. Because Merlin was doing this to Arthur. Merlin was making him moan and throw his head back, baring his throat and Merlin wanted to lick at it, bite at it, bury himself in it, and he was so close, so close...

''Merlin?''

His eyes flew open and his hand froze on his cock.

''What are you doing in my bed?'' Arthur voice was tinged with amusement and Merlin's face felt hot like he had sunburn. In January.

''I-'' he didn't know what to say, much too embarrassed to form a coherent sentence. What does it look like you prat? he wanted to shout, but the mattress was dipping before he could push those words past his tongue, as Arthur was sitting down next to him. And what was that clotpole even doing here? He wasn't supposed to be back before tomorrow night and-

All those thoughts were suddenly blown from Merlin's mind, though, when Arthur leaned in and whispered, close to his ear, ''I wish you would let me finish that for you.''

Merlin heard a whimper and was almost sure that it had come from him. There was another hand on his cock then, teeth and lips at the side of his neck and a mumbled, ''God, Merlin, missed you so much.''

It didn't take long after that, Arthur got barely more than a dozen strokes in before Merlin bucked his hips like a bronco while Arthur swallowed his shout in a kiss. He lay there, overwhelmed and panting and kind of boneless, and when he finally pried his eyes open again, Arthur was staring down at him with tussled hair and that big smile of his, and a look of excitement and pure joy in his eyes that took away what was left of Merlin's breath.

''Do- do you want me to...?'' Merlin stuttered shyly when he found his speech again, admiring the pretty blush creeping up Arthur's cheeks.

''Nah,'' Arthur mumbled, looking away and starting to nuzzle Merlin's neck again. ''We can do that later. Right now I just want to lie here with you.''

He flopped down on the bed next to Merlin then, his arms wrapping around Merlin's skinnier frame and Merlin turned his face into Arthur's solid warmth with a smile, inhaling deeply. There was an underlying smell of sex, but mostly it was just Arthur. He snuggled closer, wrapped in all that was Arthur, and safe in the knowledge that this place would always be his. ~

Up in Arthur's guest room Merlin swallows hard now, remembering how he has lost that place, and that it was him who left. Even if it is questionable whether you can say that it was on his own volition, Merlin has given up his home and his family and the one thing in his life that had made him feel whole. There is no getting that back now, he knows that, and staying here, with Arthur, is like sweet torture, like dangling food in front of the starving man. He needs to keep his distance somehow, can't let himself get tangled up in someone who can so easily destroy all that is left of him when the time comes to let him go. And the time will come. Merlin is, after all, just a job to Arthur.

Merlin closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, trying to push all these pesky feelings deep down inside. Just skin and flesh, a voice that sounds suspiciously like his own whispers in his ear, but Merlin knows it can never be that with Arthur. If he lets Arthur close, it will cut him so deep it'll bleed.

Telling himself to stop stalling, he steps out of the room on socked feet. The sound of voices and laughter and the smell of pasta sauce are wafting up towards him, and it makes Merlin feel so out of place, that he has to fight the hysteric laughter that wants to bubble up his throat. This is so absurdly domestic, it makes Merlin wonder what he is trying to do here, pretending to be someone he's not – not anymore. He almost turns back to the questionable safety of his room - because he knows very well that Arthur will show up if doesn't come down soon – when there is the sound of quick little feet and then Alex's high voice asking, ''Merlin?''

He realises he has involuntarily turned around already when he looks back over his shoulder at the bottom of the stairs, where Arthur's face of a lifetime ago is staring up at him curiously. It's the same expression, the same questioning eyes and slightly pursed lips, and Merlin feels like he is falling, no hold and no anchor, right into them.

''Are you coming?'' Alex asks slightly worried. ''There's lasagne.''

Merlin nods and tries for a smile that's probably on the very wobbly side, but Alex immediately grins at him and then runs out of sight, presumably to the dining room.

*

The lunch that follows is an awkward affair, at least for Merlin. Gwen seems like a really sweet and kind woman. You can see it in the way she's with Alex and the fond smiles she gives Arthur. With Merlin though, she's polite but distant; it's such a contrast that it seems almost hostile, and it makes Merlin feel even more out of place. He realises that she probably feels like he's intruding on her turf, but while the reasonable part of him can acknowledge that, there's still something deep inside of him bristling with possessiveness. Whatever that is must be delusional though, because Merlin is well aware that he couldn't be further from having any sort of claim on Arthur, never mind his son.

Alex on the other hand is actually a small wonder. He is cute as a button and so full of energy he seems to be bouncing on his chair and hardly shuts up long enough to stuff another huge bite of lasagne in his mouth. Arthur is trying to make him not speak with his mouth full, but Merlin isn't sure that is such a good idea because as a result Alex just seems to swallow without chewing. God, he is so much like Arthur it hurts a little bit to look at him.

And then there's Arthur, and, yeah, Merlin really can't think about Arthur, or look at him, or listen to him, but his stupid eyes and ears and his traitorous brain seem to have other ideas. Merlin tries to concentrate on the food, tries to keep his eyes on the plate and look inconspicuous, but it doesn't work, of course, because it never does.

''Do you like the lasagne, Merlin?'' Gwen asks, every bit the hostess, catching Merlin of guard just as he was putting a forkful of food in his mouth. He starts spluttering and coughing and Gwen gives him a worried but ominous look.

''See?'' Arthur tells Alex dryly, pointing his thumb in Merlin's direction. ''This is what will happen if you try to speak while you're eating.''

Merlin glares at him, but Arthur only grins back and exaggeratedly shoves a piece of lasagne in his mouth, chewing in amused silence.

''It's... it's very good,'' Merlin says when his throat has cleared up, ''It's been a while since I've had it.''

''Oh. Yes. I imagine it wouldn't be... I mean with the... the food is probably bad... where you were I mean, although I wouldn't know, but... yes,'' Gwen looks at him uncomfortably, ''It's one of Alexander's favourites.''

''Ah.''

''Merlin's favourite food is roast beef with Yorkshire pudding,'' Alex says, licking at his fork.

Gwen laughs in surprise. ''How would you know that, Alex?'' she asks, obviously amused.

Arthur has started coughing as soon as Alex's words were out of his mouth, and Merlin looks at him suspiciously - because his favourite food is roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, but why would Arthur have told his son something like this? Arthur's expression is one of worry and even fear though, and that just doesn't seem right.

''We will have it because Daddy wants to apologise,'' Alex says, and then asks, ''Can I have ice cream for dessert?''

Gwen just looks mildly confused when she says, ''I don't think your daddy has reason to apologise, Alex. He's been very kind, letting Merlin stay here with you and all... and I have to look whether there is still ice cream-''

''No ice cream today, you stuffed yourself with enough of it yesterday,'' Arthur interrupts. ''You can have an apple if there's still room in your stomach.''

Alex pouts a little, but he obviously isn't one to sulk because the next moment he is already prattling on about school and how someone called Jamie put a frog in Mrs Henley's bag.

Merlin glances down the table at Arthur though, whose face has become unreadable once more. Arthur is worried and Merlin's brain is providing him with hair-brained theories. It's true, he felt something when he touched Alex, but he was sure then that it was his own imagination or maybe the fact that Alex is Arthur's son. There's probably a simple explanation. Because the alternative would be too horrifying to even think about.

*

Gwen leaves after lunch, and Merlin offers to do the dishes in some pathetic attempt to make up for the rent he has no way of paying, but Arthur laughs and says, ''Don't be ridiculous Merlin, we just stuff it all in the dishwasher.''

Of course Arthur has a dishwasher. Merlin is only surprised the prat doesn't have a butler, but maybe that one is just hidden in the broom cupboard, how would Merlin know? He takes the dishes to the kitchen at least, and there is some really absurd shifting around each other as Arthur rinses the plates and puts them into the machine while Merlin just tries not to break anything, navigating around him without touching.

''So, how long have you two been together?'' Merlin finally asks with what he hopes is a bright smile when he can't take the awkward silence anymore.

''Huh?'' Arthur says intelligently, giving him a dubious look.

''You and Gwen?'' Merlin provides the obvious.

Arthur barks out a laugh. ''Me and Gwen!? Oh my god... No! She's not my- I'm not-'' Merlin stares in fascination when Arthur actually starts to blush. ''She's just a friend. She's also Lance's wife. They got married two years ago.''

''I... uhm... oh.'' Okay, Merlin didn't see that one coming, although he has to admit he can very much see Arthur's gentle doctor friend with the caring woman he has met today. ''I thought... because she was... and the cooking and-'' Merlin makes some elaborate hand gestures when words fail him once more, but Arthur seems to still be adapt in translating them because he only rolls his eyes and keeps rinsing.

''Yeah, she is here quite a bit because Lance has these insane shifts at the hospital and she looks after Alex, but... Gwen is not and never has been my girlfriend.'' He looks up at Merlin then, suddenly serious and somehow stripped of all the prattish smugness. ''There hasn't really been anyone. Not since Mithian.''

And just like that Merlin's heart is cut open. Because all this time, somewhere deeply buried inside of him, Merlin has held on to the idea that he has meant the same to Arthur that Arthur has meant to him. That he might have moved on - because who wouldn't after ten years? - but that they had something special, something more then just a teenage crush, something you don't find twice in your life. It seems he was wrong.

It's been a long day for Arthur and he should really be asleep right now, but the sweet delirium of slumber has never been so elusive. There's too much on his mind, too many uncertainties and too many worries, that make Arthur feel as if the weight of the world has settled on his shoulders.

Ever since he brought Merlin to his home, things have been awkward as hell. All the misunderstandings and tense moments just keep driving it home further that Arthur does no longer know Merlin and doesn't know how to talk to him anymore. All these secrets, the many years Arthur doesn't know about, make the pull Merlin still has on him even worse, because it took Arthur years to accept and consider the possibility of a life without Merlin - and he still never stopped missing him. Now it feels like he is back to square one.

After lunch, when Alex has to do his homework, Arthur excused himself and went to his office to call Leon and see if he had found out anything new. Apparently he has, and they have agreed to meet at the coffee shop close to the Yard tomorrow. Afterwards Arthur thought he might be able to talk to Merlin some more, maybe even try to understand what the hell has happened to him and what his relationship with Aredian was about.

Before he has been able to pull Merlin aside for that, though, there was a ring at the door. The man on Arthur's doorstep identified himself as the doctor officially in charge of giving Merlin his shots of repressants. Arthur had actually almost forgotten about them, but it's a condition on Merlin's bail and so it couldn't be avoided.

Merlin didn't move a muscle and just sat there letting the man pull up his sleeve, fill a syringe and inject the drug right into Merlin's vein. At first the shot made Merlin dizzy, but after a while he became really tired and he retreated to his room. He didn't show up again before Arthur went to bed, and there was no reaction to his light knock. Since the door had not been locked, Arthur pushed it open a little, and then could hear the soft puffs of breath coming from the direction of the bed.

Arthur retreated to his own room, but the early night he was hoping for has not been granted to him so far. He sighs, turning on his side and frowning at his alarm clock. It informs him that it is 2.30 am. Arthur is wide awake.

Frustrated, Arthur swings his legs out of bed and pulls a t-shirt over his head. The wooden floor is cold under bare feet, but he manages to silently sneak down the two flights of stairs to the living room, where he goes over to the mini-bar and pours himself a scotch. Maybe this will help him sleep.

When he slumps down on the couch, is eyes are drawn to the framed pictures on the mantle again. He knows what keeps him awake, really, but he's not sure whether he dares to admit it. His eyes find that picture of him and Alex from the day he was born, and Arthur's stomach clenches with an ugly fear. He knows he can't ignore it any longer, the things Alex says, and the things he knows. Arthur has been clinging to the concept of coincidence, but there is only so much you can explain with intuition and he has to face this because that's the only way he can protect his son.

He won't allow anyone to harm him just because--

Because Alex might have magic.

Arthur takes a deep breath, fighting the dark wave of cold fear that's threatening to crash him, to drown him.

He wonders if this is how Hunith felt when the first signs of Merlin being different showed. If the same incredible fear had taken hold of her, mixed with just a little bit of awe. Because his son is smart and sweet and special, and how could anyone look at him and think he is evil? How could anyone think that about Merlin for that matter? Arthur has no idea what he's going to do if his suspicion turns out to be true, but he knows one thing for sure: there is no way in hell that Arthur will let anyone put his son through registration. There will be no tattoo on Alex's hand. They won't take his son away from him to prod him and test him and inject him with drugs.

Arthur knows all the statistics. It's his job after all. There is a significantly higher suicide rate with registered teenagers, as well as mental disorders, learning disabilities and general health problems. It's one of the major issues Morgana and the MRA is campaigning against. There's enough evidence that gives credit to the claim that it's the repressants rather than the magic itself that is the trigger, but the government has ignored these facts for years. Arthur has made it his goal in life to abolish such inhuman injustice with all the means the law provides him with and he will continue to do so.

But he won't hesitate for a second to break that law so he can protect his son.

~ It was on an unusually hot day in September, the moment Arthur's life changed forever. Mithian had been round like a watermelon and had been stuffing herself with ice cream when she suddenly dropped the spoon and there was a sound like a water balloon popping, followed by a requisite splash. Mithian looked at Arthur like this was all his fault and informed him that her water had broken and that he better had the car ready right now.

During the rush to the hospital Arthur broke a dozen traffic laws while Mithian kept either berating him that he wasn't keeping within the speed limit, or that he wasn't going fast enough. Arthur was close to having a heart attack. The pregnancy had not been an easy one, draining Mithian of her energy more and more, and Arthur had been beside himself from worry. There was this dark fear still somewhere inside himself, this stupid idea that he was cursed, that he had killed his own mother and that the same might happen to Mithian.

Then they arrived at the hospital, and suddenly it was all taken out of Arthur's hands. He was made to stand beside his screaming wife and couldn't do much else but hold her hand while the nurses and doctors and midwives were running around them with faces that became increasingly more worried over time. Arthur was scared shitless, and he had never felt more helpless because there was absolutely nothing he could do.

It took hours. Hours upon hours of Mithian panting and groaning and screaming on the top of her lungs. Of telling Arthur that she never wanted to see his ugly face again but not letting go of his hand, and squeezing it until Arthur had to grit his teeth against his own kind of pain.

And then, when it was finally time to push, Mithian grabbed his shirt and pulled him even closer, looking at him with wide eyes.

''Don't worry,'' she whispered. ''I can do this. I will give you your son.''

''He is our son,'' Arthur reminded her, stroking the hair out of her sweaty face. ''Yours and mine.''

But Mithian just smiled and then there was the next contraction and she nearly broke Arthur's hand.

In the end Mithian really could do it. She was exhausted and weak from the loss of blood, sweat beading on her pale face and dark hair plastered to her head, but she smiled like she had never been happier. And then she handed Arthur the little bundle of blankets with his son inside and--

The world stopped. It fell away, and there was nothing but those deep blue eyes, looking at him curiously out of a little rosy-red face. He was so, so tiny. Tiny little hands, with tiny little fingers, grabbed at Arthur, clamping around his forefinger, and a tiny mouth opened in a sleepy yawn. Alex's eyes closed slowly and he snuffled a little, turning his face towards Arthur, perfectly content.

Arthur stared down at his sleeping son, just a few minutes old, and blinked against the sudden moisture in his eyes. He bowed down to kiss the downy soft forehead and dragged his nose over that tiny little button one, inhaling deeply. It was true what everyone said, and yet you couldn't comprehend it until it happened to yourself.

A child changed everything. This tiny little boy was Arthur's. He already loved him more than he could say and if anyone wanted to hurt him, it would be over Arthur's dead body.~

It's six years later now, and Arthur still feels the same fierce and overwhelming love for his boy. In the end Mithian couldn't keep her promise, and it has fallen to Arthur to raise their son. He strives to make her proud, even if he is sure he makes mistakes every day, just like all parents do. With this though, he can't fail, and he has no idea how to go about it. With all his involvement with the Magicals movement, and all the sorcerers he's defended, he doesn't know what a magical child needs. He doesn't know how much they can even control their abilities, and that means he doesn't know how to protect his son.

There is a sound then and, when Arthur looks up, Merlin is standing at the bottom of the stairs, biting his lip and looking as if he wants to turn around and flee. Arthur doesn't know what to say and just holds Merlin's gaze, trying to keep him there just by looking at him. It must have worked, because after a long moment Merlin finally comes over, hesitating a few steps away from him.

Arthur clears his throat. ''Couldn't sleep?''

Merlin stares at him a little longer before he shakes his head. ''Slept for some time, but... the repressants, they always make me jumpy.''

Arthur frowns. ''I thought they made you sleepy?''

Merlin comes closer and gingerly sits down on the other side of the couch, as far as possible from Arthur, shoving his hands under his thighs. ''Only at first... then, a few hours later, they make me jitter and I wake up. It's worse this time.'' Merlin swallows audibly. ''They... they increased the dosage, I guess,'' he whispers.

Arthur sits up straighter and frowns at him. ''Are you alright, though? The judge said your health can't be put at risk, so you have to tell me if what they gave you was too much.''

Merlin snorts, but he doesn't look amused. ''Come on, Arthur, they are pumping me full of drugs, of course it's not good for my health. Actually...'' he trails off with a shrug.

''Actually what?''

Merlin pulls a face and then lowers his head even more, so that Arthur can't see his eyes anymore. ''They trap the magic but... it's still there. I can feel it and... it's like a constant pressure under my skin. Sometimes I feel like it's pulling me apart.''

Arthur just sits and stares at Merlin, his breaths sound harsh in his own ears. ''Does it hurt?'' he whispers.

Merlin's head comes up then, and suddenly his wide blue eyes are staring at Arthur and he can see the answer before it comes.

''Yes.''

Arthur remains silent. After a long moment he drains his scotch in one go and stands up.

''Want one too?'' he asks when he walks over to the bar.

''Y-Yeah...''

Arthur nods and pours two glasses. He hands one to Merlin without looking at him and walks over to the mantle, sipping at his own.

''So... what has you up and about?'' Merlin asks quietly after a while, his voice uncertain, like he's not sure whether he's allowed to ask.

Arthur stares at Alex's toothy smile in front of him. He has not dared to talk to anyone about his suspicion; anyone who knows and doesn't inform the authorities will be liable to prosecution. He hardly has to worry about that with Merlin, though, has he? It's more a question whether Arthur still trusts him.

He turns around and looks at Merlin, sitting on Arthur's couch in sleeping trousers and a t-shirt, looking not much older than the boy Arthur knew ten years ago. Merlin's eyes are wide and open with worry, although Arthur can't really tell what he is thinking. The almost telepathic connection they shared when they were boys has been broken.

''I'm worried...,'' Arthur says with difficulty, ''about Alex.''

Whatever Arthur has expected, it wasn't what comes next. Merlin sags a little in his seat, his eyes on his long fingers that press against each other in a small display of tension, and he softly whispers, ''...because you think he has magic.''

The words are unnaturally loud in the silence of the living room. They seem to reverberate in the pit of Arthur's stomach and the hollow of his heart. He rings with his breath when Merlin looks up at him again, but he manages to press the word out through his throat.

''Yes.''

Merlin swallows and nods. ''What- what will you do?'' he asks quietly.

''Whatever it takes,'' Arthur grits out. ''I will do whatever it takes to protect him.''

Merlin doesn't say anything, he just nods, but there is a small, sad smile on his lips when he drains his drink in one go.

They drink in silence, Arthur in the armchair and Merlin on the couch, almost like they are holding a quiet vigil. And even if there are no words spoken, there's an offer of comfort and a pledge of support.

Merlin is alone, alone in a sea of black only broken by the flickering light of candles, stretching in all directions like boats on the ocean. There is no one there, but invisible hands are touching him, cool fingers gliding over his skin in a gentle caress. The touch is getting more insistent though, more demanding, until it becomes painful and he is grabbed and held and bent. There is a hand on his neck, pushing him roughly to the floor, and the callouses feel familiar, rattling an old memory of a hand sneaking behind Merlin's neck, pulling his forehead against another, blue eyes twinkling with joy. Merlin tries not to, but he turns into the hold instinctively, bowing to it. There's a snort then, derogative and superior, and it hurts. Merlin tries to pull free, his head twisting, and then he catches sight of the man behind him, all cold eyes and a cruel smile. All the fight leaves him as he looks at Arthur, seeing the disgust and the scorn on his face.

Merlin wakes up with a start, panting and sitting up too fast, trying to find his bearing and remember where the hell he is. His mind still lingers on the remnants of the nightmare, trying to match the taste of despair in his mouth with the impressions his brain receives from his senses. Details come at him in a dizzying rush while his stomach keeps rolling. The plush couch under him, the high ceiling above him, the faint wood-smoke from the fireplace to his right, and the soft fabric of a blanket around him. His gaze falls on the low table next to him, an empty scotch glass sitting on top of it.

It finally clicks then, and the memories flood back. The hearing, being brought back to Arthur's, the shot of repressants, and how the drugs made him sleepy. How he then woke in the middle of the night and came sneaking downstairs for a glass of water, only to find Arthur sitting in the golden glow of the lamplight, drinking and brooding.

Merlin winces a little, thinking of their barren conversation and Arthur's admission about Alex, the reaction not at all what Merlin had expected. It's true that Arthur defends sorcerers and he never showed Merlin any open disgust, but it's one thing to speak out against the oppression and persecution of others, and quite another to have a sorcerer for a son yourself. Merlin knows very well what kind of stories Arthur grew up with in the Pendragon household.

After the little time he has spent with Arthur and his son though, Merlin can already see quite clearly that Alex is Arthur's life - just like his wife probably was before she died. It's not easy for him, thinking of this unknown woman Arthur has fallen in love with, and Merlin knows the feeling that settles in his stomach all too well. He's jealous, and not only that, he is jealous of a dead woman, because Arthur isn't as much of an idiot as Merlin himself, who still holds on to a teenage crush after ten years of separation.

Suddenly angry, Merlin throws back the dark red blanket that's covering him, realising that he must have fallen asleep on the couch, and that Arthur probably tucked him in. It's such a simple thing to do - and it means nothing - but it still hurts. Merlin smiles self-deprecatingly at his own stupidity. Even after all these years, after all that has happened, he still turns to Arthur like a flower turns to the sun. But just like the sun doesn't need the flower in return, Arthur doesn't need Merlin anymore. He might have taken him in, but that was hardly more than an act of charity. In every way that would count, Merlin is still standing outside, pressing his nose to the windowpane and looking in on something he will never be part off, somewhere he will never belong.

*

The house is still silent, the sky only tinged with the pale pink of dawn, when Merlin gets up to silently sneak back to his room. It's cold in there. He left the window open, and the icy air hits Merlin like a shock, making his skin erupt in goosebumps. Shivering, he goes over to the window and pulls it closed before huddling on the window seat, staring out over the deserted lawns of the park.

Merlin has no idea how much time has passed, when there's a knock on the door and Arthur's quiet voice informs him that breakfast will be ready in a few minutes. He listens to the retreating foot steps, but keeps waiting for a while. After last night he has even less of a clue how to act around Arthur, and he doesn't want to be caught with him alone again. When he can hear the excited chatter of Alex's young voice drifting up the stairs he tries to compose himself, taking a few deep breaths, and then lets himself out the door.

The scene that's awaiting him downstairs looks like it has been taken straight from a cheesy sitcom. Arthur is once more sitting at the head of the table, with Alex to his left, blond hair gleaming in the early morning light that's filtering through the eastbound windows. It's a Saturday, so Alex doesn't have school, but Arthur looks like he is off to work in grey slacks and another one of those pale blue shirts that match his eyes in an incredibly unfair way. Alex is still in his pyjamas and has a smear of blueberry jam on his chin.

Merlin stops at the bottom of the stairs, unsure how to enter that picture of domesticity. He feels like an intruder, disturbing something perfect.

''Merlin, Merlin!'' Alex suddenly cries, catching sight of him, ''We have pancakes, because it's Saturday and we always have pancakes on Saturdays. Daddy made them and he didn't burn them. Do you like pancakes? We still have lots and lots! And there's blueberry jam-''

''Alex,'' Arthur says calmly but with a certain hint of warning in his voice. ''Why don't you let Merlin sit down for now,'' and here Arthur throws Merlin a significant look, ''and then you can ask him what he wants with his pancakes?''

There is no way around it now, so Merlin comes forward and takes the seat opposite Alex.

''Good...good morning,'' he mumbles quietly, painfully aware of his bruised face and throat, never mind all that lurks under his clothes. He feels like he is tainting something beautiful that he shouldn't be allowed to be around, but Arthur just smiles tightly at him, and then there are pancakes materialising on his plate. Arthur hands him the maple syrup like he would have ten years ago, like nothing has changed when everything has. It's almost unreal, like he is having a strange kind of dream. There are Arthur's awkward glances, stolen from behind his lashes though, which at least gives Merlin the idea that he isn't the only one who's as lost as one can be.

When Arthur finally opens his mouth, he says, ''I have to meet with a friend of mine today. We might have a lead that will get us somewhere in this whole disaster.''

''What's a disaster, daddy?'' Alex asks through a mouthful of pancakes.

Arthur frowns at him before he answers with one of his wry smiles, ''Remember the one time you let Max into the house? And you tried to bathe him and he escaped and ran all through the house shaking his coat?'' He waits for Alex to nod before he says, ''That was a disaster.''

Merlin can't help it. His mouth creases of its own accord.

''Uhm...''he starts after a moment, squirming a little in his seat. ''What... what about me? I mean...'' he trails off, because he really has no clue where he was going with this. He simply has no clue at all what's expected of him, so he puts a piece of pancake in his mouth instead.

Arthur clears his throat and then gives Merlin a lazy smirk. ''I asked Gwen to come over again today,'' he says overly casual. ''She's agreed to take you shopping.''

The pancake Merlin has just tried to swallow changes direction, and Merlin chokes a little. ''W-What?'' he coughs, ''But-''

''You need some clothes, don't you, Merlin? And I need to go out and try to save your hide. So you get Gwen. I'm sure she'll be the perfect shopping assistant and can give you lots of tips how to bring out the colour of your eyes and emphasise your cheekbones.''

Merlin knows that Arthur is mocking him, and so he looks up ready to send him an angry glare, but when he sees the faint blush on Arthur's cheeks he falters, suddenly confused. Arthur doesn't meet his eyes, just wipes his mouth with is napkin and gets up.

''Yeah, well, I better get going,'' he says, putting the napkin down and brushing a kiss over Alex's forehead.

''Be good for Aunt Gwen and Merlin, okay?'' he says quietly, and then he is gone, grabbing his coat on his way out, and the door falls shut behind him. Merlin stares after him, no idea what to think or to do now.

''Can I have another pancake?'' Alex asks, and Merlin blinks at him. His blond hair is standing up at the back of his head and there is still jam on his face and on his fingers. ''Can I, Merlin? Please?''

Merlin's eyes dart to the pile of pancakes on the table. ''Um... I-I think... do you-'' Alex holds his plate up and looks at him hopefully and Merlin feels like the worst kind of idiot, because who can't answer such a simple question? With shaking fingers he spears a pancake and puts it onto the offered plate.

Alex beams. ''Thank you, Merlin!'' He puts an obscene amount of blueberry jam on it and then asks Merlin, ''How did Daddy know the way you like your pancakes?''

''Um... I guess-- Who doesn't like syrup?''

Alex wrinkles his nose. ''I prefer jam,'' he says importantly, and Merlin's heart breaks a little from the déja vu.

*

Gwen arrives a little later, when Merlin and Alex are doing the dishes. Merlin is rinsing and scrubbing, while Alex is keeping up a constant background chatter about pretty much everything, from his school to someone named Pat - who Merlin realises after nearly half an hour is a girl from Alex's class who is, apparently, awesome. Alex also talks about his daddy, and it is obvious that there is a serious case of hero-worship going on, but he never mentions his mum, and Merlin has to bite his tongue so he won't pump a six-year-old for information he has no right to in the first place. Then Alex starts to ask about Merlin, and it all goes to hell.

''Were you scared?'' Alex looks at him with wide blue eyes.

''Wh-what do you mean?'' Merlin returns, swallowing nervously, trying to stay calm and concentrate on the dirty plates.

''When that man tried to hurt you, were you scared?''

''How do you know about that?'' Merlin asks faintly.

''Daddy said you had no choice,'' Alex says with a firmness in his voice that belies his age.

They are talking about murder here; about Merlin becoming a murderer, finally, after all this time, with his magic acting out without any true volition in his panic. He still feels like he has to vomit. Because he saw Aredian - when he finally woke up, when the police arrived - and it wasn't a pretty sight. Aredian's eyes had been open wide, just like his mouth. Maybe he had tried to cry out, Merlin would never know. His head had been twisted so badly it had almost come off the neck.

''I was...'' Merlin swallows and tries again, ''I didn't want to, but-''

And this is when Gwen appears in the doorway: The look on her face can only be described as appalled.

''Hello sweetie,'' she greets Alex with a kind voice, but her smile is forced and, when her eyes turn to Merlin, they hold no warmth. ''Could I talk to you for a minute, Merlin?'' she asks stiffly.

''S-Sure...''

They step out of the kitchen, and Alex pouts a little, an unhappy frown marring his young face. Gwen doesn't pull Merlin with her, not physically at least, but her whole bearing is commanding when she walks ahead of him into the living room with a stony expression. She turns around as soon as Merlin is level with the couch, standing behind it while Gwen faces him from in front of the fire-place.

''How can you do this?'' she asks him sharply. ''He is only a child. He shouldn't have to hear about such things. He shouldn't even know about them. How can you expose him to something so awful, so horrible...'' Her cheeks are hot from a blush and she looks away, biting her lip. ''I'm sorry for what happened to you, but you can't make yourself feel better on Alex's expense. He is very impressionable and...'' She shoots him an awkward look. ''I don't think you should be around him so much. Or alone with him for that matter.''

Merlin only stares at her but, of course, he knows she's right. He shouldn't be here. He feels disgusted with himself and even more ashamed than before, for bringing this dirt and darkness into their home. He should have said no, he should have just gone back to the Facility, since that's where he belongs.

He nods shakily. ''I-I understand,'' he says, almost too quietly to be heard. He manages to meet Gwen's eyes, if only for a moment, and she looks ill at ease but not about to back down.

Gwen gives him a pained little smile. ''Well, you should maybe get ready then. Arthur asked me to take you to the shops.''

Merlin nods again. His throat is dry and his skin feels tight, his magic pressing at him like something alive, a fiery deluge that's filling him up till he can't breathe anymore. When he finally gets himself under control again he is alone. He can hear Gwen in the kitchen talking to Alex though, and he is glad that no one can see his hasty retreat. He stumbles a little on his way up the stairs, bumping his shin, and when he reaches the guest room he closes the door and slumps against it.

His breathing is heavy and he has no idea what he's supposed to do. He has lived a life outside of the norm for so long that he isn't even sure he knows how it's done anymore. Get ready, Gwen has said, but for the past years that meant preparing himself for a customer. It meant showering and shaving, sometimes preparing in different ways too, and then dressing up to the likes of whichever client had bought his time and compliance.

Merlin pushes himself off the door and walks to the bathroom, pulling off clothes as if in a trance. He comes to a stop just inside the door, watching his reflection in the mirror on the opposite wall. He's down to his sweatpants and the tiles are cold under his feet. He stares at his own face, angles and shadows and colours that don't seem to fit with each other, that look foreign and strange. He stares until the pieces start to disintegrate and Merlin is not there anymore, just broken facets of his body.

~ Merlin's first customer had been gentle at first, smiling and indulgent, like he was trying to make Merlin feel comfortable. Merlin had been nervous - no, actually he had been scared out of his mind. He'd been nineteen years old and his experience comprised mostly of fumbling around with his best friend and an encounter in the back room of a coffee shop he'd rather not think about. Now he sat next to a complete stranger, who smelled disgustingly of cigarettes and who had paid hard money to do things to Merlin, to use his body in whichever way he pleased.

Merlin had been sure that he could somehow do this, but now, that it was real, he was frozen with fear at the thought of doing so much as getting naked. He was skittish, flinching at every touch, turning stiff like a board while trying to keep himself from it. The man started to unbutton his shirt, touching Merlin as pale skin was revealed, his hands cold and alien. The heavy breaths of the man were loud in the room and when his hands reached Merlin's fly, Merlin automatically grabbed his wrists, stopping their progress, as panic consumed him.

''Please...'' he whispered, ''I don't think I can do this.''

The man's eyes were the colour of blue ice and just as cold. ''I bought you boy, so you will do what I tell you.''

The hands kept going and Merlin's grip went lax, his own hands falling away as his arse was lifted and his trousers removed and then he was naked down to his boxer briefs, and the man was sucking at his throat and collarbone, grinding his still clothed erection against Merlin's thigh. There were moans coming from his throat, deep and guttural, while his hands kept running over Merlin's body, tweaking his nipples and touching him in places that were much too intimate and private and... Merlin blinked back tears and tried to swallow the bile rising up in his throat, trying to detach himself, to just not be here.

''Such soft, sweet skin,'' the man mumbled, ''But I can still taste it, how tainted you are. All that darkness under this pale, perfect skin.''

Abruptly the man stood up, looking down at Merlin with lascivious eyes.

''Pull off your pants and touch yourself,'' he demanded.

It took Merlin a second to understand, and his breaths were too fast when he finally pulled at the waist of his briefs with shaking hands. He was almost dizzy, close to hyperventilating. His own cock was soft and Merlin felt another wave of shame wash over him as he fumbled for it, stroked it, willing it to react in a way that seemed impossible. He didn't dare look at the man, couldn't meet his eyes, which meant he had no idea what he was thinking, but Merlin could well imagine the sneer on his face, watching the pathetic clumsiness of the whore he had bought. Desperately, Merlin rubbed himself harder, but it was more painful than anything else and he could feel the heat rising up in his cheeks.

When he finally looked up, the other man was grinning, his expression somewhere between amusement and scorn.

''Not feeling up for it today, pet?'' he mocked. ''I thought you sorcerers were such lecherous creatures? Or is there something else you need... maybe something stuffed up your sweet little pussy to get interested?'' The man suggestively licked his lips. ''I can help you with that.''

Merlin was told to get on his knees, hold on to the back of the couch and present his arse.

''Spread your legs a little more, show me that hungry hole of yours.''

There had been lube and fingers, leaving Merlin open and exposed, like a split fruit. Then came the pain, and Merlin buried his face in his arms, biting hard into his hand when he was entered. The pain was all-encompassing - dark and sharp and deep - but it gave Merlin something to hold onto. He let the pain consume him and wash the last shreds of reality, of what was being done to him, away. Merlin would take the pain, would take the bruises, because he was just skin and flesh.~

Just skin and flesh, just skin and flesh, just skin and flesh...

Merlin is panting for breath, taking quick gulps of air that still seem not enough. He balls his fists until there's a single sense of pain where his nails are digging into the flesh, making it bleed. All that darkness beneath his skin, pressing, pushing, tainting everything around him... Merlin sways a little, feeling hot and dizzy, black spots dancing in front of his eyes. Lecherous creature, so hungry for it, so dirty inside. His knees tremble and he sinks down to the floor, curling in on himself. His skin tingles from the touch of cold, clammy fingers, and he tries to crawl away but there's nowhere to go. He is trapped. There's no way out and he can't take it, his magic is drowning him from the inside out and the fingers... the fingers are digging into his scalp, into his arse, and it hurt and hurts, it hurts so much...

He huddles on the floor, pressing his hands over his ears to block out the voices that tell him he is dirty and wrong and shameless and He shouldn't be here. Can't be trusted. Taints everything that is good... Faintly Merlin hears knocking, and his heart beat quickens as he descends into a black pool of panic, because they are here and they will hurt him and there is no escape and...

A hand takes hold of Merlin's. He flinches, instinct demanding him to pull away, but then he realises how small the fingers are that lay against his own. So he just stays still, trying to keep breathing with his face buried in his knees. The hand is warm and incredibly soft and it doesn't pull, it doesn't push, it just gently holds on. After a while there's a second hand, stroking over the ugly tattoo that gives away what he is.

''You know what I do when I'm upset or scared or when I have a nightmare?'' Alex whispers beside him, and Merlin thinks no please don't drag him into the dark. ''I just tell Daddy about it, and he chases the ghosts away. Maybe he can do that for you too?''

Arthur. It's hard, but Merlin lifts his head a little, turning his face and squinting over his shoulder. And there he is. Arthur. Alex smiles, bright and open, and something in Merlin breaks away. He looks briefly down at their joined hands. Alex's is small and unblemished, soft and still a little chubby, while Merlin's skin is marred with the black tattoo.

''You think he would do that?'' Merlin whispers back.

''Yeah. Of course! You don’t need to worry, Merlin. You’ll stay with us, with Daddy and me. I really want you too, and I think Daddy wants it too.''

Alex's eyes are luminous, almost like a beacon in the darkness, and Merlin holds on, braving the storm inside of him.

Chapter Text

When he leaves the house, Arthur feels like a coward. Not that it can be helped - Leon is waiting for him - but Arthur can't deny that he has been all too eager to get away from Merlin's too intense eyes, his awkward blushes and the shy little smiles. Even though their easy familiarity isn't the same anymore, Arthur still has to fight that instinctual habit to touch Merlin, to reach out and put a hand on his neck, to playfully cuff him or stroke the hair out of his face. And he wants to, that is the problem. He wants to touch Merlin so badly it's killing him.

He still shouldn't have run out like that though, he concedes to the annoying little voice inside his head that sounds a lot like Morgana. Even knowing Gwen would be over in a few minutes, he just dumped his kid on Merlin, and he seems to be out of his depth enough as it is. Arthur knows that Merlin isn't okay, is far from it even. He is skittish and nervous, and the way he seems to have to force himself to make eye-contact breaks Arthur's heart a little every time. He feels helpless, unsure how much familiarity Merlin can take. Obviously Merlin isn't the only one out of his depth.

So Arthur concentrates on what he is good at, which would be to get to the bottom of a problem, to follow his instincts to the deeper lying truths and dig. He doesn't have much to go on this time. Merlin has killed Aredian, that's an unshakable truth. It's the claim of self-defence that Arthur has to confirm and the only way to do that is to show the court what kind of person Aredian was: a lecher, a predator, a killer.

The morning sun is already bright in the blue sky when Arthur parks his car, and he hides his lack of sleep behind mirrored sunglasses. From afar, he can already see Leon sitting at one of the shabby tables in front of the coffee shop where they have agreed to meet, unmistakable with his red hair almost glowing in the sunlight. There is another man slouching in the chair next to him, lazily smoking a cigarette, and Arthur knows that if Leon has actually brought Gwaine, it means that their friend has found something.

Arthur, Leon and Gwaine met at university, but only Arthur went on to complete his studies. Leon had always been more interested in the practical side of law enforcement, while Gwaine had mostly been there because he was supposed to follow in his father's footsteps, and he had no idea what else to do with his life. He mostly spent his days hanging out at the local pub, chasing tail and running an illegal bookie, so nobody was really surprised when he dropped out and made his profession somewhere in that area of grey which he had been inhabiting for so long. Gwaine has his fingers in everything and knows more people than the queen – probably a lot more shady ones too – which makes him the perfect guy to gather information.

When Leon sees Arthur approach, he waves at him and Arthur raises his hand in acknowledgement before he goes inside to order a coffee. The shop is pretty much deserted this early in the morning on a Saturday and so Arthur's back out in a few minutes, smoothly sliding into one of the remaining plastic chairs.

''Hello Leon,'' he greets the tall man with a nod, and then turns to the smug smile directed at him from across the table. ''Gwaine.''

''Princess.''

It's an old insult, and nobody can really remember where it comes from, so Arthur mostly chooses to ignore it. He leans back in his seat, stretching out his long legs under the table, and takes a sip from his brew.

''So what do you have for me?'' he asks casually, and Gwaine grins at him.

''Wouldn't you like to know?''

From the corner of his eye, Arthur can see Leon rolling his eyes, pretty much used to Gwaine being an annoying arsehole on purpose and Arthur becoming even more of a prat whenever in his presence.

''Since I was the one who wanted you to ask around, you can safely assume that I do, yeah.'' Arthur raises one eyebrow at him. ''So. Got anything to tell? Or were you just eager for the free coffee?''

Gwaine snorts, and shakes his head. ''It's arse o'clock in the morning. The things I do for you, Pendragon...''

''I'm pretty sure you'll make me pay for it with more than coffee,'' Arthur remarks drily, which earns him a lewd grin from Gwaine.

''I sure could think of a thing or two,'' he says waggling his eyebrows. Normally Arthur would just roll his eyes at Gwaine's antics, but the constant temptation of the last days has had him on the edge for quite some time. ''Are you blushing?'' Gwaine expectantly crows in glee. ''Leon, is he blushing?''

''I think he is,'' Leon agrees with a smile.

''Arthur Pendragon is blushing... that must be a first!''

''Oh, shut up, Orkney. If you don't tell me what you have found out soon, I'll revoke your coffee privileges.''

Gwaine clutches at his chest. ''You are a cruel man, Pendragon!'' he exclaims dramatically, but the idiot can't suppress his smirk for long. ''Also, it was actually Leon who bought me my coffee, so maybe I should just tell him instead.''

''No no no!'' Leon waves his hand. ''I'm really just here for the show, go ahead!''

It's Arthur's turn to roll his eyes, and Gwaine finally turns serious - or as serious as it ever gets with Gwaine.

''So... this guy you were looking for, any reason in particular why you want him found?'' he asks casually, and Arthur shoots Leon an amused look.

''You didn't tell him?''

Leon narrows his eyes. ''It might not mean anything to you, but this is still an on-going investigation.''

Arthur just shrugs with a wry smile and Gwaine laughs. ''Okay, I see how it is,'' he says and then grins shrewdly, ''but I can promise you I'll get to the bottom of it, because this sure is intriguing. This boy, Mordred, seems he grew up as an orphan and lived on the streets for a while. This was a few years ago, but it's all I could find. Nobody has heard of him for ages. He found a place at a shelter down South though. And don't you know, it's one of the few, if not the only one, that will take in sorcerers.''

*

The shelter is a run-down, ugly concrete building in a depressing part of town. The surrounding houses host a cheap nosh that smells of old frying oil, a laundrette and a few boarded up windows. There is litter on the pavement and the rusted remains of a bike are chained to a fence. It doesn't feel very welcoming.

They have to ring the bell at the shelter and it takes some time until an older woman comes to the door, looking at them through the glass pane with a suspicious frown. Her greying hair is done in a long plait that falls over one shoulder and there is a sad line to her mouth, but you can see that she has been a beautiful woman once, before life threw her one too many hardships.

''Yes?'' she asks, looking from one to the other, ''What can I do for you?''

Leon pulls out his badge, and shows it to her. ''We just have a few questions.''

Arthur immediately realises that this was a mistake when her eyes become hard and her face blank. ''What kind of questions?''

''If we could come in?'' Gwaine asks with a raised eyebrow, and the woman's eyes zero in on him.

''You will excuse me, but I don't like to have the police on the premises, this is a shelter, a safe place.''

Arthur steps forward with his open hands towards her. ''We are not here in an official capacity. And Leon here,'' he inclines his head towards his friend, ''is the only one with the Yard. My name is Arthur Pendragon, and I'm a lawyer. I'm defending a young man accused with murder and there might be someone who can help me prove that he is innocent. Someone you might know.''

The woman looks at him for a long moment. ''I have heard of you, Mr. Pendragon,'' she says, and Arthur tries not to grimace. He just hopes what she heard was good.

It seems it was, because after another minute of silent contemplating the woman unlocks the door and holds the door open in a universal gesture of invitation. She walks ahead and leads them to what looks like a tea kitchen, with linoleum floors and scratched Formica surfaces. There's a long table with ugly plastic chairs, and she waves them to go and sit down while she puts on the kettle.

Arthur looks around, taking in the old furniture and cheap appliances. It's clean though and well cared for. ''Are you running this place, Ms...?''

''Alice. You can call me Alice. Everyone does. And the answer would be yes, I've been here for the past twenty years. This place has become my home as much as it is for those who seek shelter.'' Alice puts teabags into four slightly chipped cups, before she continues, ''So... tell me about that client of yours, Mr. Pendragon.''

''I'm afraid that I can't go into too much detail,'' Arthur begins hesitantly. ''I'm bound to confidentiality in regard to my clients, but I can tell you that he's a Magical.''

Alice stiffens minutely, but as a lawyer Arthur is schooled to take in little details like this.

''A sorcerer? And you want to prove his innocence?''

''Yes.''

She turns around then, and it's immediately clear that she is nervous. She unconsciously rubs at the back of her left hand, and that's when Arthur sees the tattoo.

''I can't imagine that your father approves,'' she says with the hint of an ironic smile.

Arthur smiles back wryly, trying to reassure her. ''He doesn't. But that doesn't have to keep me from doing what's right, does it?''

Alice’s smile becomes more open and she inclines her head. She's still nervous though, Arthur can see it in the way she licks her lips, and the stiff set of her shoulders when she turns back around to pour the boiling water into the cups after the kettle blows. She puts everything on a tray, meticulously, like she's serving the queen, before she puts it on the table. Then, when she can't stall any longer, she finally sits down across from Arthur.

''Who is it that you are looking for then, Mr. Pendragon?'' she asks quietly.

Arthur takes a deep breath. This is it. Either this woman knows something or they are already at a dead end, and Arthur is fresh out of ideas what to do then.

''His name is Mordred,'' he says carefully. ''He should be about... nine-teen or twenty now, I think?''

Alice's face falls, and a sad smile flickers around the corners of her mouth. She looks down at the table top and her voice is nothing more but a whisper. ''Mordred...''

''You know him?'' Leon asks with a hopeful note.

''Oh, yes. He used to live here. He was such a good boy too, didn't say much, but never made any trouble.''

''So he doesn't live here anymore?'' Arthur interjects.

''No.''

Well, Arthur had known that this was a likely possibility. Mordred would be old enough by now to live on his own.

''Do you have any idea where he might be today?'' Arthur asks her, not getting his hopes up.

''Yes. I know where he is,'' Alice says, looking down at her hands. ''It's not far from here. I can take you.''

“Well, if you'd just tell us the address-'' Gwaine starts, but Arthur interrupts him. This, he feels, is important to Alice.

''We would be very much obliged. Thank you,'' he says, and gives the old woman a warm smile.

*

''This is a cemetery,'' Gwaine says when Alice stops in front of a massive yellow brick building with a white archway leading further on to the burial grounds. Alice doesn't reply, but what is there to say when Gwaine states the obvious? Arthur's heart is sinking, because either Mordred has become the youngest undertaker he has ever met, or this will turn out to be so much more of a dead end than Arthur has ever imagined.

Dark rain clouds are drawing in as Alice leads them down the road, through the archway and into the field of graves beyond. The sky is getting more sinister by the minute, and the graves and trees seem unnaturally bright against it, strangely mirroring Arthur's trepidation. A sudden breeze picks up dry leaves, making them bounce and roll over the gravel, and Arthur shivers a little.

Then Alice finally comes to a stop in front of a black, polished gravestone. She doesn't say anything, just stares down at the gleaming surface. A white marble angel is spreading its wings over the black stone and there are golden letters carved into it:

Here lies Mordred Rhonabwy

7.11.1992 – 16.6.2008

The angels took him before his time


The ornateness of the grave seems morbid to Arthur, and he wonders who would have felt the need to go to these length for a fifteen year old orphan boy. He also can't help to start questioning himself, whether he is literally chasing ghosts, his desperation making him see connections where there are none. Maybe this boy has never had anything whatsoever to do with Merlin and Aredian, but his instincts still tell him that there is something there.

''He was a Magical too, wasn't he?'' Arthur asks quietly, and Alice gives him a bitter, little laugh in response.

''Magical,'' she says wonderingly. ''In my time we were called sorcerers, but I guess it's all about political correctness these days. But a new name won't change anything.'' She looks at him, and there is a challenge in her eyes, an accusation and too much grief to measure. ''Yes, Mr. Pendragon. Mordred was one of us, a Magical, just like me. And when he died, nobody cared that his corpse was bloody and his lips were blue. Or that there were bruises all around his neck.'' A single tear rolls down her unmoving face. ''He was just another dead sorcerer after all.''

''I'm sorry,'' Arthur says, and he means it, because he can see that this woman has lost someone dear to her, just like he will if he can't find a way to lend credit to Merlin's story. It's that thought that makes him ask, ''Is there anything else you can tell me about him? Do you know anything about the circumstances of his death?''

Alice shakes her head then. ''No... we, we had... he did not come around to the shelter as much in the weeks before... before it happened.'' She looks at the grave and it's like she is telling the story to herself now.

''We had a bit of a fight. He kept coming back late and he was … at first it was fine but then he started being so angry, all the time, he wouldn't shout but he would say the most awful things. He apologized later but... I knew something was wrong.'' When she looks up at Arthur there are tears in her eyes. ''He said he had met someone, someone who knew his parents. But why would that have made him so angry? And he was wearing all these expensive clothes and had one of these phones... and then... then he was dead.''

She's crying in earnest now and Arthur is immensely glad when Leon hands him a tissue to pass to the distraught woman.

''Do you know who arranged his funeral?'' Arthur asks, and there it is again, the split second of freezing before Alice shakes her head, and Arthur knows she is lying. There are other ways to get to this information though, and he has the feeling that the older woman has reached the end of what she is able to endure.

When the first rain drops are falling they say goodbye under the archway and Arthur watches Alice walk away, bowed down under a dark umbrella.

''Did she say bruises around his neck?'' Leon asks.

''Yes,'' Arthur nods grimly. ''She did.''

''Good instinct there then, Arthur. You might want to think about changing your profession.''

He knows Leon is trying to break the tension and Arthur indulges him when he says, ''You couldn't pay my fees.'' The laugh that follows is strained. ''Can you have a look at the databases at the Yard, though?'' Arthur asks, becoming serious once more.

''I can do better than that, I can call Percival and tell him to do it for us right now.''

''Percival?''

''I know what you're thinking, but he's on our side, believe me. It's that arsehole Valiant who wants to see your boy hang.''

*

Percival gets to it immediately when Leon calls him, but it doesn't turn up much in regard to results. It seems that there is no mention of a Mordred Rhonabwy in the system. No mention at all.

''That's strange isn't it?'' Gwaine asks frowning. ''There should be a mention of his death at least?''

''Yeah, there should,'' Leon says unhappily, ''but if Percy can't find it...''

Arthur grins at him. ''Are you looking for a new partner there? What with Bors retiring at the end of the year...''

Leon glares at him good-naturedly. ''You won't say a word to this to anyone, but I might just be. Percival is a good guy, a good officer. And it seems Inner Affairs is finally taking an interest in Valiant. Took them long enough. I'd be surprised if they didn't find anything.''

''Okay,'' Gwaine interrupts, ''but what do we do now? Where do we go from here?''

''When did you become so invested?'' Arthur asks amused.

''When you blushed, Pendragon. Because even if I'd love to think otherwise, I know it wasn't me who painted that pretty pink hue on your face.'' Gwaine smirks. ''And I want to meet the guy who can.''

Raindrops are pattering against the high window behind Merlin, their soft, muted sound almost soothing. He sits in Arthur's living room, listening to their rhythm, imagining that the rain can wash away the dirt and the pain that's clinging to him. There is a cup in his hands, its warmth permeating his cold limbs. He would really like to just sit like this, out of time and out of space, aimlessly drifting on an eternal sea of nothingness. But there are eyes watching him; silent, chocolate brown pools of worry and guilt, and pity too.

He wants to tell Gwen to just leave him be, but he can't bring himself to snap at her, with all her girlish sweetness that's so foreign to him.

''Are you okay now?'' she asks him quietly, biting her lip.

Merlin wants to laugh, because no, he isn't, obviously he is so very far from okay it's not even on the fucking map. He nods instead, bowing his head over the cup and blowing on the hot tea. He didn't have proper tea in ages, not anything that didn't come from a bag anyway.

''I'm sorry if I upset you...'' Gwen says, wringing her hands in a way that Merlin quickly comes to realize means she feels awkward as hell. ''I mean... not that I know... whether it was me... although maybe it was... it's just that Alex is still so young... and what happened was really bad... I mean not that I blame you! I don't blame you at all! Just...'' she trails off looking very uncomfortable and slightly panicky.

''It's fine,'' Merlin says quietly, glancing up through his lashes. He gets it, Gwen isn't a malicious person, but Merlin is an intruder, upsetting what she seems to think is her family.

''It's not,'' Gwen says with a sigh, rubbing at her cheeks. ''And I really am sorry. I...uhm... do you still want to go to the shops?''

Merlin manages a small smile then. ''I never wanted to go in the first place...''

Gwen's answering smile is wobbly. ''We could just raid Arthur's wardrobe... see if he has something that fits you?''

It's a shaky truce but Merlin can appreciate it. ''Not sure if they will fit me,'' he mumbles, trying for sheepish, because he won't think of – and certainly won't tell Gwen - how he used to wear Arthur's clothes. How stealing Arthur's hoody became something of a running joke and how Arthur only ever complained for show.

He ended up taking it with him, that red hoody, when he left, ran with nothing but the clothes on his back, and he kept it for all those years, trying to make himself believe it still smelled like Arthur. It's lost now, buried at the bottom of his closet in his room, back at Nimueh's guesthouse.

~ Merlin had taken Arthur's hoody to school that day, because he wanted to snuggle into it on his way home, the days still a little on the chilly side for May. He had been about to leave the school grounds, wanting to rush back home and find Arthur, as it was his birthday. He had been nervous as hell, yeah, but also eager, because as soon as he got home he would give Arthur his present and he just hoped Arthur would be okay with it.

There was a wrapped box waiting up in Merlin's room under the roof, with a bottle in it and a smaller package, stuff Merlin had bought at Boot's a few days ago, trying hard not to blush when he paid for it. He was probably grinning like a loon, thinking of Arthur's face when he opened his present and realised what Merlin wanted to give him. Arthur had always tried to restrain himself, tried to hold back, but Merlin was sixteen now and he could make his own decisions. And he wanted to be that way with Arthur, he wanted it so badly he might just spontaneously combust if it didn't happen soon.

So wrapped up in his plans was Merlin, that at first he didn't even notice what was happening up on the roof of the gym when he passed by. There were shouts though, and someone crying, ''Leave me alone!'' , followed by laughs and cheering.

Merlin looked up then and saw some Sixth former's shoving around a younger boy with mousy brown hair and glasses. The boy had already lost his uniform jacket, which was lying on the pavement a few yards over from where Merlin stood. Merlin just wanted to go and pick it up when he saw one of the boys, the biggest of them, grabbing the younger kid. The stupid arsehole lifted the struggling boy up and dangled him head-first over the rail, making Merlin's breath catch as the boy's glasses slipped from the his nose and hit the ground what must at least have been ten yards below.

''What are you doing?'' Merlin yelled shocked, his heart racing from anger. ''Are you crazy? Pull him up and leave him be!''

The other boys peered down at him, noticing him for the first time. ''What's it to you?'' sneered the big one, leaning forward to get a better look on Merlin. ''Want us to come down there and beat you up too?''

He laughed at his own joke like a braying horse and that's when it happened: the grip he had on the younger kid slipped. He tried to seize a hold of him again, but only caught the boy's black shoe. The kid looked down at Merlin frozen with fear, as the shoe started to slide off the boy's foot and Merlin reacted without thinking. His arm came up in the moment the shoe slipped free, and one of the school's big wheelie bin's shot from across the yard, opening up of its own accord, and caught the boy just as he fell with a frightened scream towards his certain death.

For a few seconds Merlin couldn't even think. He just kept staring at his own outstretched hand, felt the magic rushing in his veins, eager to be let off the leash. He knew his eyes must be burning golden, and he looked up, looked at all the faces staring at him with dawning horror, making the connection, drawing the conclusions, until there was the first shout.

''Sorcery.''

The moment that followed was a moment of awful, terrifying clarity. It was as if he could watch his life tumbling with frightening speed to the ground, just like the boy had, but there was nothing saving Merlin from shattering on the asphalt.

''Do you know him? Isn't he in year eleven? How can he be at our school if he's a sorcerer!?''

''Isn't he registered? I don't think he has the tattoo.''

''Oh my god, we have to tell someone, hurry!''

Merlin didn't think or listen any further; he couldn't think right then. He just turned around and ran, ran as fast as he could, just going and going and going, with no idea where and what to do. His head was a jumbled mess of thoughts and fear and confusion and more fear, the thuds of his feet in time with the running a commentary in his mind.

Shite, shite, shite, what do I do now? What do I do now? Shite, shite, shite... Arthur- No, no, can't... he doesn't know. Because you are such a stupid fuckwit Merlin! So stupid, so so so so stupid... oh shite what do I do know... what what what?

His lungs started burning and his feet felt like lead, and every loud voice and every siren, made him look around in panic, thinking they were about to grab him, would arrest him and -- his mother.

Merlin stumbled to a halt, panting and wheezing, black spots dancing in front of his eyes. He looked around helplessly before he ducked into a narrow backstreet, more like the space between two buildings where a restaurant seemed to stack their rubbish. There was a pile of wooden crates and Merlin sank to the floor behind it, pulling out his phone and then just staring at it.

His mother was probably in the middle of preparations right now. Maybe she was in the kitchen with Sally, or seeing to the arrangements in the house and garden. It was Arthur's birthday after all, there was supposed to be a celebration, even if the big party was planned for the weekend. Not that Merlin would be there. He wouldn't be there tonight either, wouldn't give Arthur his present, because...

And then he realized it. That he would not be able to go home.

He was an unregistered sorcerer. They would arrest him and inject him with drugs, and put him into that prison that was on the news once in a while, the one everybody just called The Institution. And his mother... his mother had harboured an unregistered sorcerer, had hid him, had not done her job as a citizen, looking out for the evil in her own child.

She would be arrested too.

Merlin felt like he might vomit, like there wasn't enough air in the world to keep him breathing, but he couldn't... he had to call his mum. He somehow managed to dial the familiar number, and then listened to the dial tone, hoping with all his heart that it would be his mum picking up.

''Pendragon Residence.''

It was his mother's voice and Merlin couldn't breath, couldn't speak, because... how could he tell her he had fucked this up? The one thing he was supposed to keep secret. The one thing she had told him over and over and over.

''Hello?''

He blinked hard against the tears and finally croaked, ''Mum?''

''Merlin? Is that you? Where are you? What is wrong? Did something happen, honey?''

There was worry in his mother's voice. But no panic yet. Not yet.

''Mum... I-I messed up, mum. I'm sorry. I messed up so badly and... there were these kids and, they know, mum, they know and they'll tell and I'm sorry. I'm so so sorry. I didn't even know... it just happened and... I messed up. I messed up the one thing you told me not to mess up. And you... they will... I don't... you have to somehow...''

''Merlin...'' There was the panic. Hidden under layers of forced calm and disbelieve, but Merlin could hear it.

''Please, mum, just... just don't let them hurt you. I'm sorry!''

''Merlin! Don't be stupid now, honey, just come home! We will sort it out... please, Merlin.''

''I can't... mum,... you know I can't. I have to... I don't know. I don't know what to do. But I can't come home.''

''No, Merlin! Please! Just come home!''

''Can you... can you tell Arthur I'm sorry? Sorry for lying and... I love you Mum!'' he wiped at his eyes and nose before he whispered, ''I love you both.''

''Merli-''

Merlin hung up then. Because he knew if he kept listening to his mum's voice he would break and run home, trying to bury himself in her arms like a baby, and then... he couldn't even think about what would happen then. He was too scared to imagine himself in the hands of a government who hated him. Imprisoned. Alone. Without his mum and Gaius and Arthur. Oh, god what would Arthur think of him now? Did he already know? Or was he still waiting there for Merlin to come home, clueless. And if he found out, would he be angry? Would he hate Merlin?

Merlin sat in that backstreet for a long time. He had no idea where to go. No idea what to do. He didn't have anything but the clothes on his back and his school bag. His phone. A few pounds. A comic book. He didn't know what to do come night fall, and he knew he couldn't really stay behind these crates for the rest of his life, but his brain felt like scrambled eggs and his hands were still shaking, and he just wanted to bury his face in the crook of Arthur neck and hold on forever. But... It was like ice settling in his veins when he realized it. Just like his mother, he could probably never see Arthur again.

He must have fallen asleep, because when he woke up it was dark and there were voice coming from the other side of the crates.

''What did he give you?'' a sullen, male voice asked, and another one – this time a woman – answered, ''Some bread, cold chips and sausage.''

''Well then give me some.''

''You can wait till we sit down, Will, don't act like you are starving!''

''Well I only had some sandwich from the garbage bin for lunch...''

There were steps coming in his direction and Merlin tried to make himself as small and invisible as possible, but of course that didn't work. His magic never worked when he needed it too.

''Who is that?'' the woman asked, worry and curiosity swinging in her voice.

''Don't know,'' the man huffed. ''Is he dead?''

The woman, well girl actually, crouched down in front of him, peering at Merlin's face that was half hidden behind his pulled up knees.

''Hi,'' she said smiling almost shyly. ''What are you doing here?''

''I- uhm... I don't know,'' Merlin whispered.

She looked at his school uniform and bag. ''Had a fight with your parents? Broke up with the girlfriend?''

Merlin shook his head. ''No.''

''Oh...'' The girl's demeanour suddenly changed, her smile sad but welcoming. ''You're one of us then.''

Merlin froze, swallowing against the panic. ''O-one of us?'' he croaked out.

''The unwanted and forgotten,'' the man, who had stayed back a little, drawled and the girl rolled her eyes at Merlin.

''Ignore him,'' she said, ''He gets grumpy when he's hungry.'' She held out her hand. ''My name is Freya, and that,'' she nodded to the side, ''is Will.''

''Yeah, tell him our names, why don't you?'' Will groused.

''Shut up, Will. He probably hasn't a place to stay, have you?'' Freya looked at him imploringly.

Merlin shook his head.

''Then you can come with us. We have food too.'' She held up a plastic bag.

Will groaned, but Merlin was almost sure it was mostly for show.

''Okay,'' he whispered. ''Thank you.''

Freya held out her hand again and helped him up on his feet, his knees and backside ached from staying on the floor so long. He was cold too, but at least he had Arthur's hoody, it was warmer then his thin uniform shirt.

They stepped out on the street again. It was the same street he had run down this afternoon, but it felt a new world now. A world in which he had no family and no home, in which he would eat scraps from other people's leftovers and sleep who knew where. It was scary, but at least he wasn't all alone.

''So what's your name then?'' Freya asked, and for a moment Merlin hesitated, but then he made his decision.

''I'm Arthur Emerson,'' he said. ~

Gwen leads him up to the second floor, careful not to disturb Alex, who is napping in his room across from the master bedroom. Merlin can't help but be annoyed at the way she walks right into Arthur's room though. He doesn't really understand why, since there is no need to be jealous. Arthur has explained about Gwen and Lance and their whole arrangement in regard to Alex. It still seems strange to Merlin when Gwen just acts like this is her family, when she moves in Arthur's house, all at ease, as if it were her home. Maybe it's just that Merlin used to be the person closest to Arthur, the person he would trust more than anyone else, and to see that position occupied by another - it hurts.

While Gwen just walks in, Merlin stops in the doorway, hesitating to step into the room that is Arthur's personal space. He's not sure whether Arthur would even want him here and, if he did, Merlin would probably like to be invited by Arthur himself and not someone taking the liberty to speak for him.

Not able to fully squash his curiosity, Merlin glances around the room though, and it makes his heart jitter so see how very much it looks like Arthur. It's clean and tidy, like it has been expected of Arthur since he was a toddler, but there are all those personal touches that make it Arthur's kingdom. There are stacks of books on a small table, some strangely formed stones on the low windowsill and – of all things – a snow-globe. A soft-looking blue cashmere sweater is handing neatly over a chair. The bed resembles Merlin's, but it's bigger, the dark crimson of the wall behind it matching the red and gold bedspread. The whole room looks warm, and welcoming somehow.

Merlin tries to push away the thought of a beautiful, dark-haired woman sharing that bed with Arthur - the woman he has seen in pictures in the living room. In a bout of masochism, he looks around, trying to find that face up here as well. On the bedside table closest to Merlin is another stack of books next to an alarm clock, but on the far side, the side Merlin knows Arthur sleeps on, are three picture frames.

Merlin makes an involuntary step inside the room so that he can get a better look. The biggest picture is of Alex, grinning toothily, and there is a dark-haired woman in a smaller frame, but not the one Merlin was looking for. There's a third frame though, angled away from him, so Merlin has to take another step to see it clearly.

All blood leaves his face, and probably his brain, when he catches sigh of the picture. It's them. It's Arthur and Merlin and Merlin's mum. The way they were, before all this, smiling and happy and loved. He can't look at it, this image from a lost life, but he can't pull his eyes away from it either.

''You might have to use a belt,'' Gwen's voice penetrates his shock, and the starting panic attack abates when Merlin looks around to her, trying to calm his breathing. She is peeking out from what must be Arthur's walk-in closet, eyeing him critically. ''You have about the same height, but you are a lot skinnier than Arthur,'' she muses. Then her eyes widen comically and her cheeks grow hot. ''I mean... uhm... that...''

''...is actually true,'' Merlin says, forcing a smile. ''Between me and Arthur, I've always been the skinny one.''

''Oh.'' Gwen looks down at her feet before she glances at him through her lashes. ''Yeah, Arthur told me you knew each other... when you were children.''

And just like that Merlin goes stiff again. He can feel his face becoming blank. He cannot talk with Gwen about the past, about all that it entails, about Arthur. His Arthur. The one that belonged all to Merlin.

''Yes,'' he grinds out through his teeth. ''But it was a long time ago.''

Gwen frowns a little when she sees Merlin's posture, which is probably showcasing his reluctance and defensiveness. She falls back into her awkward politeness again, simply holding out a bundle of clothes. There is a pair of jeans, a white t-shirt and – of course – a red hoody. Because obviously the universe is just enjoying to fuck with Merlin. It's a little different, the colour not as washed out, and there are white stripes along the sleeves. It's still like a slap in the face, like a reminder that however much circumstances might compare, they will never be the same again.

''These should be okay,'' Gwen says and Merlin comes over to quickly grab the clothes.

''Thanks,'' he mumbles, not looking up before he turns around. ''I'll just take them to my room then.''

*

It's a flight, Merlin is well aware of that, but he feels too raw, too vulnerable and on the edge, to make polite conversation with Gwen, who can't hide the reservations she has in regard to Merlin even if she tries. It's incredibly taxing, and so Merlin stays in his room for the rest of the afternoon.

When Alex wakes up from his nap, he comes knocking, asking Merlin to come and play with him. Before he can open the door to let the little boy in though, he hears Gwen's voice, telling Alex not to disturb him. Merlin tries to not let it hurt, tries to believe that she just wants to give him some peace rather than keep Alex away from him, but he doesn't really have the energy left to make up sweet little lies for himself. Gwen is probably even right, he probably shouldn't be around Alex, because what does Merlin have to offer apart from nightmares?

Alex seems to think differently, because a few hours later he comes sneaking into the guest room. Merlin has once more taken up residence at the bay window, staring out over the park, the clothes Gwen has given him lying untouched on the bed.

''Pssst!'' Alex quietly pushes the door closed and puts his fingers to his lips, giggling.

''Aunt Gwen thinks I'm in my room, drawing. She said I shouldn't bother you. Am I bothering you, Merlin?''

The look on his face alone would have made Merlin deny that, but it's the truth anyway when he answers, ''No, don't worry. You don't bother me. I don't really have much to do after all.''

It's strange how smiling at Alex feels so easy, nothing forced about it, nothing awkward.

''Are you bored?'' Alex asks, climbing up on the seat beside Merlin.

''Maybe a little bit,'' Merlin concedes. ''But I have a lot of things to think about.''

''About what happened with that bad man? And about the trial?''

Merlin looks at Alex's open face. ''I'm not sure we should talk about this, Alex,'' he says uncomfortably. ''I'm not sure your daddy would like it.''

''Daddy always tells me what he's doing. He explains it so that I understand, but he says it's good for me to know stuff.''

That sounds like Arthur, who always hated secrets, most of all those kept from him for his own good. It really should have clued Merlin in. ''Well...,'' he starts hesitantly now, ''You know that I have magic, yeah?''

''Yeah. But that's not a bad thing, is it?''

''No! I mean... some people think it's bad, but... it depends on what you do with it.'' Merlin still hesitates, but he knows that someday Alex will realise what he is, that he has magic too, and Merlin doesn't want him to ever think that it makes him a bad person. ''A person with magic is like any other person,'' he explains. ''They just have a special talent. If you have a friend who's big and strong, you wouldn't think he's bad, would you?''

''No.'' Alex vehemently shakes his head. ''Only if he beat me up!''

Merlin chuckles. ''Yeah. That wouldn't be nice. But he could also use his strength to help others, could he not?''

''Yes! He could... carry stuff! Or lift cars up like Superman!'' Alex actually mimics lifting up a car, before he falls back on the seat, laughing. ''Can you lift cars up, Merlin?'' he asks eagerly.

Merlin swallows. ''Well, not anymore.''

''Why not?''

''They... I am taking medication, that holds the magic at bay, so that I can't use it.'' He curls his right hand into a fist, trying to keep himself from rubbing at the crook of his arm, where he has been injected yesterday.

''That's too bad,'' Alex says, pursing his lips. Then he grins up at Merlin. ''I still like you a lot, Merlin! Even if you are not like Superman.''

Merlin's heart makes a strange little jump into his throat when Alex leans against him, and he tentatively puts his arm around the boy. Alex snuggles closer, probably unaware of how unused Merlin has become to this kind of simple contact. There is something strangely calming in being around Alex, a comfort in his trusting eyes and eager smile. They sit and watch as the sun sinks further and further towards the horizon, skimming the dark clouds that have brought the heavy rainstorm earlier. The rain has moved on and, slowly, the storm inside Merlin is abating too.

*

It's a little while later that Merlin hears Arthur's voice in the living room. Alex has fallen asleep again in his embrace, and Merlin asks himself worriedly whether it is normal for a six-year-old to be sleeping this much, or whether Alex doesn't get enough sleep at night since nightmares and visions are keeping him from a peaceful slumber. He carefully wriggles out from the little boy's heavy body, laying him back down on the pillows of the window seat. Then he cracks the door open and quietly slips out of the room. He freezes on the top of the stairs though when he hears Gwen and Arthur arguing.

''I know you care for Merlin a lot, Arthur, but you can't leave him alone with Alex, he's... not stable!''

''I didn't leave him alone, I knew you were on your way over. And what do you mean with 'not stable' ?''

''He told Alex about the case, about what happened!''

''Well, I had told Alex about that already, we've talked about this, Gwen.'' Arthur sounds mildly irritated now. ''I don't believe in wrapping my son up in cotton wool. He'll find out about the bad stuff either way, and I'd rather explain them to him myself than having other people teach him shit.''

''But he's still so young-''

''If he can ask about it, he's not too young to get an answer.'' Arthur says firmly. ''And I can't believe Merlin would tell Alex any gruesome details, he was hardly able to tell me.''

''I know you want to trust him, Arthur, but... he had a breakdown, okay? Today. He was up in the bathroom and I was worried when he didn't come back down. So I went to look and-... He was sitting on the floor, half naked, rocking himself. He didn't realise I was even there!''

''What!?'' It's a shocked gasp, so quiet Merlin would have almost missed it.

''He's fine know, or better at least, I think, but we didn't go to the shops.''

''Wait, wait, wait... what did you do when he didn't react to you?''

''Well, Alex slipped in – I didn't want him to, but he wouldn't be stopped – and he kind of sat with Merlin and... it seemed to calm him down.''

''Where are they?'' Arthur's voice is urgent and very close now, and for a moment Merlin almost panics, thinking he will be caught listening. ''Upstairs?''

''Arthur, I'm really not sure whether all this is a good idea when-''

''Gwen,'' Arthur interrupts her impatiently. ''I appreciate your input, but Merlin is family. Apart from Alex, nobody else will ever mean as much to me as Merlin.''

And then Arthur is there, at the bottom of the stairs and Merlin can only stare, stunned and with his heart racing, because he just can't believe his own ears. He doesn't hear what Gwen is saying, he vaguely recognizes the sound of a door falling shut in the distance, and then it's just them.

Merlin looks and looks. He would happily stay here and stare at Arthur for the rest of the day, but Arthur was never a patient individual.

''Are you okay?'' Arthur asks, and there is too much swinging in these three words, too much asked and too much offered, and Merlin feels his defences crumble just a little.

''No,'' he whispers painfully. ''No, I'm not.''

Arthur lets his head hang. ''Yeah, I know, stupid question,'' he says with bitter, sorrowful self-deprecation, and even though Merlin can't see his face, he knows that Arthur's eyes will be screwed up and his mouth will be pinched. He wants to reach out and smooth away all those lines and creases.

''It's not... not stupid,'' he says helplessly, unsure how to express himself, ''It makes me feel like... like you care.''

Arthur's head comes up, stormy blue eyes pinning him in place. ''Of course I care, Merlin,'' he growls, ''I care so fucking much that it might drive me insane.''

They are still separated by the stairs, Merlin at the top like a damsel in a tower, waiting for his knight to come and rescue him. Merlin never wanted to be a damsel, so he tries to swallow his doubts and starts inching down the stairs, trying hard not to feel like a harlot instead, like the whore he has become. Arthur keeps watching him, gaze unwavering, and there is a heat in his eyes that makes Merlin incredibly nervous and – if he is honest – breathless and excited as well, and that scares him.

He reaches the last step, but Arthur doesn't budge and Merlin realises too late how close that brings them. Arthur is right there before him, close enough to smell that mixture of crisp grass and spices that seems to always linger on Arthur's skin. He could count Arthur's blond lashes, that's how close they are. Or he could just bow down and capture-

Merlin stumbles back, turning away in mortification, his cheeks and even his ears burning hot. He's sure he imagines the brief flicker of disappointment on Arthur's face, but he can't look at him to find confirmation.

''I'm... I'm... Alex is still sleeping and I- uhm... how was your day?'' Merlin croaks out in a pitch too high.

Arthur steps back, giving Merlin space again, and running a hand through his hair in a clear sign of nervous frustration.

''It was... interesting,'' he bites out, turning towards the kitchen with the obvious assumption that Merlin will follow. And Merlin does. Of course he does.

With his back towards Merlin, Arthur pours himself a glass of water, taking his time before he turns around, his eyes serious. He leans against the counter with his feet crossed in front of him and studies Merlin for a moment before he says, ''We found Mordred.''

''You- what? You did?''

Merlin didn't even know that Arthur was looking. He has been thinking about this other man, wondering whether he exists, whether he was ever real or just the product of Aredian's imagination. Now that Arthur has found him, Merlin is almost scared. Scared to know what made him so special to Aredian, scared to find out he resembled Merlin himself in some way.

''He's dead.''

All blood leaves Merlin as realisation hits him like a freight train. ''He killed him,'' Merlin whispers in shock, ''Oh my god, he killed him.''

His knees give way as the kitchen starts spinning around him, and then Arthur is there holding him up, keeping him steady, and anchoring him to this world with his voice.

''Merlin. It's all right. You can do this, come on. Just breathe. In and out. Nice and slow. I'm here, I'm not letting you go. I'm here...''

Arthur leads him out of the kitchen, but Merlin doesn't realise where they are going until he is gently pushed down on the couch and a glass appears in his hand. It's another scotch, the Pendragon way of coping. But this time Arthur sits down beside him, and there's a gentle hand massaging his neck.

Arthur's voice is calm as he accounts the events of his day: the search for Mordred, a woman leading a shelter for Magicals, how she led them to a graveyard. Mordred was only fifteen years old when he died, and he apparently was an orphan. But someone arranged and paid for his funeral, Arthur says, and they had no problem finding out who. Arthur has a friend at the Yard – and Merlin has no idea what to think about that – and he only had to wave his badge at the girl from the bereavement services. It was a woman who took care of Mordred's mortal remains, Arthur says. And then he tells him the name - Nimueh Greene – and Merlin's heart stops.

~ Merlin would have never survived without Will and Freya. They were the most unlikely couple Merlin had ever met but they made it work, and they adopted Merlin in their midst. They showed him the ropes, they taught him the rules. Will was like a dog who barks but doesn't bite, and Merlin quickly came to realise that he had a good heart under all his gruffness. Freya was sweet, almost too sweet for a life on the streets, but she could become surprisingly fierce when she perceived someone as a threat. Knowing that, Merlin maybe shouldn't have been shocked when he learned her secret, but he still was.

He and Freya had been on their way back home together, when a group of dickheads, older than Merlin and probably drunk, had crossed their way. At first those guys had just indulged in some name calling and insults, mostly directed at Merlin, but then they started with the lewd remarks, turning their attention on Freya and trying to separate her from Merlin. They treated her like a whore, offering her money for her services, grabbing her and touching her. Merlin fought them tooth and nail, pushing one of them and pulling the other, trying to get between them and Freya, trying to shield her behind him, but they were four and Merlin was just a skinny boy.

Then, suddenly, there was a growl. A growl that made Merlin's hair stand on end, and when he looked over his shoulder there was a huge beast straight out of a horror film.

It looked like a giant black cat, but it had wings and its eyes were burning like coals. It completely ignored Merlin but jumped at the terrified men, batting them away with its massive, clawed paws as if they were nothing more but flies. There was blood and there were shrieks and moans, and Merlin pressed himself against the wall, horrified, until suddenly Will was there. He stood right in front of the beast, his hands stretched out before him, talking to it in a soothing voice that Merlin never heard him use before, and then Merlin blinked, and the beast wasn't a beast at all. It was Freya.

That was how Merlin learned about Freya's curse, about how she was accused of having magic herself when it showed for the first time, and how they came to arrest her, claiming she had failed to register. There was no other choice for her but to flee, leaving her family and home behind. Will had insisted he'd go with her, saying he'd rather be with her on the streets than be without her.

Merlin couldn't help but wonder again how Arthur had reacted, whether he would have offered to come with Merlin as well, but then Freya had never lied to Will. Not like Merlin had lied to Arthur.

It might have been the perfect opportunity for Merlin to tell his new friends about his own magic, but he knew it wasn't the same. Freya was no sorceress. She had been cursed by one and had no reason to think positively of people like Merlin. And it had been ingrained in Merlin for so long to keep his magic secret that it had become an instinct almost like breathing. The idea to tell someone made him almost panic.

So Will and Freya didn't find out until years later, and Merlin would never know what they had thought of him, whether they had regretted befriending him or whether it wouldn't have mattered after all. Merlin had never seen his friends again after that day, after the day Merlin finally reached the end of his luck.

Freya couldn't control her curse, couldn't control the transformation; it just happened whenever she felt threatened too much. The instinct to defend herself or someone she loved triggered the curse. Unfortunately the next time it happened in front of a police patrol.

It was a stupid situation really. Someone had complained that they had been sleeping in an abandoned building, and there had been two officers waiting for them when they came back from their food run. The officers had been pretty obnoxious and Will had immediately taken offence of course, which only made them more condescending. They had bullied them, and then one of them had sneered at Freya, resulting in Will getting in his face and being taken down in a ridiculously brutal way. That's when it had happened. Right there. Freya screamed at them to stop, but it was too late. She turned, and the other guy pulled his weapon and Merlin did the only thing he could think off, conjuring up a shield to protect his friends.

In the end it didn't help much. Merlin wasn't trained, had never learned to use his magic in a non-instinctual way. Another patrol arrived, and they must have taken him down with some kind of tranquilizer gun, because when he woke up Freya and Will were gone and he was in what looked like a hospital room. Only that there were bars at the window and he was restrained to the bed by metal cuffs on his arms and feet. He felt dizzy and sick, which, he would later find out, was a reaction to his first injection with magical repressants.

And then, shortly after he had opened his eyes, a woman came into his room. She had long dark hair and her face looked young, but her eyes belied her age. They were an almost unnatural blue and that, together with the little smile that seemed to continuously linger around her mouth, let a shiver run down Merlin's spine.

The creepy woman took a seat next to his bed and her smile broadened, which did nothing to reassure Merlin since it never reached her eyes.

''Hello Merlin,'' the woman said sweetly. And how the heck did she know his name? ''How nice to finally meet you.''

''Do I know you?'' Merlin asked uncertainly. He was pretty sure he didn't, but the woman kept looking at him as if he was her favourite pet.

''Not yet. But I hope we'll become closely acquainted very soon. I have a job offer for you after all.''

''A job offer?'' Merlin asked mystified. Because he might have never applied to a job before, but he was quite certain it normally didn't involve shackling the candidate to a bed.

''You'll see. It's really an offer you can't refuse,'' the woman said and winked at him. She was really starting to creep Merlin out.

''What kind of job?''

''I have...'' The woman tilted her head. ''Let's call it an escort service. A magical escort service. Believe it or not, but there are people out there who will appreciate you for what you are.''

''What?''

''You will have to register officially of course, but that's a mere formality. You'll be a good boy, and take your drugs, and nobody has to go to prison.''

''You-'' Merlin swallowed. ''You want me to work for you? Becoming a… a what? A prostitute?''

Merlin stared at her, disbelieving and horrified and--. Surely she must be joking. Maybe this was a mental facility and she was a patient who had gotten lose. ''Are you crazy?'' he asked, trying to laugh. ''No way in hell!''

''Oh Merlin,'' the woman said in that tone some people use for talking to small children. ''Maybe I wasn't clear enough, but when I said this was an offer that you can't refuse... I meant that you can't refuse.''

''Yeah? Well I do!''

''Then you go to prison,'' the woman sneered, her smile reminding Merlin more and more of a shark now.

''I guess I do then.'' He swallowed again, shaking his head. Being bound to the bed made him feel incredibly vulnerable now. ''Because I won't … I won't do that.''

''Tough guy, are you? What do you think will happen to you in the Facility, honey? Pretty little boy like you...'' Her voice was full of false pity. ''At least if you work for me you'll have some comforts. Some freedom. And you'll stay alive.''

''No.''

''Hmmm... You sure about that?'' The creepy woman pouted at him. ''What about your mum? Are you willing to send her to prison too? And your friends? I wonder how long that sweet little kitty cat and her boyfriend will survive it.''

Merlin's whole body stiffened as he felt the trap closing around him. He wasn't ready to give in yet, not by a long shot, but he started to realise that he might have to at some point. Because he couldn't let them hurt his mum, and he couldn't let them hurt Freya.

''How do I know that you won't do something to them either way?''

''Oh Merlin, we have no real interest in an old governess or a thick-headed village idiot.''

''And Freya?''

The woman shrugged. ''We can try to help her. If the curse can't be reversed we might have to secure her, but there are different levels of... comfort we can arrange for her.''

''And I... what would I have to do?''

The woman was all business now. ''There are some people – men mostly – who like the idea of the forbidden fruit, of the leashed power or merely the exotic. You will indulge them. You'll do as they say and you'll do as I say. But don't worry,'' She leaned forward and petted his hand. ''You'll learn the trade soon enough.''

Her touch made Merlin shudder and when he looked down, he saw the black tattoo on the back of the woman's hand.

''You are a sorceress,'' he exclaimed surprised, although maybe her whole aura should have tipped him off. ''How can you do this, when you have magic yourself?''

''Don't be silly, Merlin,'' she scoffed. ''Life is not about loyalties, it's about survival.'' She pulled a small rectangular card out of her pocket and put it in his hand. ''After you have registered, come and find me,'' she said. Then she was gone, leaving Merlin to stare at the bold black ink. Nimueh Greene, it read, – Magical Escorts. ~

When Merlin becomes aware of himself again, he is sobbing into Arthur's shirt and shoulder. Arthur's arms are around him, and for a moment Merlin freezes because he has no idea how this has even happened, but Arthur is gently rubbing his back, and there is his quiet voice in Merlin's ear, whispering, ''It's okay, Merlin. It's okay. It will be okay.''

And just for now, just for this one moment, Merlin decides to believe him.

The next day is a Sunday and, as much as Arthur wants to find out more about Aredian's secrets, about the mysterious death of a teenage boy and the connection one Nimueh Greene has with all of this, Sundays are spent with his family. This used to mean just Alex, and maybe sometimes Morgana, but now Merlin has become part of his family again - at least as far as Arthur is concerned.

Arthur has to admit though, that things are still slightly awkward and mighty complicated. He and Merlin have almost kissed yesterday, and now one part of him is freaking out because Merlin is still his client while the other is banging his head against the wall, cursing himself for not simply going for it.

Merlin seems a little less tense than the day before. They have taken a blanket and some snacks to the park for an impromptu picnic, and Merlin is even smiling while he watches Arthur and Alex kick a ball around. Alex treats Merlin like he has always known him, running up to him and throwing his arms around his neck, laughing, when he manages to shoot the football through the two bushes who serve as Arthur's goal posts. Arthur himself can't help throwing glances at Merlin from the corner of his eyes, which means that he doesn't even have to fake his clumsiness this time to assure that Alex will win by one goal or two. He has to fight a blush, when Merlin catches his eye after a particularly goofy attempt at goal-keeping, grinning at Arthur knowingly and full of mischief. Merlin's bruises are finally fading and he looks free and almost peaceful in the golden summer sun. It makes Arthur's heart ache.

It could have been a beautiful day if it didn't have to end on such an awful note, because that evening it's time for Merlin's injection again. Arthur nearly comes to blows with the doctor when he tells him that the last dosage was too high and the doctor only sneers at him, saying that Merlin's symptoms would only show that the drug was successful and that Arthur really should be thankful to him for neutralizing the threat that is Merlin. Merlin doesn't say anything, just accepts it with a stoic face, the drugging as much as the insults, and it makes Arthur even angrier. He knows he's being unfair - what use would it be for Merlin to rebel after all – but he still wants to shake him and yell at him to not just take it, to fight back, to realise he is worth so much more.

And as if it isn't painful enough to see Merlin that way, Arthur can't help but envision Alex now, being forced to endure what Merlin endures. The idea of his sweet little boy growing up to be treated like vermin makes him sick with helpless rage. But it also makes him even more determined to not back down, to use this awful mess to his advantage and finally make people see that Magicals like Merlin aren't the problem - they are the victims. Maybe then he can help to bring about that change which they have been talking about for so long already.

When Alex wants Merlin to read him his bedtime story, Arthur is about to say no and explain to his son that Merlin is tired from the medication and he shouldn't bother him now. Seeing Merlin's surprised but happy look though, he keeps quiet. There might just be too much baggage for Merlin to be able to reach out to Arthur, but maybe he can take comfort in Alex's easy affection.

Feeling curious, Arthur goes up a little later to peek in on them, and when he sees Merlin sitting on the side of Alex's bed, bowing down over his forehead to kiss him good-night, he feels that longing again.

Arthur has no idea whether it's just a beautiful fantasy, but he wants this. He wants Merlin to be a part of them, he wants to recapture what they had and create something entirely new, wants to pull Merlin out from behind these walls and fences he created, back into Arthur's life, where he belongs.

Because it has always been Merlin. So different from Arthur, and yet an integral part of him, like two sides of the same coin. It's not a new realisation, in some way Arthur has always known this, but now that he found Merlin again, and the hole in his heart is slowly filling up, Arthur starts to see that he has barely been living in these last ten years. And if he lost Merlin again, he might just stop it all together.

*

It's only the next morning, when Gwen has already picked up Alex on her way to school, that it occurs to Arthur that Merlin will be left to his own devices when Arthur leaves to pay a visit to the mysterious Nimueh Greene. He is aware that Merlin is a grown man and doesn't necessarily need a babysitter, but he remembers Gwen's words from yesterday, how she had told him that Merlin had a breakdown, and Arthur is unsure whether Merlin really should be by himself.

''You could come with me,'' he tells him, draining the remains in his teacup.

Merlin, who had been slightly itchy all morning, looks up at him like a deer caught in the headlights. ''No,'' he says, almost too quickly, giving Arthur a nervous smile. ''Don't worry, the repressants work really well, there shouldn't be any floods or fires.''

The self-deprecating joke fails to make Arthur smile though. ''That's hardly what I'm worried about,'' he says.

Merlin's smile turns shy but more real, and he quietly says, ''I will be fine, Arthur.''

''Will you?'' Arthur looks at him with doubt and worry. ''What if you have a... an episode again?''

''An episode?'' Merlin asks, raising his eyebrow at Arthur in challenge.

Arthur winces. ''Look, Gwen told me what happened yesterday-''

''Of course she did.''

''And you can't blame me for being worried for you. What if something like that happens again?''

''Arthur, you might not realize it, but I managed ten years without your supervision.''

''Yeah, I see how well that went...''

The words are out of his mouth before his brain can catch on and remind him that they don't have that kind of relationship anymore. That he's actually being a bit of an arsehole right now. It seems Merlin agrees, because his face turns ashen and there is anger and hurt in his eyes.

''Well, fuck you very much too!'' he spits, pushing his chair back to get up.

Arthur jumps up as well. ''Merlin!'' he calls after his retreating back. ''I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that.'' Merlin doesn't stop or react, and Arthur panics a little, afraid his careless words might just have ruined any kind of progress he has made with Merlin. ''Please,'' he says, ''Merlin, I- I just want you to be okay-''

Merlin stops but doesn't turn around. ''You can't protect me from this, Arthur. This is who I am.''

''I know. But I still want to. Protect you. So please don't blame me for trying. I- I'm just sometimes a clotpole, and... and then I end up hurting the people who mean the most to me.''

Merlin finally turns around then, his face like stone. ''I didn't choose this,'' he says with obvious difficulty.

''Then what happened?'' Arthur asks almost desperately, taking an unconscious step forward. ''You have to trust me with this Merlin. What are you so afraid of?''

''I'm afraid you will hate me,'' Merlin whispers almost inaudibly.

Arthur swallows against the hurt those words cause him. ''I could never hate you, Merlin.''

Merlin's face is a display of uncertainty, swinging between disbelief and hope. He looks like he wants to say something, something important, but then he casts his eyes down and the moment is broken.

''I want to believe that, Arthur, I want to.'' He sounds oddly resigned. Then he looks up at him and there is nothing of the hope left. ''Just do what you have to do. I'll be here when you come back.''

*

Since Leon has to work, Arthur meets up with Gwaine in front of a pub close to what apparently is a guest house run by Nimueh Greene. It's called The Greene Chalice, and if Gwaine is to be believed it really isn't a guest house at all.

''So what's the deal with her?'' Arthur asks, frowning as he stares down the street at the unassuming grey brick building with the nicely kept rosebushes at the front.

''Well there are guests coming to her establishment alright, if you get my drift, but not your typical backpackers or nice little families of four.'' Gwaine takes a sip of coffee from his paper cup and waggles his eyebrows at Arthur. ''From what I've heard, the rooms at The Greene Chalice are all occupied, and if you want to stay there, you have to share.''

''So it's a brothel?'' Arthur clarifies, thinking how neatly that would fit in with his own little theory.

''Not just any brothel, mate,'' Gwaine grins, and leans closer, whispering, ''It's a magical brothel.''

Arthur can't help but think that it's almost too easy, almost too good to be true.

*

When they ring the bell and there is no reaction, Arthur briefly wonders if waiting for Leon to be able to join them might have been a good idea. On the other hand the presence of the police can do more harm than help in some cases, and it might well be that it wouldn't have accomplished anything, and they would have just been told to come back with a search warrant.

After a few minutes and another insistent abuse of the bell, the door finally cracks open and a woman of indeterminable age looks at them through the gap. She has the face of a teenager, but the eyes of a shrewd businesswoman.

''I'm sorry,'' she says with a slight mocking in her voice, ''but I'm afraid we have no vacancies at the moment.''

''Oh no, puppet,'' Gwaine drawls, leaning against the stair rail. ''We're here for the company!''

Her smile drops away and her eyes narrow. ''Excuse me, I'm not sure I know what you are talking about.''

''A colleague of my father recommended you,'' Arthur says. ''My name is Arthur Pendragon.''

The name brings an interested gleam to her eyes, and she looks him up and down with appreciation. ''Are you now?'' she asks, her voice turning coy and seductive. ''Well, normally our visitors call beforehand and arrange an appointment, you see?''

Arthur smiles at her winningly. ''Maybe we could come in to make the proper arrangements then?''

He's not sure what Nimueh Greene sees in him, whether it's his looks, his money, or his connections, but whatever it is, she seems quite attracted to it, and so she pushes open the door, revealing a curvy body in a tight, wine-coloured dress that matches the lipstick on her pouty lips.

''Well, gentleman, come on in then,'' she says in a sultry tone. ''Welcome to The Greene Chalice. You may call me Nimueh.''

She leads them to what might be an office, although the furnishings are much more voluptuous than one would normally expect. She bides them to sit down in two burgundy leather armchairs, and pours them each an equally red beverage from a glass carafe. Arthur doesn't touch it, but instead eyes the three folders lying on the glass top of the low table between them with interest. They seem to hold pictures, judging by how thick they are.

Nimueh Greene looks at him contemplatingly and settles down in a mildly seductive pose on a matching settee across from them, folding her hands in her lap. It's then that Arthur catches sight of the tattoo. He had assumed that she was a sorceress herself, seeing the kind of establishment she runs, but it's good to have the conformation before they proceed further.

Nimueh raises her eyebrows and casts them a conspiratorial smile. ''Well then, gentleman, what can I do for you? What is it exactly that you are looking for?''

''Male,'' Arthur says, swallowing as if he was nervous, it doesn't take much pretending. He licks his lips. ''Young.''

The woman's smile turns shark-like. ''Oh, you like them vulnerable, do you?'' she drawls, and Arthur fights the bile that is rising up in his throat. She picks up one of the folders and hands it to Arthur. ''We have a few boys in their late teenage years, and a few others who might be a little older but look quite young.''

Arthur forces himself to open the file, studying the faces of boys that mostly look to be between sixteen and maybe twenty.

''Are they legal?'' he asks, and Nimueh raises a mocking eyebrow at him.

''Well they are sorcerers, as I am sure you're aware, but if you are asking after their age, yes. They are. These ones at least.''

Arthur clenches his teeth and turns another page, and then he chokes, eyes widening when he catches sight of a familiar face. Although, why he is even surprised, he's not sure. Somehow it seems as if he should have expected this.

''Oh, I'm afraid he is not available at the moment,'' he hears Nimueh say, and while her tone is apologetic, it also sounds dismissive.

Arthur stares at Merlin's picture, at his almost shy eyes, his slightly parted lips, his ruffled hair that makes him look as if he had just rolled out of bed. He looks reluctant, and Arthur wonders whether that makes him more appealing or not to Nimueh's customers. He clears his throat and looks up at her.

''I actually got a special recommendation for one of your boys.''

''Really? What was his name?''

''Mordred.''

It's obviously a shock for her to hear that name and that's why she falters, her face flinching and her eyes blinking rapidly, before she tries to smooth over her reaction with a shaky smile.

''I'm afraid you must be mistaken. I've never heard that name before.''

''Really?'' Gwaine inserts with a contemptuous look. ''I'd have thought you'd remember, since it was you after all who told the mason what to cut in the gravestone.''

Her whole demeanour changes then, and she wraps her arms around herself, eyeing them with a suspicious glare. ''Who are you, and what do you want from me?''

''We want to know who killed Mordred Rhonabwy, and why,'' Arthur tells her coldly.

''Mordred has been dead for five years, why are you coming to me now?''

''His name came up in another murder case.''

Nimueh narrows her eyes and looks from one of them to the other. She is connecting the dots and, after a pensive moment, she tilts her head at Arthur.

''Arthur Pendragon. Now I remember where I read that name,'' she says with a sneer. ''So it's you who has my boy. Merlin.''

Arthur's nostrils flare and he raises his chin slightly, glaring at her. ''He isn't yours. Nor has he ever been.''

''Oh, that's where you're mistaken, Mr. Pendragon. He was all mine. Mine and Aredian's.''

''Just like Mordred?'' Gwaine asks challengingly, and right there in that moment Arthur is glad he brought him, because Arthur himself is quickly losing his objectivity and his anger makes him forget why they are here.

''Mordred?'' Nimueh asks indignantly, and her eyes quickly glance towards a picture frame on the desk to her left, before she hisses. ''Mordred was never like Merlin!''

Arthur stands up and quickly strides over, picking up the frame before she can even utter a protest. His eyes widen when he looks at the teenage boy in the picture, because only a blind man wouldn't see the resemblance. The boy has the same bright blue eyes, the dark hair and pale skin of the woman who glares at him from across the room. Arthur stares back contemplatively.

''So are you his mother... or his aunt?''

Her face turns into an ugly sneer. Then she spits, ''I was his aunt! His mother died shortly after his birth and he never knew who his father was. He grew up in an orphanage, because I wasn't allowed to take care of him! He found me when he had just turned fifteen. I tried to protect him, but he-'' she breaks off then, looking away. ''I really don't want to talk about this, so if you would go now...''

''Well too bad lady,'' Gwaine hisses. ''There is a life on the line here, so we couldn't care less if this makes you uncomfortable.''

''You think Merlin's is the only life on the line?'' She laughs shrilly. ''You really don't know anything, do you?'' She looks to Arthur. ''Maybe you should ask your daddy about it. What they do with sorcerers, at least with the young and pretty ones! You think Merlin was the only one?''

It feels like ice is creeping through his veins. ''Oh I will ask my father,'' Arthur growls and then he is stalking forward, glaring at her, making himself look as threatening as he can. ''I can assure you I'll be asking him all about it, but before I can do that you'll tell me a little story. You'll tell me what happened to your nephew, and you'll tell me why Merlin was working for you. Because if you don't, I'll have you in the high security ward of the Facility before you even know what's happening.''

Her eyes widen in surprise. ''Merlin hasn't told you?'' she asks with a smirk. ''Oh this is precious.''

Arthur is towering over her, glaring, and that finally seems to make her realise he means business. She rolls her eyes but Arthur can see that it's mostly for show. He's not sure why, but Nimueh Greene is scared.

''Well I guess he'll tell you anyway, so I might as well.'' She pauses, obviously gauging her words. ''Merlin wasn't registered, you see. He was already nineteen and obviously had known about his magical abilities because he used them against an officer when he tried to arrest him. That's a major offence as I'm sure you know.'' She smiles at him mockingly. ''He was given a choice. Either go to the Facility and probably never see the light of day again, or work for... well... for a certain organisation.''

''What kind of organisation?''

Nimueh squirms now, it's clear that this is the part she is worried about. But Arthur is not stupid he can draw his own conclusions. ''An organisation that blackmails young Magicals into prostitution. And with Aredian being the Secretary of State of the Home Office, in charge of everything that involves sorcerers, he would have been in the perfect position to cover this up. I assume he had people in the police forces as well as people like you... who enslave their own kind.''

Nimueh gives an ugly laugh. ''You think I am anything better than a slave, Mr. Pendragon?''

''Are you? Then why not throw off your shackles and help me. Aredian is dead, and they already killed your nephew.''

''Oh no...'' Nimueh whispers with a painful smile. ''That was Angus Aredian all by himself.''

Arthur's heart is hammering against his chest. Again, he is glad that Gwaine is there, that someone else is hearing what this woman tells him. Because if what she says is true, if Aredian was indeed a murderer, then that would shine a whole different light on Merlin's case and his claim on self-defence.

''What happened?''

''He... he killed him. I know he did.''

And then the words are just flowing out of her, without any of the bitter emotion that was painted across her face before, without any emotion at all, her eyes staring into the distance, unseeing.

''When Aredian first saw him, he was immediately interested. But Mordred wasn't one of the boys he scooped up from the streets. He was registered. He went to school. He was a good boy. Aredian didn't have anything on him, but that seemed to make him only more obsessed.'' Her face screws up in disgust. ''He started to... to almost court him. He brought him gifts, he even bought him a motor scooter. He treated him like his little pet sorcerer boy. And Mordred let him. Then Aredian invited him to his house, and Mordred went, but... when he came back he was raging. He called Aredian a dirty old pervert. But he still went back a few days later, and he never came back then. The next day he was dead.''

''But how do you know it was Aredian?'' Gwaine asks with a frown.

''He told me,'' Nimueh spits. ''He called me and told me to come and collect the garbage.''

Arthur has to remind himself that this woman is part of the organisation, which forced Merlin to prostitute himself, but he can't help but feel some form of compassion for her. This sounds cruel even to Arthur, and he has seen and heard a lot.

''I'm sorry,'' he says, and adds when she looks up at him in confusion, ''For you loss.''

''I told him not to go,'' she says, almost begging, like she thinks Arthur might not believe her. ''I told him to stay away from Aredian. But he didn't listen!''

''Why did you want him to stay away?''

''Because I knew what he wanted! What he always wanted!''

''Didn't seem to bother you much when you were sending other young sorcerers to him.''

Nimueh looks away and doesn't say anything.

Gwaine gets up then, taking a cigarette out of his pocket. ''I still don't see why Aredian would kill this boy.'' he says, sticking it between his lips but not lighting it. ''From what you told us he wanted to fuck him.''

''I don't know,'' Nimueh hisses, ''I don't know what stuff that pervert got off on!''

''I think you do know why,'' Arthur says, studying her, but Nimueh just shakes her head and Arthur has to realise that she has reached the end of her cooperation. He studies the framed picture for another moment.

''You know, I can't help but notice another resemblance. I wonder if you realised it? How much Merlin looks like your nephew? Maybe you even realised that was the reason Aredian went after him.''

He stares at her hard, and when she quickly looks at him, blushing, it's confirmation enough for Arthur. He nods to Gwaine and the two of them leave without another word. When he steps out of Nimueh Greene’s guest house, Arthur leaves whatever compassion he might have felt behind.

Chapter Text

When the door has fallen shut behind Arthur, Merlin collapses to the ground. Taking in sharp breaths and balling his hands into fists, seeking the comfort of the pain from his nails digging into his own flesh. The world is drawing in on him, his own self-disgust threatening to choke him. How could he ever think - how could he even consider for a minute – that there was still a chance for him? That Arthur might see him with those eyes again, with the love and affection they shared when they were boys? Arthur had been married. He built a family. If that doesn't tell Merlin loud and clear that Arthur grew out of his teenage experimentation, it's only because Merlin is too dumb to listen. And even regardless of sexual orientation, there is nothing left of the Merlin Arthur once might have loved. Arthur will see that for himself as soon as he meets Merlin's mistress, the woman who commands him with a mocking smirk to do her biding.

Merlin is sure that Nimueh will tell Arthur every ugly little detail, every atrocity he bowed to and every perversion he indulged. She will show Arthur how Merlin has become a puppet on her strings, bending to her whims. He wants to scrub at his skin until its red and raw just to get off the dirty fingerprints of all the men who touched him over the years, but they have long infused into his flesh, becoming part of him, and Merlin knows he will never be clean again. He will never again be deserving of the love of Arthur Pendragon, and soon Arthur will know that too.

He can't stay on the floor though. He knows that. And while it all seems incredibly redundant, Merlin still pulls himself up on his shaky legs. With a feeling of clinical detachment he wonders why he never did what Owain did, a boy one year his senior, who had the room next to him at the Chalice and was found one morning in the shower, the walls painted red with his own blood. It would have been so easy, and Merlin can't say he didn't contemplate it, but he never really considered it to be an option. Something always kept him from taking that path.

Looking around Arthur's sunlit house, the space he has carved for himself, the life he built, Merlin can't help but feel incredibly inadequate and pathetic. His worthlessness is illuminated even further by Arthur's success. He wanders through the house aimlessly for a while, taking the time to truly look at things now that he is alone here for the first time. It's like walking through a museum, an exhibition on the life of Arthur. There are his Law degrees from Cambridge University framed in the office along with leather-bound volumes of precedencies and laws and procedures. They paint an interesting contrast to the well-loved books Merlin remembers reading together, which sit on the shelves in the living room. Then there are the pictures; of Alex, of Arthur's dead wife and other people Merlin doesn't know. They show them on beach vacations and on amusement park rides. Mostly they show them laughing. That other mysterious dark-haired woman shows up once or twice again in those pictures and something about her feels almost familiar, but Merlin can't place her.

He is lost in his musings when he suddenly hears a key in the lock of the front door and freezes in his spot in front of the fireplace, his heart an erratically beating thing in his chest. It could be Arthur, but he left only an hour ago. It could be Gwen, but she should be in school, teaching. Merlin barely dares to breathe, as he listens to the steps that come down the hall, images of faces - random half-strangers, collected over the years - swim before his eyes, and then there is a woman standing in the doorway.

It's the mysterious woman from the pictures, and she is as gorgeous in person as she is banned on glossy paper, her dark hair falling down her back in smooth, shiny waves, and her clothes screaming upper-class. Her eyes are calculating, but there is an amused smile lingering in the corners of her mouth.

''Hello Merlin,'' she says. ''I have to say you've grown up nicely.''

Merlin is too stunned and confused to speak. He's still not sure whether he is having a very vivid hallucination or whether the woman is real. And if she is real, what she is doing here, in Arthur's house, on an early Monday morning.

''Who are you?'' he finally asks warily. ''And how do you know my name?''

She pouts a little at him. ''Don't you remember me? We've met before, although I admit it has been a few years. I think the last of Uther's Christmas parties I attended was when I was twelve,'' she says musingly. ''You were just this tiny little boy, always running after Arthur - like a puppy.''

The mocking in her voice paints a mildly offended scowl on Merlin's face. ''What do you want here?'' he asks, not caring whether he's being impolite. ''Arthur is not here.''

''Oh, I guessed as much,'' she says loftily. ''It was you I wanted to see after all.''

''Me?'' Merlin eyes her with surprise and suspicion now. ''Why?''

The woman purses her lips and looks at him contemplatively before she shrugs. ''I wanted to see who broke my brother's heart.''

*

The woman claiming to be Arthur's sister – which is more than a little weird since Merlin has always been certain that Arthur was an only child - proceeds to act like this is her house and saunters off to the kitchen to make tea. It irks Merlin to no end, but he still follows her, coming to stand next to the stove with his hands shoved in the pockets of his borrowed jeans. He's worrying his bottom lip with his teeth while he watches her.

''What, Merlin?'' the woman asks slightly impatiently.

''Why did you say Arthur was your brother? Because I grew up with him, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't have a sister,'' Merlin points out.

''Well, technically I'm his half-sister.''

Merlin raises his eyebrows at her, because that explains exactly nothing.

The woman sighs. ''My mother had an affair with Uther Pendragon. When she died she told me that he is my father and I got an upgrade from cousin to sister.''

That finally makes it click, and he realises why her face and the snappish superiority seemed so familiar. ''You're Morgana,'' he concludes. ''Sorry. I didn't recognize you.''

Morgana just shrugs and then keeps quietly humming along while she prepares the tea.

''I didn't know you were so, well-''

''So what, Merlin?''

''You and Arthur weren't really close. Back then,'' Merlin explains, feeling awkward now that he finally knows whom he's talking to.

Morgana studies him for a moment, then she goes back to measuring the tea leafs. ''Many things have changed since back then,'' she says coolly.

Merlin doesn't know what she wants him to say to that. He is very aware of the fact that many things have changed, maybe more so than Morgana will ever know. He has no idea what she wants from him, but the way she keeps casting him these piercing looks doesn't feel very reassuring at all.

''Arthur and I might not have been close when you were still around,'' Morgana finally continues, maybe realising that Merlin isn't going to ask her to elaborate. ''But we became so when you left without a word, throwing him for a loop so much that I had to scrape him up from the floor. The very sticky floor mind you. Of a toilet.''

That momentarily stuns him, and it takes a moment before he finds his speech again.

''What?''

''Didn't he tell you?'' Morgana asks, acting surprised. She pours the boiling water over the tea and stirs.

''Tell me what?'' Merlin grits out.

Morgana picks up the tray with the teapot and cups and stalks out of the kitchen, raising her eyebrows at Merlin as an order to follow her. Merlin is starting to become really annoyed with that attitude of hers, but he doesn't have much of a choice but to comply. Morgana takes the tea to the living room, putting it down on the low table while Merlin sits on the couch with a mulish look and his arms crossed in front of him. There is a strange, painful flutter in his chest though, caused by Morgana's words. The thought of Arthur being hurt by his disappearance makes him sick and then hopeful and then sick because he feels hopeful. In short, he starts feeling like a complete mess.

Morgana takes her time pouring the tea, adding milk and sugar without asking Merlin how he takes his - not that he cares at this point. When she hands over a cup, she gives him this calculating look again, like she is weighing him and finding him wanting.

''Okay,'' he says, deciding that attacking is the best defence. ''Why did you want to see me then? Did you want to tell the dirty sorcerer to stay away from your brother? Because let me assure you that this,'' He gestures around the room to indicate his coming to live here, ''wasn't my idea.''

Morgana looks up at his harsh tone. Then she throws her head back and laughs, which makes Merlin's annoyed confusion complete. ''Oh Merlin,'' she says amused, ''You really are precious. I think I can understand what he sees in you after all.''

Merlin is sure he has now lost any hold he had on this conversation and goes back to staring at her in silent, defensive discomfort.

''You have to forgive me,'' Morgana finally amends, ''but I care deeply for my brother.'' She looks at him sharply. ''Don't tell him that. Anyway, he was a mess. Back then.'' She rolls her eyes and takes an elegant sip from her teacup. ''He didn't go to university, did you know? Well not right away, anyway. Took him almost two years to come around, and even then... he pretty much just substituted the drinking and clubbing with studying until his brain bled out of his ears. But those first two years... they were really bad.''

When she looks at him then, he can see it, the fear and helplessness she recalls. ''I was afraid he'd get lost, drink himself into a coma or actually jump of a bridge in his depression. Uther pretty much threw him out and he came to live with me. I can't even recall how many times I had to pull his head out of the toilet bowl. Or had him calling me in the middle of the night because he couldn't find his trousers and had no idea where he was or who the other person in the bed might be.''

Her eyes don't leave him while she tells him this, pinning him with her look as much as her words. She wants to see his reaction, Merlin realises, although he has no idea what might depend on it. Merlin has learned to keep his emotions off his face though, learned it the hard way actually, and he's pretty sure that Morgana won't be able to see how much her words pierce him through the heart. His brain helpfully provides him with mental images of Arthur, drunk to the gills, fucking some faceless twink, or of Arthur staggering home at night, lingering too long at the railing above some tracks leading to nowhere. He never wanted to cause Arthur pain, had in fact been trying to avoid just that, and he feels gutted hearing Morgana's story. He never knew this, and it seems awful that he doesn't. He always thought Arthur had been angry for the most part – angry that Merlin lied to him, angry to be betrayed like that.

''Why...,'' he begins, but has to swallow before he trusts his voice enough to ask the question. ''Why would he do that?''

Morgana scoffs. ''Because he was a little shit-head, obviously, and because he was devastated.'' Her voice grows a bit softer when she says, ''You pulled the rug from under him, Merlin. You must know that. He had his whole life circling around you, his whole future set on you.''

And what about me, Merlin wants to ask, what about my life and my future? What do you think happened to them? Do they count for nothing? And he wants to yell at her, wants to tell her what he told Arthur this morning, that he didn't fucking choose this, that he didn't ask to have magic, that he didn't want to leave his home or his family. Instead he mulishly says, ''He didn't look devastated to me when I went...'' He falters then, because he has never told anyone, not even Will and Freya. ''When I went to see him. Once. Just once.''

''What?'' Morgana eyes him doubtfully. ''When?''

Merlin looks away to the side because, as much as Morgana's aggressiveness makes him want to warrant his actions, he has this stupid urge to keep this one moment to himself.

He answers her question though. He says, ''I went to see him at his job. Forty-eight days later.''


~ It had been forty-eight days after the incident at school, forty-eight days after he had ran and therefore forty-eight days since he had last seen Arthur. Merlin had stayed with Will and Freya, glad to not be alone, lost as he was with his whole life having been ripped away and apart. He was homeless now. Living on the streets. He was sleeping in parks and under bridges, begging for food at the back doors of restaurants or leafing through the rubbish bins for left-overs of other people – people who were like Merlin had been only a few weeks ago. After forty-eight days Merlin was still not accustomed to it. He lived in a state of shock and denial coupled with constant worry about his mum and an incredible longing for Arthur, even though he was sure that Arthur probably hated him now.

He knew he couldn't go home. The Pendragon house held no place for him any longer and the police was certainly looking for him there. Merlin was still glancing over his shoulder all the time, always expecting to be grabbed, of someone pointing at him and shouting, ''Sorcerer!''

So when, after the attack that triggered Freya's curse, Will suggested leaving London for a while, at least until things had blown over, Merlin didn't object. He knew it was the smart thing to do, but to him it felt even more like leaving - more permanent, more final - and he just couldn't bring himself to go without seeing Arthur one last time.

Merlin knew Arthur had a summer job before he was supposed to start his studies at King's College come October. It had been arranged with the help of Arthur's father, at one of the big law firms in the city, and while Arthur loathed Uther Pendragon throwing his weight around to help him, it was too good an opportunity to pass by.

For Merlin it was a huge risk to go there, but the need was too pressing, the yearning too great, and the idea of seeing Arthur alone made his stomach flutter and his heart race. He borrowed Will's long, shabby overcoat and took up position in a coffee shop across the street, nursing his one cup of plain brew all afternoon and keeping an eye on the main entrance of the law firm. He knew he might have no luck. Arthur might have changed his mind, might have a day off, have left early or even through another exit, but he had to take this chance, this one chance before they would try to catch a ride north tomorrow and Merlin might never see Arthur again.

And then the revolving door spat out a blond man, wearing a suit and looking incredibly adult and handsome. It was as if the sun had come out for the first time after a long and dreary winter, and Merlin's heart felt like it was taking a ride on a roller-coaster, soaring and plummeting, jumping into his throat and dropping back down to his stomach. He wanted to run out and throw his arms around Arthur, wanted to hold on and tell him he was sorry sorry sorry, so so sorry... Maybe he would have done so. Maybe he would have been stupid enough after all, had Arthur not been talking to an older man, his face all serious and sombre.

So Merlin just kept watching with an aching heart, torturing himself with the realisation that Arthur was going on without Merlin. He was too far away to see Arthur's eyes or expression, but there was something in his stance or the set of his jaw - Merlin wasn't sure - that made him look different, not like Merlin's Arthur at all. It hurt so incredibly much, but Merlin knew it was only consequential that Arthur would cut everything that was Merlin out from his life so that he could then go on and built a new one. Merlin tried to swallow down the tears, because the last thing he wanted was to attract attention by sitting in a coffee shop alone and bawling.

And then Arthur suddenly stopped, right in the middle of the pavement, raising his head and letting his eyes roam urgently over the street and the surrounding buildings, as if he was desperately searching for something. Merlin froze, automatically ducking his head down although he was pretty sure that Arthur couldn't see him through the mirrored glass of the windows.

When he dared to look up again though, all of Arthur's adult arrogance had fallen away and he was left looking as lost as Merlin felt. Merlin would never be able to explain it later, but over the years he started to think that maybe, just maybe, Arthur had sensed him, that he had know that Merlin was there.

A moment later Arthur's companion touched him on the arm, and Arthur whipped his head around as if woken from a dream, his mask – because Merlin realised now that it was a mask – sliding back into place. Merlin watched Arthur go, watched him walk away from him, and he balled his fists, forcing himself to stay still and not run after the one person who had always been able to put Merlin's world right with a single smile alone. ~


''He never told me about that.'' It seems as if Morgana is more surprised about Arthur keeping something from her than she is about Merlin's confession.

''I don't think he even knew I was there,'' he mumbles, because that whole thing of Arthur looking for him? Probably was just his wishful imagination.

''Why not?'' Morgana looks at him incredulously. ''Don't tell me you were hiding in the shadows and didn't even go and talk to him!''

Merlin looks at her as if she's crazy. ''Of course I didn't. I was on the run, and there were people all around. The authorities were looking for me. And what would I have even said? 'Hi Arthur, fancy seeing you here. Guess you know that I'm a sorcerer now, huh? Look at that. Wanna call the police?'''

''Arthur would have never done that,'' Morgana says, outrage evident in her voice. ''If nothing else, the fact that he's defendingyou and letting you live in his own home should tell you that much!''

''Well, I didn't know that! Back then. I was just- I was scared, okay? I was sixteen and suddenly on the streets, without a home and without my family. And it wasn't just about me, I had to protect them too! Do you realise it's a crime to harbour or help a sorcerer? I just wanted to see him, just one more time. What good could have come out of dragging him into my mess?''

''Well maybe you should have let him decide that for himself,'' Morgana says harshly.

Her tone is condescending, and suddenly Merlin has enough. Enough of defending himself, enough of being blamed and judged and talked about.

''You know,'' he says, his voice full of sarcasm, ''it's too bad you weren't around back then. I'm sure you would have handled it all so much better than me. So go on, tell me what you would have done, being caught doing magic to save some kid from crushing his skull on the pavement? Having to run and then call your mum, just to warn her, knowing you would never see her again! Or what about when I lived on the streets, scared every day to be caught and arrested?'' His voice breaks, but he can't stop now, has to get it out before it chokes him. ''And then, when I was caught, and they told me what was expected of me, what I had to do in order to save my friends from execution and myself from imprisonment. Tell me what I should have done to keep myself from hurting other people?''

The tears spill then, and Morgana looks truly shocked and even a little guilty when she says, ''Merlin, I'm not... I know you have experienced horrible things. That's what I'm fighting against every day. And, believe me, I know how it feels to be scared. You see...'' She swallows, hesitating a moment before she says, ''I'm a sorceress too.''

Merlin stares at her dumbly, and then his eyes fly to her hand. Her pale, unblemished hand. Some part of his brain tries to tell him that it must have been hard for her to admit that, that she is putting a lot of trust in him, but the rest of him is just so angry. This beautiful, unscarred woman in front of him has no idea of the life Merlin was forced to live.

''Wow,'' Merlin says, and then he laughs. It's painful and raw, like it's being ripped out of him.. ''You're a sorceress...'' he shakes his head in stunned disbelief. ''And I bet Arthur knows, and never looked at you differently for it and... yeah.'' He looks up at her beautiful face and tries to push away the painful contempt he is feeling, but this woman, with all her maybe good intentions, doesn't know anything. ''Sorry. My mistake,'' he says acidly. ''You must have had such a difficult life. What with growing up rich and spoilt and going to prestigious schools, and actually finishing your education. It must have been so hard to live in a nice house, with a full fridge, instead of sleeping on the streets and looking for food in the rubbish bins.''

Morgana looks like he slapped her, but Merlin isn't done yet. ''What does it feel like to have a home? A job that doesn't involve getting naked and holding yourself open for some dirty old pervert to fuck you? Oh, I'm sure you can relate to what I've gone though, Morgana, since you, after all, are a sorceress too.''

Merlin's breath is sharp in the silence that falls after his last words, and it lasts for a long time. Then Morgana takes a deep breath and sets her teacup down on the table with trembling hands.

''Damn,'' she says, ''I guess this is what it feels like to be bitch-slapped.'' She bites her lip and frowns. ''I can't say I appreciate the experience.'' She pulls another grimace, but holds up her hand when Merlin opens his mouth, which is probably just as well, since Merlin has no idea what he would have said. ''You are right though,'' she says. ''And for what it's worth, I'm sorry. I sometimes forget that I am a far cry from the worst case scenario of what it means to be a Magical. But that doesn't mean I'm not scared too.'' And now she looks Merlin square in the eyes. ''I could just as easily be found out at any moment.''

''Yes,'' Merlin agrees, still a little bitter. ''But you're an adult. You have a group of people who would support you – a family.''

''You would have had Arthur's support too.'' Her face has lost her haughty superiority now, she just looks sad. ''He really loved you, Merlin, and losing you almost killed him.''

Merlin ducks his head and stares down at his hands. ''It seems to me he has a good life, a perfect life really, all built without me,'' he whispers.

''You really think that?'' Morgana asks. ''You don't think he's lonely as hell?''

''Well, I guess after his wife died-''

''Arthur was never in love with Mithian,'' Morgana interrupts him. ''He only dated her because he was trying to be something he is not, and he only married her because she was pregnant. Don't get me wrong, having Alex was the best thing that ever happened to Arthur, it might actually have saved him from his own self-destruction, but it was an accident. So don't go and assume there was some kind of fairy tale attached, because that's not how the story went. ''

''What?'' Merlin croaks, and then he is actually left speechless as the carefully crafted fantasy he had of Arthur and his wife, in front of a white picket fence, tumbles to the ground and shatters in a thousand glittering shards of self-delusion. ''I didn't know-'' he stutters, ''I thought-''

''Yeah, believe me, I can imagine what you thought,'' Morgana says with an eyeroll. ''And I'm not saying Arthur didn't care for Mithian. They were partners and friends and they were parents, and when she died he grieved for her. But they were never lovers, because my stupid little brother was only ever in love with you.''

''W-what?

Merlin feels like the floor is being ripped right out from under him, and he can't do much more than stare at Morgana wide-eyed and with his stomach twisted into knots. Because even if he wants to, even if her words are cutting through him with the sweet, sharp anguish of hope, he can't believe her.

''Why are you telling me all this?'' he asks weakly.

''I don't know Merlin, maybe so you won't go and break his fucking heart again?''

*

They drink their tea in a somewhat uneasy silence after that. Merlin is still reeling from the realisation that Arthur's half-sister actually thinks he is in love with Merlin – still or maybe again or about to be, she hasn't really been clear about that one.

Morgana on the other hand seems to think that, with her wisdom imparted and her threats delivered, they can now indulge in polite small talk, and proceeds to tell Merlin about the ominous MRA, an organisation fighting for equal rights for sorcerers. They are campaigning to give magical children the same access to schools and jobs, to abolish the marriage laws and are publicising research that shows the deterring effects of the magic repressing drugs. He had no idea such things were even happening, and he guesses it's a good thing, but he has too often suffered from the prejudices of a corrupted government and a hateful society to believe in such change so easily.

So when they are on their second cup, and Morgana asks him whether he has already thought about what to do after, all he can do is look at her uncomprehendingly.

''After what?'' he asks confused.

''After your trial obviously.''

Merlin looks at her blankly. ''Uhm...no? Because... you know.''

Morgana raises one perfectly plucked eyebrow, and Merlin swallows when he realises he will have to say it.

''I'll probably won't... uhm... do much of anything, yeah?'' He tries to shrug, although the prospect of his most likely future, which he's been trying to forget about ever since he left the court in Arthur's car, makes his throat close up. He's not that brave. He doesn't want to die. But he manages to say it in the end.

''I'll probably be, well... dead.''

Morgana's eyes widen. ''What? Now, don't be daft, Merlin!'' she scoffs. ''You can't think Arthur will allow for you to be sentenced and executed?''

''Well,'' Merlin chokes on a hysterical laugh, unconsciously rubbing at the black M that mars his left hand. ''I don't know... maybe you haven't heard, but that's what they do. With sorcerers. Especially those who killed with their magic. Whether Arthur likes it or not.''

''Arthur will get you off,'' Morgana says stubbornly, her mouth a firm line, leaving no room for disagreement. And from the look on her face Merlin can definitely see the kinship with Arthur. ''He already got you out on bail, didn't he? Nobody ever even contemplated to make such an appeal before, and he sold it.''

Her green eyes take on a gleam of fervour as she fixes Merlin over the coffee table with one of those piercing looks. ''Do not make any mistakes, Merlin,'' she says shrewdly. ''Arthur might be my brother, and because of that he will always come first, but I have plans for you. I need someone who has been where you have been and can tell that story. Let's show the public what kind of hypocritical arseholes have been ruling this country! We'll get that vote and we'll get our rights. I'm counting on you for that, Merlin. So don't you dare let me down.''

*

By the time Arthur comes home, Merlin is pretty sure of three things: Morgana might be just a little bit mad. She is actually still quite brilliant. And they probably shouldn't have started to desecrate the tea by putting rum in it.

Arthur just takes one look at them and it is obvious that he is pissed in a very not-alcohol-involving and a lot less funny way. Merlin can't help but notice that he looks fucking gorgeous though, with those hotly glaring eyes and the scowl on his mouth and the hands on his hips pretty much acting as a signpost to his crotch. His eyes widen a little in embarrassment over his own thought process and he's only glad that he isn't really that drunk and therefore hasn't lost control over his mouth as well as his brain.

''Morgana,'' Arthur says acidly. ''How good of you to stop by.''

''Hello to you too, dear brother of mine,'' Morgana drawls, getting up from the couch and it takes Merlin a moment to realise that she is actually getting her purse and stuff. For a second he has the insane urge to beg her to not leave him alone with the temptation that is Arthur.

''Don't get your knickers in a twist,'' Morgana goes on, rolling her eyes at Arthur. ''It's not like we took shots. Was just a splash of rum, alright? I had the feeling Merlin needed it.''

''Wonder why that is,'' Arthur mutters and Morgana elbows him in the side, when she walks past him.

''Don't be rude Arthur, or I won't be coming over for dinner next Sunday.''

''Now there's a threat.''

Morgana ignores Arthur, and points her finger at Merlin instead. ''Don't forget what I told you, darling,'' she says. ''All of it.''

''Don't you dare drive, you harpy!'' Arthur yells after her, when she leaves in a flurry of Gucci scarves, Manolo Blahniks and Chanel bags, and she sticks her tongue out at him and slams the door behind her, but not before having shouted, ''I'll take a taxi and send you the bill, mum, thank you!'' back at Arthur.

Then they are alone, and Arthur is still scowling.

“So what has your knickers in a twist?'' Merlin asks in a bout of childish petulance.

''You mean apart from my sister and my... my client getting drunk in the middle of the day? When my very impressionable six-year old son will be home soon, who is already tits over arse for you?''

Merlin snorts. ''If I were to believe Morgana, that would be you.'' He immediately winces and looks at Arthur apologetically. ''Not that I believe her.''

Arthur frowns at him, ''Okay, what exactly has that woman told you?''

Merlin feels his traitorous cheeks heat from the blush creeping up his face. ''Uhm... you know, mostly she threatened me a little and-''

''What!?''

''Well, only if...''

''If...? What, Merlin?''

''Well you see... she just had this crazy idea of you being in love with me, and I guess she was doing her sisterly duty, trying to keep you from ending up on the floor of unspecified toilets again and-''

''Oh god,'' Arthur groans, rubbing his hands over his face and mumbling something Merlin doesn't catch but that seems to be mainly made up from expletives.

''No! Really, you don't have to worry, I know better than to believe that stuff and-''

He stops midsentence, because Arthur looks up at him and glares. It's not his good-natured glare either.

''Yes, Merlin, I'm pretty sure you would know better, just like you always seem to know better, because you can't fucking trust me, can you?''

''What? What's that supposed to- oh.''

''Yes, Merlin. Oh. Seeing how you lied to me – again – I would have thought you already know what has my 'knickers in a twist' - to use your highly inappropriate words, as I never have and never will wear any knickers.''

Merlin feels any drunkenness bleeding away from him. Because, yeah, he is pretty sure he does know. ''I'm sorry,'' he says. ''I know I probably should have told you, but...''

''Probably should have told me?'' Arthur asks, disbelief evident in his voice. ''Do you even realise what we are talking about here, Merlin? I have told you again and again that I need to know the whole story if I want to be able to defend you properly! And you didn't say a word. Not about Nimueh and not about Mordred.''

''What? I told you about Mordred! Okay, so maybe I didn't tell you that I worked for the same woman he apparently was acquainted with, but I didn't think you needed to know exactly how I carried out my profession.''

Arthur looks at him weird. ''What are you talking about? Mordred was Nimueh Greene's nephew. He was there all the time, she said so herself. So you must have known him!''

''No! I mean... I didn't. I was- I only came back to London two years ago. I was at Cardiff at first and then in Glasgow for a while, but...'' Merlin blushes mortified. This is something he really doesn't want to talk to Arthur about. ''I was popular, okay? So they sent me to London.''

''Oh.'' Arthur swallows but he doesn't look away and, to give him some credit, he looks pained rather than disgusted. ''Then why didn't you tell me about Nimueh?''

Merlin can't keep the eye-contact. He just can't. ''What do you think?'' he mutters. ''The things I have done... It's not exactly something I like to talk about. Least of all with you.''

''Merlin,'' Arthur sighs, and sits down next to him. He's looking at Merlin, and his proximity doubled with the way he says his name, a little exasperated but still fond, makes Merlin's heart leap into his throat. ''Don't you think it would have been important to know that you were forced? That they blackmailed you and threatened you to make you work for them?''

Merlin frowns. ''What... Did you think I did it because I wanted to?'' He spits, outrage and hurt and disappointment threatening to pull him apart. ''Did you think I enjoyed it!?''

All of a sudden there is a hand on his neck, and he's pulled forward, against a strong, broad chest. ''Don't be an idiot, Merlin,'' Arthur whispers brokenly. ''How could I have ever thought that? But I know how these stories can go, I know how being hungry and cold and all on your own can leave you without any options.''

There are a thousand emotions fighting for dominance in Merlin's heart and head and gut, and he doesn't know which to give precedence, doesn't know what would be the appropriate response, and so he just gives in to instinct and deepest desire and buries his face in Arthur's warmth. The hand on his neck is gently kneading his sore muscles and playing with his hair, and Merlin feels himself go lax and pliant. After a moment he lifts his head slightly, and suddenly it's all too easy to meet Arthur's eyes. Suddenly all the hurt and the shame are falling away and all that is left is a deep longing, a burning desire and pure, completely unfamiliar lust.

It's the most natural thing in the world to press his lips against Arthur's then, and the shock of familiarity mixed with underlying notes of different and new and matured is the most exciting thing Merlin has ever experienced. He wants to climb in Arthur's lap, bury his hands in his hair and suck on that perfect bottom lip until he has no breath left. He wants to lick and taste and devour, and as if Arthur could read his thoughts he opens his mouth, groaning and pulling Merlin closer with irrefutable hands, strong and tender and so much better than all of Merlin's fantasies.

A voice Merlin dimly recognises as his own is mumbling, ''Arthur... just... dear gods, please...'' and then Merlin is in Arthur's lap, and fucking hell he is hard and, if his arse isn't very much mistaken, so is Arthur. The implication of it all is exhilarating, the possibilities and contingencies, and Merlin can't believe he is doing this, can't believe Arthur is with him, matching him step for step--

Until he doesn't.

''Merlin,'' Arthur gasps, and his voice sounds ragged. ''Stop. We have to stop.''

It's like a bucket of ice-water has been dumped over his head, and Merlin pushes back, stumbles, and finally lands on his arse at Arthur's feet. Arthur is looking at him aghast and Merlin wants to die, wants to dissolve into thin air and just be gone, never having to face Arthur again. How could he have been so stupid? How could he have let the cheap and outrageous words of Arthur's half-sister get to his head?

''Merlin,'' Arthur says, hand reaching out to him in an almost pleading gesture, but Merlin's too hurt, ripped open and laid bare, and he hastily scrambles to his feet. ''I just... you're drunk,'' Arthur says desperately.

''What?''

''I don't... I don't want to take advantage-''

''Advantage?'' Merlin growls, mortified and aroused and just so fucking frustrated. ''Do you really think I'd have a problem with that ?''

It must have been the wrong thing to say, because Arthur's face turns ashen. ''I'm not one of your johns, Merlin. And I sure as hell hope you don't see me on the same level.''

''You know what? At least they didn't get me all hot and bothered and then left me hanging.'' It's a lie, if nothing else, and Merlin has no idea why he is telling it apart from the hurt and humiliation he's feeling at Arthur's rejection, which youshould have seen coming, you stupid bastard.

For a second or two Arthur looks like he's been slapped, maybe he even looks devastated now, but then his face closes off – just like it always does – and Merlin sneers, ''Yeah, just shut off your emotions, why don't you? After all, it's not like Pendragons have them anyway.''

Arthur is off from the couch in a heart-beat, standing right in front of Merlin and gripping his wrists in an almost painful manner. ''Why are you being this way?'' he grits out, and Merlin hesitates for a second, because Arthur looks hurt, truly hurt.

''I thought you finally got the memo,'' Merlin says woodenly. ''Didn't she tell you what a depraved and perverted slut I am? Well, I guess I can't blame you for not being too eager for sloppy seconds.''

''Don't. God, Merlin... just don't.''

''Why not? It's just the truth is it? There's no point in hiding it just because it's ugly. You know what I am now-''

''Merlin, goddamnit, will you stop?''

The grip on his wrists becomes tighter, and Merlin looks at Arthur then - with all the angry, bristling defiance and the gut-wrenching hurt - and stops shocked at the sight of his friend. There are tears in Arthur's eyes, and his face is a picture of such utter misery that it makes Merlin's anger dissolve like a ghost. He can probably count the times he has seen Arthur cry on one hand and still have fingers to spare. And seeing this adult, hardened Arthur like this - it leaves him breathless.

Arthur doesn't wait for him to say anything, he just pulls Merlin forward until their foreheads are touching, his thumbs stroking over Merlin's pulse-points. Arthur closes his eyes and his breath escapes him in a shaky sigh before he says, ''You are the biggest, most obnoxious idiot I have ever met. Do you really think I would care about any of this? About what you've done? What you had to do to survive? It pains me and I want to kill all those people who hurt you, but you are here now. You are back - with me - and I can't believe you don't know how much I loved you, that I have always loved you and probably will keep loving you until the day I die. How can you not know this, Merlin?''

He sounds desperate and utterly helpless. Devastated. And Merlin softly presses another kiss to his lips, chaste and apologetic, because he has no words, his throat and lungs are filled with so much emotion it is threatening to choke him.

''I don't know,'' he finally manages to croak, ''I might have known once, but I think I must have forgotten. And I thought... I thought you wouldn't... not with... not after all-''

''Merlin... especially after all. More than ever. More than I can say.''

They fall silent then, standing in Arthur's living room with their foreheads touching and their hands entwined. Merlin has no idea where they can go from here, and he doesn't care because, if he could choose, he would simply stay right where he is forever.



Arthur wants to weep when Merlin relaxes against him, the soft black hair tickling Arthur's forehead and Merlin's warm breath ghosting over his skin. He doesn't dare move and just keeps lightly stroking Merlin's wrists. His anger has vanished in the face of Merlin's anguish, the self-deprecation that runs deeper than Arthur had realized. He has to remind himself how young Merlin was when all this started, younger than Arthur himself even, and with no crazy half-sister, and no way to defend himself against a system that took away all his rights. He wants to make things better for Merlin so badly, but he starts to realise that some steps Merlin has to take by himself. Arthur's job is to make sure that the man he's holding onto - almost as if Arthur were the one drowning - gets the chance to do so and the time to find his way back.

Arthur would have gladly savoured this tentative reconnection for the rest of the day, but the glory of holding Merlin - touching him in this small, chaste way at least - lasts only about fifteen minutes. Then the door bursts open and a short whirlwind of blond hair and rosy cheeks comes crashing into their shaky equilibrium. Merlin withdraws as quickly as if he'd been burned, and Arthur is left staring at the face of his friend, which had finally opened up to him just minutes ago and that is now pulling its shutters close again. It's even worse to see Merlin's mask of politeness, now when Arthur had finally felt like he was making some progress. It's like he got a foot in the door only to have it slammed in his face again.

As the afternoon drags on it's almost as if Arthur has dreamed that moment of closeness in the living room, because Merlin is back to being skittish and seems to avoid Arthur by focussing all his attention on Alex instead. He has his nose buried in a book as he reads to Alex with a quiet voice, and Arthur is torn between the gratefulness of a father seeing the obvious affection directed at his son, and the disappointment of a man who can't help but wish to get just a sliver of that for himself. He stares at the way Merlin is smiling at Alex – honest to god smiles, with dimples and all – and it makes his heart ache and his stomach churn.

After a mostly quiet dinner of fish-fingers and chips, Merlin and Alex discover a shared love of board games, much to Arthur's chagrin, and so Arthur spends the evening losing at games like Monopoly and Scrabble, because all he can do is stare at Merlin's lips and his long fingers as they are moving the token. It probably doesn't help his concentration that Merlin keeps throwing him these undeterminable glances over the board whenever he thinks that Arthur isn't looking.

Merlin's contradictory behaviour leaves Arthur with no idea where they are standing with each other, and he doesn't take that kind of confusion well. He knows he's an impatient bastard, but he felt it, he felt the way Merlin still seems to fit to him like they are two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the edges maybe rougher, but the initial purpose still the same. It's been so long since he had that, has never felt that way with any other person besides Merlin and he missed it, he missed Merlin so much it nearly broke him. It takes all his willpower to keep himself in check, to not push, now that he finally has reason to believe that – even if it's maybe buried deep inside – Merlin still feels the same.

*

So the next morning, Arthur declares that he will stay home from the office and finally take Merlin shopping, since he frankly looks ridiculous in Arthur's too big clothes. Gwen is in school, Lance is in the hospital, and since he'd rather not subject Merlin to another round of his sister's special brand of meddling insanity, it's really up to Arthur. Alex immediately wants to come with them, but Arthur reminds him that he has to go to school and promises that they'll be back when Alex comes home for lunch, and that he can then spend more time with the both of them.

So they go shopping. It's a ruse of sorts, but Arthur has this idea in his head that being alone with each other and maybe having a change of place will help Merlin to relax. It soon becomes apparent though that he was mistaken. In the car Merlin is silent, his faced turned away from Arthur, watching the city pass by outside the windowpane. He seems lost in his own world, and Arthur decides to concentrate on driving rather than trying to start an awkward conversation, opting to give Merlin time and hoping that he'll become more talkative when they reach the shopping centre.

He doesn't though. They park the car and when they are riding up to the main floor in the elevator, Merlin stands tense and without meeting Arthur's eyes. There aren't that many people around on an early Tuesday morning, but Merlin keeps his head down and simply follows Arthur, just shrugging when Arthur asks him where he wants to go first.

Arthur chooses a boutique that's not too posh, because he knows that might make Merlin uncomfortable, but from the way Merlin stares at the price-tags his effort was in vain. The shop assistant comes towards them smiling and cooing, and Arthur sends her away when he sees how Merlin grows even more stiff under her scrutiny. He almost regrets it the next moment though, because now he's left staring at racks of shirts and Merlin doesn't make any move to pick something up. This is not what Arthur is good at, and for a second he honestly contemplates calling Morgana, but then tells himself to man up. It can't be that difficult.

An hour later Arthur is ready to strangle the shop assistant - who can't understand the universal code for back off - and Merlin is sitting in the changing room surrounded by piles of clothes who don't fit and quite frankly look ridiculous on him.

With a sigh Arthur knocks on the door to the cubicle.

''No, really,'' Merlin's voice grits out from inside. ''I don't want to try it in another colour.''

''It's me,'' Arthur says with a tired grin. ''Can I come in?''

''Oh. Yeah...'' There is some shuffling to be heard, then, ''Wait a second.''

But Arthur has already pushed against the door, and so he gets an eyeful of Merlin's boxer-clad arse, before he pulls his jeans up. It's still the pair he and Gwen liberated from Arthur's wardrobe, because everything this store has on sale seems either elaborately ripped, some shade of pink or has a leopard print. Arthur likes his eyes and would rather avoid making himself blind via the ugliest clothes he's seen since Morgana gave a theme party dedicated to the eighties a few years ago.

And he's not thinking about this now to rectify the boner seeing Merlin's arse may or may not have given him, thank you very much.

Merlin whips around when Arthur gives an involuntary cough, holding the jeans up and closed with both hands, while he's looking at Arthur wildly and his ears are bright red from blushing.

''Sorry,'' Arthur says sheepishly. Then he picks up what seems to be his favourite belt. ''Looking for this?'' he asks, holding it out like it's a peace-offering.

''Yeah, thanks.'' Merlin takes the belt and fiddles around with it awkwardly, while Arthur lets his gaze roam over the disaster area that is the inside of the cubicle.

''I'm sorry,'' he says again with another sigh, sinking down on what appears to be a chair, buried under three different ugly sweaters. ''I honestly didn't think this would be so difficult.''

Merlin, having finally managed to belt the trousers, sits down next to him on a tartan duffle-coat done in violet and neon green. ''No... I'm sorry for being a bother,'' he mumbles.

Arthur frowns. ''Don't be stupid, Merlin, if anyone is a bother it's that menace of a shop assistant.''

''I think she fancies you,'' Merlin says with a small shrug.

''Yeah? Well then she has a damn weird way of showing that, not that it would matter, you know, what with me being...'' He gestures awkwardly.

''Gay?'' Merlin asks.

Arthur snorts. ''That another of Morgana's many wisdoms?''

Merlin nods. ''Are you?''

''I don't know... are you?''

Merlin's eyes widen and then he scowls, but before he can say anything Arthur holds his hand up.

''I'm not trying to offend or mock you. And, by the way, you should really give me more credit than that. All I'm saying is that Morgana thinks I'm gay, because I've never had a real relationship with a woman, even if I've been attracted enough to sleep with them. But I've only ever been in love once.'' Arthur looks up to see Merlin staring at him wide-eyed. ''So you tell me, Merlin, whether that makes me gay, because I have no idea and I don't really care either. It's just a label. People like sticking them to others.''

''I...I never was...'' Merlin ducks his head, breathing heavily before he presses out, ''I never was attracted to any of the men.... the men who... who were my clients. But I've never... with a woman, I've never... there was nobody. Just, you know...'' His voice becomes a whisper. ''Just you.''

Merlin's hands are balled into fists again and pressed against his thighs. His whole body is tense like a coiled spring. Arthur hesitantly reaches out with his left. It's shaking a little when he lays it over Merlin's. ''I'm sorry,'' he says, ''Sorry for all that has happened to you, Merlin. Sorry, that I wasn't there. That I couldn't help you and protect you.''

''You are sorry?'' Merlin croaks. ''How can you say you're sorry when it's all my fault?''

''What?'' Arthur asks incredulously. ''How is any of this your fault?''

''I was the one who didn't register. I was the one who lied.''

''Well then I'm sorry,'' Arthur says grimly. ''But I can't regret that you did. Because if your mum had you registered, we probably would have never met. You would never have come to live with us, and we wouldn't have had all those years growing up together. Maybe I'm selfish, but I can't regret to know you and I never regretted falling in love with you.''

When he looks up at Merlin again, feeling slightly embarrassed for his outburst, he's shocked to see that Merlin's eyes are wide and glistening, and that there are tears rolling down his cheeks.

''Then you forgive me?'' Merlin whispers.

''Forgive you?'' Arthur asks mystified.

''That I lied to you, Arthur. All those years. I lied to you by not telling you something so essential about me, and you will never know how very, very sorry I am for that!''

''Merlin...'' Arthur shakes his head, pained by Merlin's obvious anguish. ''I had already forgiven you before my father even finished telling me that you have magic. I just wish... I wish you had come to me. I tried looking for you, but... there was no trace to be found. None at all.''

''I didn't dare,'' Merlin whispered. ''I thought you must hate me.''

It rips Arthur's heart out to hear that, and he grips Merlin's hand tighter for a moment, closing his eyes in despair. ''I never... Merlin, how can you even think that?''

''I...-''

There is a knock at the door then, and the shop assistant's voice asking, ''Are you alright in there, darling? You sure you don't want to try the other one in mauve?''

''Oh for crying out loud, that's enough,'' Arthur grouses, pulling Merlin up by his hand. ''Come on, I'll take you to The Smithy. It's what I should have done from the beginning. I buy all my stuff there and Elyan will sort you all out.''

''No, Arthur just take me to... I don't know, a thrift store or-''

''Merlin, do I look like I know any thrift stores?''

Merlin's smile is wobbly, but it's there and Arthur counts that as a win.

''No,'' Merlin says, squeezing Arthur's hand a little, ''I guess you don't.''

*

Elyan is a young man with ebony skin and a big, white smile, and he takes one look at Merlin and then raises an eyebrow at Arthur, saying, ''Hell, Arthur, where have you hidden that beauty all this time?''

Merlin is readily blushing to the tips of his ears, but before he can draw in on himself in embarrassment again, Elyan turns his smile on Merlin, and it's friendly and honest and seems to do an awesome job to settle Merlin. Arthur knows he has made the right decision when Elyan not only keeps his hands to himself, but tells Merlin without any of the obvious flirting he normally addresses Arthur with, ''Don't worry, we will find you whatever you need and - what's more – exactly what you want. I'll just put it on Arthur's bill - because I'm sure he earns more than the both of us combined.''

Arthur settles back in one of the butter-soft black leather armchairs, prepared to wait until Merlin is ready. But then Elyan pushes Merlin out of the changing room with a small grin, and Arthur can't help but smile and raise his eyebrows appreciatively when he sees him done in black trousers and a soft-looking blue sweater that matches the colour of his eyes.

''You do know I'm not Julia Roberts, yeah?'' Merlin hisses when Elyan makes him parade in front of Arthur for the second time, but Arthur just smirks and tells him that the cut of the suit emphasizes his cheekbones.

As they leave The Smithery over an hour later, carrying about a dozen bags and packages, Arthur has to admit he is vaguely reminded of that scene in 'Pretty Woman' too – which he obviously only knows about because Gwen made him watch it.

*

After picking Alex up from school, they go out for Chinese at Arthur and Alex's favourite restaurant, where the food is great and the service is on the rude side and Alex always gets an extra fortune cookie. The little shrivelled old lady who owns the place takes one look at Merlin and decides he needs an extra helping of duck dumplings and brings him fried banana and rice-pudding on the house as dessert. When they leave, she pats Arthur on the cheek and tells him he did good. Arthur feels completely mystified and just a little bit proud.

*

The thing is, it's almost frightening how well Merlin fits into their lives, even if he seems to make a conscious effort not to, and Arthur catches himself imagining more. A future where Merlin continues to live with them, where there is another seat occupied at their dinner table and Arthur comes home to find Merlin and Alex cuddled on the couch, reading a book. There could be more picnics in the park and weekends spent at the old beach house he inherited from his mother. And in the evenings, when Alex had been sent to bed with goodnight kisses of the both of them, Arthur and Merlin could sit in front of the fire-place, or outside the back in the lawn chairs, just enjoying each others company with a glass of wine.

Arthur tries not to think of other things, of hot kisses in the dark, and lazily undressing Merlin in his bedroom. It feels like betrayal, but he can't chase away those thoughts completely. Aware how inappropriate it is to be half hard while playing board games with his son, Arthur backs out of another round of Monopoly and retreats to his office to call Leon.

The pieces of the puzzle are starting to fit together. There is Mordred, a young sorcerer whom Aredian was obsessed with and who ended up dead at his house five years ago. If Nimueh is to be believed – and Arthur is aware that she's not entirely trustworthy – he all but admitted that he killed the boy himself. Then there is Merlin, another young sorcerer, who looks a lot like Mordred and who Aredian acquired regularly to have sex with him.

Arthur clenches his fists at the thought, but tells himself to let it go. He has to think straight, and he can't change what happened to Merlin by indulging in righteous anger.

After about two years of their arrangement, Aredian set his house up with candles – something he had never done before – and in the middle of sadistic sex he tried to strangle Merlin. Which - had Merlin not somehow been able to fight back – would have made Merlin the second sorcerer to die at Aredian's hands. The second sorcerer who had bruises around his neck.

Arthur sighs, he knows that two similar events don't make a pattern, but the parallels are glaring at him. Suddenly he has to wonder whether there have been others. It has been three years between Mordred's death and Merlin's coming back to London. Arthur wonders whether there have been other dead sorcerer boys no one ever asked after, buried and forgotten.

He picks up the phone and dials Leon's number at the Yard. He has a feeling in his gut that he knows too well, it's that feeling that tells him he's on to something, and his gut is seldom wrong.

Leon picks up after the second ring and he sounds angry and frustrated.

''Leon? What's wrong?''

''Arthur?'' Leon sighs. ''Sorry... I just had Percy in here and it seems that Internal Affairs are either incompetent or a bunch of cowards, because it seems that they will let Valiant walk away.''

''What?'' Arthur frowns. ''Didn't you say they had him at the short ones?''

''That's what I thought!''

''Damn.''

''Yeah. Guess you can see where that has me a little pissed off over here, but, yeah... sorry. What's got you calling?''

''A gut feeling I had.''

Leon snorts. ''Arthur your gut feelings are like other people's hard worked for evidence. You sure you don't have a magical great great aunt or something like that?''

''What!?'' Arthur hisses and for a second there is a stunned silence on the other end of the line.

''Arthur, mate,'' Leon says cautiously, ''don't bite my head off, I was just making a joke.''

Arthur presses his eyes close, glad that Leon can't see him. ''Yeah. I know, sorry, you just took me by surprise. I'm sure if I had any magical grand aunts my father would have eliminated the evidence.''

Leon chokes. ''That's true, mate. So, what's your gut telling you this time?''

Arthur takes a deep breath, calling up his theory, the facts and connections, before his mind's eye. When he has recapitulated them to Leon, he asks, ''What if there were others?''

''Other what?''

''Other young male sorcerers who ended up dead and no one ever asked about the how and why.''

Leon is silent for the moment Arthur knows it takes him to think the whole thing through. Then he says, ''Fuck.''

''Yeah,'' Arthur agrees.

''You want me to look at the base?''

''Well, I guess Percival's out for now?'' Arthur asks wryly.

''Don't mock if you want a favour, Pendragon,'' Leon tells him, but it sounds good-natured. ''So what are we looking for? There are bound to be quite a few young, male sorcerers who ended up dead.''

''Well, for one thing we have a time frame. June 2008 to October 2011. That should reduce it to hardly a few dozen. I have no idea how young Aredian would have preferred them, but while Merlin is twenty-six he could easily pass for twenty and Mordred was fifteen. Maybe Aredian liked to imagine them as Mordred how he'd been had he lived, so I think the age should be fifteen to early twenties. Probably dark hair and blue eyes, on the slender side. Boys who had no family.''

''Alright,'' Leon says and Arthur can hear him typing away on his keyboard. ''That should narrow it down nicely.'' There are more clicking sounds and Leon's thoughtful humming, then he suddenly says, ''Fuck you, Pendragon, I have no idea how you do this.''

Arthur leans forward, as if he could actually take a look over Leon's shoulder. ''What have you found?''

''Galahad Gordon, died 12th September 2009. He was seventeen. Dark hair, blue eyes; parents unknown, he lived on the streets. Cause of death – unknown.''

''Damn,'' Arthur mutters.

''There is another one. Pelinor Ramsey. He was twenty when he died sometime in spring 2011. Was found down at the river a week after he vanished. Damn, Arthur, it says here that he worked as a prostitute.''

''Christ...'' Arthur rubs a hand over his eyes. Having a theory is one thing, having it verified with facts and names and the fate of who young men is something else. ''Cause of death? They must have investigated that one.''

''Nope. Cause of death is unknown.''

''For heaven's sake, what are you? Criminal Investigation or a bunch of accountants?''

''Hey!'' Leon snaps. ''You're preaching to the choir here, mate, don't shoot the messenger!''

''Sorry,'' Arthur says, feeling contrite, because yeah... he knows Leon hates this probably more than he does.

''So... what do we do?''

Leon sighs. ''Well, to tell you the truth, Arthur, I don't know if there's much we can do. We can try to find out more about these boys, but we have nothing to work with and the cases have been cold for years. What are the chances of solving them in the nick of the few weeks it will take till your Merlin has to face the crown court?''

''Fuck.'' Arthur knows Leon is right, but he can't believe they can't do anything now that they have an honest to god lead. ''Okay... what if we could exhume them?''

''Well, for one, good luck with getting permission for that. And second, they've been dead in the ground for years, finding a cause of death after so long will be almost impossible. Especially if it's strangulation, which is what I know you'd be hoping for.''

Arthur curses silently, but then he hears Merlin's voice in his mind, He stopped and took something from a drawer. I didn't see what it was. It had been a scarf, that much Arthur knew because the police had found it and it was part of the official evidence. But Aredian had had the rope he'd bound Merlin to the bed with, he probably had a belt from his trousers or the wire from the bedside lamp. But he'd picked out a scarf, a scarf he'd had carefully tucked away in a drawer. Arthur's brain works furiously. Merlin had probably been Aredian's fourth victim. He'd made a ritual out of it. He'd planned it meticulously. The scarf had to mean something.

''What if we could get their DNA samples and check the scarf Aredian used to strangle Merlin for a match?''

Leon is obviously stunned, but he recovers quickly, and now he sounds excited. ''That could work, Arthur. If he used the same scarf that is and if he didn't give it to the dry-cleaners in between. You'd still have to get the permission to dig them up though.''

Arthur frowns, his mouth a grim line. ''Let me take care of that one.''

*

Arthur has known that he has to talk to his father ever since Nimueh said 'Why don't you ask your daddy?'. It's not something he's looking forward to though; the last time they spoke can only be described as a disaster and Arthur still has no idea how Uther is coping with Morgana's angry admission of being a seer. At least he is positive that his father has kept that information to himself, if only by evidence of not having had any police officers knocking at his door since then.

This is more serious though, more serious than all their fights about Arthur failing to fulfil his father's expectation or Uther being a stubborn bigot who blames a whole group of people for the tragic death of his wife. This is about the question whether Uther has condoned – maybe even taken part in – a crime that preyed on the weakest. Boys, barely more than kids sometimes, who were forced to prostitute themselves for imaginative transgressions and a shallow illusion of freedom.

It pains Arthur that he can't immediately dismiss any suspicion of his father's involvement.

He steps out of his office and walks down the stairs, already hearing Alex’s bright laughter and Merlin's soft, low chuckle. They both look up when he enters and there is pure, unfiltered happiness on Alex's face and a hesitant pleasure on Merlin's. It's beautiful, and Arthur wishes he could just join them. Wishes he would live in a world where this picture of simple joy and content could remain safe and unthreatened.

''I have to go out for a bit,'' he says instead with a sliver of regret, and he sees how Merlin's face immediately takes on a shadow of concern. Arthur ignores it and tries to put on a cheerful smile for his son when he says, ''I'll be back in a bit. Will you two be okay on your own?''

It occurs to Arthur that something must have changed if he has no qualms to leave Alex with Merlin, but he has no time to consider the implications. Merlin meets his eyes and gives him a serious nod, and Alex only pouts a little but is easily mollified when Arthur promises to be back soon, and to then join them for another round at their game.

He takes the car and drives out to the Pendragon house on Camden Hill. His father is a man of old habits, and Tuesday afternoons were always spent at his office at the house, so Arthur is reasonably sure he will find him there. Arthur stops the car when the familiar mansion becomes visible. It's a place of many happy memories, but Arthur hasn't been here in a long time; not since the epic fight he had with his father on that day at the end of September, the year Merlin vanished.


~ The fight had been festering all summer, pretty much since Arthur's father had called Arthur into his office on his birthday and informed him that Merlin was a sorcerer and that he hoped Arthur knew his duty and responsibilities. Uther had become even more strict and unrelenting after he'd found out about Merlin, and he didn't allow his son any time to come to terms with it. The fact that Merlin had been Arthur's best friend was studiously ignored, even the name was not to be mentioned. Uther was trying his hardest to keep the fact that he'd harboured an unregistered sorcerer in his house from the press and the public, and Arthur couldn't believe that this really was his father's sole concern.

It had probably been the only reason that Hunith had not been arrested immediately, but she had been sacked without further notice, and Uther had not taken it well when Arthur asked his uncle Tristan for help to find her another position abroad. Arthur tried to keep his head down afterwards, studying for his A-levels and mostly keeping to himself in his room. He tried – very, very carefully – to find out anything about what had happened to Merlin, but it seemed he had vanished without a trace. Arthur didn't dare to ask too many questions, afraid that they might lead other people to Merlin, but he hoped that there would be a sign, that Merlin would send him a message - anything.

But when graduation day came and went, when June turned into July with cloudless days and blistering heat, it became more and more apparent that nothing was forthcoming. Merlin was simply gone. Arthur started his summer job at a law firm and began to loath it after the first week already. Most cases were simply about keeping up the status quo in regard to sorcerers, and while Arthur always had thought these laws stupid, he now imagined Merlin in every cruel and unfair situation and it made him almost burst with helpless rage.

He also began to think up all kind of horror scenarios: of Merlin having been caught without anybody telling the Pendragons, of him having an accident and being found dead at the roadside or washed up on shore further down the river. The images followed Arthur into his dreams and he started to hardly sleep at all. Once more Arthur gritted his teeth and tried to keep going while he felt like he was drowning.

In the end it just became unbearable. The anger over the injustice of it all, the fear for Merlin and the utter desolation that had become Arthur's life needed an outlet and it presented itself when Arthur came home to find Gaius gone.

Gaius had been with them since before Arthur's birth. Arthur knew that his father had taken him on as his butler, after Gaius had saved him from embarrassing himself in front of Arthur's mum on their first date. It was a story Arthur had heard often as a child - sitting in the kitchen with Gaius and Sally – because it was one of his favourites. And even though Gaius had treated Uther with the proper decorum of a servant, Arthur had always suspected that they had some weird kind of friendship going on anyway. What Arthur had not known, what he only found out that evening, was that Gaius had very latent magical abilities. He'd just tested so low that he was deemed no threat and didn't have to register.

''I don't understand,'' Arthur said, looking at his father confused. ''Where is Gaius?''

''I had to let him go, Arthur. With the threat of the press finding out about the Emryses I need to keep a clean bill. I can't risk having another sorcerer in my household.''

''But you said he wasn't! And he's... he's Gaius!''

''The public and the opposition won't care about such technicalities. And don't worry, I gave him a proper compensation.''

''A compensation?'' Arthur asked disbelievingly. ''This is his home!''

''Not anymore, it isn't.''

''How can you do this?'' Arthur didn't care that he sounded like a little boy. ''Gaius is like family, you can't just throw him out!''

''I can and I have. And you better watch what you're saying. We aren't related to sorcerers.''

''Well, maybe not, but I was the boyfriend of one!'' Arthur shouted, ''So what does that make me in your books!?''

Uther turned pale as a sheet then. ''Stop talking nonsense, Arthur,'' he hissed. ''You were no such thing! Because - as you are well aware - a relationship with a sorcerer would be against the law and my son certainly is no criminal!''

''I loved him!'' Arthur cried desperately, because he needed to say it at least once. ''I still love him and miss him every day – how can that be a crime? We could still be together if it weren't for those stupid laws! We could still be happy!''

The slap took him by surprise, the shock of it making him speechless and the helpless disappointment more rattling than the pain in his cheek. He turned his face back to his father, feeling nothing but anger and a deep resentment.

''Is that the only answer you have?'' he spat.

''Don't rile me, Arthur, I won't stand for it!''

Arthur laughed, ugly and broken. ''I told you I was in love, father, how can something like that rile you? Actually, I can't believe you didn't know...'' He looked at his father with sudden understanding. ''But I guess you don't know me at all, do you? After all, my true family has always been Gaius and Hunith and Merlin.''

There was another slap, a sharper one this time and it smarted, but Arthur didn't care. It was like his father was only proving him right, was actually handing the power to him by admitting his own lack of control.

''What will it take father?'' Arthur said harshly, raising his chin and looking at his father with all the contempt he was feeling. ''What will it take for you to cast me away too? I already told you that I'm in love with a sorcerer. And if you think that I'll become like those contemptible men you have me working for – who mock the parents who dare raise up against a company that distributed too strong repressants for kids, or who evict families from their houses because they have a child with magical abilities – then, father, you will find that you are thoroughly mistaken. Because I want no part of that.''

Uther's head was red like a tomato when he glared at him. ''That is quite enough from you, Arthur! You will fulfil your responsibilities at the firm and then you'll start your studies at King's College, and I will hear no more word about that sorcerer boy from you. Otherwise you will find out very quickly what it takes!''

It was like standing at a crossroad, that moment, but Arthur was surprised how easy it was to choose in the end. He looked his father square in the eye and then he said, ''I guess I better go and pack my stuff then. Because that nest of vipers that calls itself a law firm won't see me again. And I won't go to your law school either.''

With that Arthur turned around and stalked out of his father's office.

''Arthur! You'll come back here right this instant!'' Uther shouted. But Arthur never did.

The first months Arthur lived at the old beach house in Norfolk, mostly being spectacularly drunk. Then Morgana had found him and dragged him back to London, where he tried to set a record of how many pubs and clubs he could get thrown out of for drunk and disorderly behaviour. He tried drugs, he tried sex, at one point he even briefly considered religion - but that might have been because of the two bottles of vodka he had drunken prior. In the end nothing helped. Nothing could make him forget that he was supposed to be more than just Arthur. That he had an essential part of him missing, which only he knew about. He stood tantalised at the edge, tempted, oh so tempted to just give in and let himself fall, but something kept him from making that final step.

He was desperately lonely, because he couldn't make himself let Morgana in, and his cousin turned half-sister didn't know how to push without making him bristle. But she stood by him, and that maybe more than everything else, made Arthur finally open up in the end. He still had no idea what to do with himself. His future had been ripped apart and lay in ruins, and it seemed redundant to pick up the pieces and built a new one that could never measure up – because how could it ever mean anything, if Merlin wasn't in it? ~


It's not like Arthur hasn't spoken with his father since. They even shared a few awkward and taciturn meals over the years. But Arthur never came back home. Maybe because it doesn't feel like that anymore. At the end of the day, the house is just a big, slightly dark and stuffy box. It had always been the people who made the place a home: Hunith and Merlin, Gaius and Sally – none of which still live here. Sally resigned not long after Arthur left and, while they haven't spoken in many years, Arthur knows that Hunith is safe in the States. From what he last heard, Gaius is with her.

Arthur parks the car in front of the main entrance and gets out, letting his eyes roam over the bricks and gleaming windowpanes for a moment. The house looks the same, but Arthur imagines that it lacks the welcoming feel, which it reluctantly had taken on when Hunith and Merlin moved in. With a sigh he pushes the nostalgic thoughts away though and goes to ring the doorbell. A moment later an old man with a white, well-kept beard opens. He raises his eyebrows at Arthur in an incredibly condescending way, and Arthur isn't sure whether he wants to smile or scowl. He opts to raise his own brows in the patented Pendragon way and puts on his best posh accent when he says,

''I'm here to see my father, Sir Uther Pendragon.''

The eyes of Uther's new butler widen minutely, but he opens the door and bids Arthur entrance, asking him to wait in the hall. It feels strange, but maybe strangely appropriate, to be a visitor in his own childhood home, and Arthur lets his gaze wander over the familiar paintings and furniture. It's a bit like visiting a museum.

''Sir Uther will see you now,'' the butler says, coming back a moment later, and Arthur can't help but give him a little salute and say, ''I bet he will.''

*

When he steps into his father's office though, Arthur grows serious again. Uther greets him from behind his desk, not getting up for a stiff hand-shake - never mind any other form of physical contact. Arthur is very much fine with that, and opts to not sit down in the chair his father is indicating with an imperious gesture, but to remain standing behind it, casually bringing his hands down on the back rest. A muscle in Uther's face twitches but he regards Arthur with a cool look.

''Arthur. What brings you here?''

Arthur takes a deep breath and reminds himself that he can't let this go that he can't hold back, not even for his own father.

''I wanted to talk to you about Aredian.''

''What about him?'' Uther asks impatiently.

''I want to know, whether you knew he was a murderer, and also involved in an organization that forces young Magicals, barely more than teenagers really, into prostitution.''

That gets him Uther's attention. ''I beg your pardon?'' he says with a haughtily raised eyebrow. ''What nonsense is this you are talking about, Arthur?''

''It is no nonsense father, there is evidence that strongly indicates that he has blackmailed young sorcerers and murdered at least one, possibly three, before he tried to strangle Merlin.''

''Evidence? Don't be ridiculous Arthur, what kind of evidence could there be?'' Uther scoffs contemptuously, it is clear that he doesn't believe a word Arthur says, but maybe that at least means he is not involved himself.

Arthur forces himself to stay calm. ''I spoke with a woman called Nimueh Greene. She-''

''Nimueh!?''

All of a sudden, his father looks as if he had been struck by lightning. Arthur has never seen him like this. He's ashen and he looks old, like he has aged decades in barely a second.

''Do you know her?'' Arthur asks suspiciously, because – honestly – it's obvious that Uther does, so he asks again, ''How do you know her?''

For a moment it looks as if his father might deny any previous acquaintance, but then he sags in his chair. He looks at Arthur for a long moment, like he has to prepare for what he says next, and when he finally speaks, his voice sounds brittle.

''She... she had become a friend of sorts to your mother,'' he says. ''They knew each other from school and met again by chance later. Your mother and I had been married for a while, but we had difficulties conceiving, and Ygraine told Nimueh about it. Nimueh said she could help her get pregnant, and your mother was desperate... but something went horribly wrong-''

''What?'' Arthur asks faintly. Cold dread is filling up his veins. ''What are you saying...?''

''I'm saying that woman murdered your mother!'' Uther growls.

''But-... you never said-''

Arthur feels like his brain is flailing, trying to make sense of what his father is saying, while the hurt and betrayal and the self-disgust cut into him deep. His father has always claimed that sorcerers killed his mother, and Arthur always thought how this couldn't be, because he knows that she died giving birth to him. He has blamed and tortured himself too many years for that, but this is a whole different story. This is his father telling him that his mother actually died because of Arthur.

''How could you-'' Arthur chokes. ''How could you let her do that?''

''I had no idea,'' Uther says in quiet despair. ''I didn't even know your mother had talked to Nimueh about our problems. I was just so happy that we were finally going to have a child. But I grew worried when your mother was becoming weaker and weaker. It was like she was fading right before my eyes. She told me what she had done then, and I went to see Nimueh to ask her to help Ygraine.'' His father's face grows hard. ''She told me there was nothing she could do. That magic demanded a price,'' he spits. ''The next day she had vanished. I had no idea she was still alive.''

Arthur shakes his head; he can't deal with this right now. He has waited years for his father to tell him this, to talk about his mother, but his mother is dead and nothing can bring her back. It's Merlin he has to think of. It's him he can still save. Arthur pushes his own tattered feelings aside, and takes a shaky breath.

''Then you didn't know she was working for Aredian?'' he asks, meeting his father's eyes.

What he sees there is shock. ''She what!?''

''She has... a magical brothel of sorts. It's where Aredian found Merlin. But Aredian wasn't just a customer. He provided the boys and girls who would come to work for her,'' Arthur explains, keeping his eyes on his father to gauge his reaction. He seems confused at first, but that is turning more and more into disbelieved outrage. ''He blackmailed young sorcerers who had avoided registration, orphans and street kids who had committed petty crimes. He threatened them with the Facility, with harming their families and friends, and made them sell themselves, body and soul, to perverted fuckers like him - who got off on it.''

''That... You must be mistaken,'' Uther mumbles. ''I know you want to prove your friend's story, but surely you must realise, Arthur, that this is madness!''

''Oh, it is madness alright,'' Arthur says with bitter contempt. ''But that's what happens if you give people like Aredian power over the life of others. Especially over people who have almost no rights to begin with.'' Uther looks like he wants to object, but Arthur won't have it. ''Your government is corrupted to the core, father, and if you can't see that, then that's because you are blinded by your petty prejudices.'' He pauses and looks at Uther Pendragon. The man who is his father and whom he still wants to love. ''I know we have always disagreed on pretty much everything that's important in life,'' he says pleadingly, ''but even you have to see that this is wrong.''

''Arthur...''

''I do believe that you didn't know about this,'' Arthur presses on. ''But if you don't help me stop this, you are just as much to blame as Aredian and whoever else is involved in this.''

Uther looks at him silently, his mouth a grim line. He is a stubborn man, but Arthur wants to believe that, under all his prejudices and his long acquired hate, there is still the man whom his mother fell in love with. There is still something good.

''Morgana will never talk to you again,'' Arthur says ruthlessly, going for the throat. ''If there is any chance for you to not lose her completely, then this is it. I know you care for her, know you love her. Think about it, father! She could have been one of them!''

Uther sits at his desk like a puppet without strings. ''What do you want from me, Arthur?'' he asks, and he sounds tired and old.

''Get me the permission to exhume the corpses of three young sorcerers,'' Arthur says.

''What? Why would I do that?''

''Because it will give us proof either way, whether my theory is right or wrong.''

Still Uther hesitates.

''You owe me this,'' Arthur grits out. ''You owe it to Morgana, and even if you might not realise it, you owe it to a boy who grew up under your roof. A boy whose life you and your hate destroyed. You owe it to Merlin.''

*

When Arthur comes home Merlin takes one look at him and then asks Alex to go and search for another board game in his room, telling him he has played all the Monopoly he can stomach for the day. As soon as Alex is out of the room though, he turns to Arthur.

''Are you alright?'' He asks, concern evident in his voice. ''You look like you have seen a ghost and went for three rounds with it.''

Arthur barks out a laugh. ''I just found out that I have killed my mother,'' he says, swallowing as the shock and the hurt from before comes flooding back into him. ''Not just metaphorically, not just as a partial cause, but... truly, honestly killed her.''

''Arthur,'' Merlin says with a frown, but getting up to come closer. ''You don't make any sense. You didn't kill your mother; you were an infant. Where have you been and who have you talked to?''

''My father. He said my mother conceived me with magic, but while I grew in her womb she started fading. And when I was born, she died.'' Arthur looks up at Merlin in despair. ''I sucked the life right out of her!''

Merlin's eyes are wide and impossibly blue as he grabs him by the chin and forces him to look at him. ''You listen to me, Arthur Pendragon. Your mother loved you. Gaius has told you that so many times, I could recite his very words by memory after all these years. She wanted you more than anything in the world, and she made her decision. You don't have to like it, but it was hers to make. You did nothing wrong. You didn't kill her, even if she might have given her life for you. It's what mothers do.''

And then Merlin kisses him firm and determined, full of love and compassion. And Arthur falls into it, lets himself drown until everything else is washed away and there is only Merlin, holding him close.

Chapter Text

The board games become a thing after that night. They play almost every evening, and Merlin has to admit Arthur is actually a surprisingly good sport about losing, even though Merlin can well remember that he has always been a decidedly competitive person. It takes him two days to realise that Arthur is losing on purpose. Merlin starts giving him suspicious glares whenever Arthur makes another slightly disadvantageous move after that, but Arthur just grins and pointedly looks at Alex, who is almost jumping up and down in excitement, seeing that he is about to win.

It makes something warm curl up inside Merlin's chest; Arthur being a father. He realises that, despite his jealousy, Morgana has been right. It's not possible to resent the fact that Arthur once tried to be with Mithian. There would be no Alex otherwise, and that seems like an impossible option. Alex is precious and Merlin is glad that he got to be part of his life in this very small way. He is glad that he got to see Arthur again and meet his son. He had been sure that Arthur must hate him for such a long time, that it gives him an incredible feeling of elation to know that he doesn't. That he still cares for Merlin. That he still loves him in some way.

Maybe knowing that can be enough. Maybe he can face the possibly very short future he has with that knowledge.

So Merlin tries to keep his distance, he really does. He knows he has already involved himself too much with Arthur and Alex, and he reminds himself every day that this can't last. There will be a trial and there will be a sentence and Merlin won't be there for family dinners and board games and movie nights. It's hard though, when Arthur and Alex treat him like it is self-evident that he's part of their family now. When Alex hugs him before going to bed and Arthur smiles his wry smile at him Merlin is helpless, because he wants this, wants them, more than he ever wanted anything else.

It's apparent that not everyone is as happy to have Merlin around though. While Morgana seems to have accepted his presence, Merlin can't help but notice that Gwen hasn't been over in the last days. Arthur tells him not to worry about it, but Merlin feels bad for possibly having damaged their relationship.

''Merlin,'' Arthur says when Merlin brings it up for the second time. ''Gwen and I are friends, and she has been a great help in the last two years, but I have managed before and I will do so again. She has to realise that it is my choice whom I'm involved with. If she can't accept that you are part of my life again, then that's her problem and not yours.''

It's long after dinner and they are both sitting in mostly companionable silence in the living room. Arthur is reading something work-related and Merlin has rediscovered an old child-hood favourite on the shelves. It's a bit chilly, and so Arthur has made a fire, its warm orange light painting flickering shadows on the wooden floor. It could be such a peaceful scene, and maybe that's what made Merlin raise that topic, because it wouldn't do if he got too comfortable.

Of course Arthur would then circumvent Merlin's effort by saying something so incredibly perfect and making Merlin's heart leap in his chest. He hasn't even looked up from his book either and so Merlin feels the need to point out that Arthur's loyalty might be redundant.

''You could come to regret that when I'm sentenced and... when I'm gone, I mean.''

That finally makes Arthur raise his eyes from the text. He's sitting in his favourite armchair next to the fire-place and his face is half thrown in shadows. ''When you're gone?'' he asks, and there is a dangerous note in his voice.

Merlin nods reluctantly, hugging his legs even closer to his chest.

Arthur closes his book and stands, but he doesn't come over to where Merlin is sitting on the couch. Instead he turns his back on him and takes a step towards the fire-place. He looks down into the dancing flames when he says, ''Do you really think I will allow anyone to harm you?''

''With all due respect, Arthur, that might not be your choice in the end,'' Merlin snaps, starting to become fed up with every one telling him how Arthur will save the day and Merlin is just stupid when he thinks he's probably about to die.

Arthur glares at him over his shoulder. ''There is always a choice, Merlin,'' he says.

''Yes, thank you very much, but as far as I know, it's the judge who will make it, and you might be the best lawyer in the fucking country, but that still doesn't mean they can't convict me.''

Arthur gives him a look like he is the worst idiot in the world. ''You think I don't know that? Do you think I have such a high opinion of myself that I ignore the reality? I know that we could lose the case. I think there is a good chance that we won't, especially if I get the permission to exhume the bodies of Aredian's other victims, but I know that there is no guarantee and the judge might not see things my way.''

Merlin swallows. ''Then please correct me if I'm wrong,'' he says tersely, ''but I am pretty sure that means putting a rope around my neck and stringing me up until I kick the bucket.''

''I won't let them execute you, Merlin.''

''Really?'' Merlin says with bitter disbelief. ''And how will you stop them?''

''Merlin.'' Arthur takes a few steps towards him. His hands are on his hips, but his eyes are cast down. ''I-... I'm already making arrangements. For you to leave the country.''

''What?''

Arthur looks up then. ''Your mum's in the States. I got her there with the help of my uncle Tristan, and if we can't get the proof, if I think the judges at the crown court are just that much of a bunch of stubborn arseholes,...'' He takes a deep breath. ''Then I will get you to your mum and to safety.''

''But-'' Merlin stammers, ''But you vouched for me.''

His answer is a single raised eyebrow. ''Yes, Merlin, and my career might be pretty much over after that, but do I look like I care when it's your life on the line?''

''It could be a lot more than your career!'' Merlin objects. ''Helping a sorcerer escape is a criminal offence! Never mind a murderer!''

''I don't care.''

Arthur has that look again. That mulish, stubborn look that means that he won't back down even if he is wrong. It scars Merlin, because he knows what Arthur would risk. A prison sentence at least.

''What about Alex?''

Arthur flinches back like Merlin has punched him. The despair is painted on his face with crude strokes. ''I won't let you die, Merlin. It's as simple as that,'' he bites out, and then he turns around and stalks out of the room.

Merlin is left on the couch, stunned and scared. He doesn't want to die, and he wants to see his mum, but he doesn't want Arthur to sacrifice his own life for him either.

*

They don't speak about it any further, Arthur pretending he never said anything, and Merlin too cowardly to bring it up again. They live in some kind of limbo in those days, playing house knowing that the clock is ticking and it's all just an illusion. There still is an almost palpable tension between Arthur and him because, while the secrets of the past are finally laid open, there are new things they don't seem able to speak about now. Merlin catches Arthur throwing glances at him when he thinks Merlin isn't looking, and they are almost always heated. They make a deep longing erupt in Merlin's gut and he wishes he could just take that step, could just grab Arthur and kiss him again and-

But he can't. Sex has been a commodity to Merlin for so long, he doesn't know how to see it differently anymore. For years he has forced himself to see it as a task he had to fulfil, a job to get done. He still hated it - every single second of it - and he doesn't know if he'll ever be able to enjoy it again. And Arthur doesn't seem all that eager either. At least he hasn't made a move yet, although Merlin has to admit that might be because Arthur is trying to give Merlin space and is waiting for him to make the first step in his own time.

Merlin has started to dream though; of being laid out on Arthur's bed in the low light of Arthur's bedside lamp, naked and vulnerable, like an offering, unsure whether it will be accepted. He never makes a move in those dreams either - he doesn't know how to without it feeling lewd and wrong - and he always wakes up before Arthur can touch him. It's driving him slowly mad.

Arthur starts to retreat into his study in the evenings as soon as Alex has been put to bed, and Merlin has the suspicion he does this to avoid him and their weird dance of looks and awkward silences. Left alone mostly to his own devices, Merlin starts going half insane with anxiety and worry. At night he tries to tell himself that he's got a chance, that the evidence is on his side, that he will be fine. But it doesn't help when he lies in his bed, unable to sleep and a continuing commentary running in his head of all the arguments and all the reasons why this is likely to not end well. Mainly, Merlin thinks, it's because his life is neither a fairy tale nor a Julia Roberts film.

In the end it's the idea that it all could be over soon that makes Merlin brave. It's quarter past midnight when he gets out of bed, knowing that Arthur often works in his study across the hall till late at night. But when he pushes against the door, he finds the room dark and deserted. It seems Arthur has gone to bed already after all. Merlin hesitates at the bottom of the stairs that lead up to Arthur's bedroom. He still doesn't know if Arthur wants him up there. Most parts of his brain tell him this isn't a good idea, but there is this tiny little crevice, where he stores all the golden memories of his childhood, that tells him to just make a move. To just walk up those steps and knock on Arthur's door.

And so Merlin does.

Arthur's door is slightly ajar, muted light falling through the gap and painting a golden line on the floor. Merlin hesitantly knocks and accidentally pushes the door further open. Arthur seems to have been sitting on his bed, still fully clothed and holding something in his hands. When he stands up and turns towards the door with a frown, Merlin gasps. Because there, right in Arthur's hands, is Kilgarrah Merlin's pet dragon, which had been his childhood companion even before he moved into the Pendragon house. His mother has once made a hint that it had actually been a gift from his father.

''Arthur?'' Merlin asks, almost involuntarily pushing the door open and taking a step into the room.

''Merlin,'' Arthur says, and he's actually blushing and – probably without noticing – holding the stuffed dragon in front of his chest like a shield.

''You... you've kept him,'' Merlin says, surprise and something else, maybe gratitude, warring in his chest.

''Of course I did.'' Arthur says stiffly, and his blush becomes even deeper. ''I just retrieved him from the cupboard to give him to you. For luck.'' He grimaces and pushes the dark green plushy towards Merlin. Merlin steps forward and takes Kilgharrah from Arthur's hands reverently, running his hands over the short, slightly faded fabric.

''This is... thank you,'' Merlin mumbles shyly.

Arthur clears his throat, and when Merlin is looking up again he is glancing at him through his lashes. ''So... what did you come up here for?''

Merlin stiffens and he can feel his cheeks and ears heating up again. Why hasn't he thought up a clever excuse? ''I- I couldn't sleep and... you've been so busy these last few days that...''

Arthur grins at him. ''Did you miss me Merlin?''

''What? No! Come off it, you prat!'' Merlin exclaims indignantly, although, yes, that was exactly what he was doing. ''I was glad for all the peace and the... uhm...''

''Yeah?'' Arthur's smile is broad, and Merlin huffs a little.

''Okay, I might have missed you a little,'' he admits.

Arthur bites his lip then, squinting at Merlin with his head tilted. He seems incredibly young in that moment. He reaches out and takes Merlin's left hand, rubbing over the tattooed skin on the back of it. Merlin tries to pull away, feeling awkward and embarrassed, but Arthur holds fast.

''Merlin?'' he asks, searching his face with uncertain eyes.

Merlin looks away with a grimace. ''It's just... it's ugly,'' he mumbles.

Arthur doesn't say anything, just keeps rubbing Merlin's hand. ''I hate that you had to have it done,'' he says after a while, ''But it's just a bit of ink. It doesn't make you a different person, and it doesn't make you ugly.''

''Are you... have you never been afraid?'' Merlin whispers.

''Afraid of what?'' Arthur asks.

''Of my magic.''

Arthur gives him an amused look. ''Why would I be afraid of that? Should I be worried about clouds becoming dragons or of butterflies?''

Merlin looks at him sharply then. ''You... you remember?'' he asks breathlessly, because Merlin does. He can remember these early, golden summer days and Merlin inventing new tricks to show his friend who seemed oblivious to just how Merlin did it, still believing in the magic of storybooks and adventures.

''Of course I do,'' Arthur says. ''Even though I only later realised what it actually was you were doing.''

''I didn't really know what I was doing either, back then,'' Merlin admits. ''It was just a part of me, something I had always been able to do, like running or talking. I didn't know it was bad and you-'' He smiles at Arthur shyly. ''You always seemed to really like it.''

Arthur entwines their fingers and pulls Merlin towards him. ''I did,'' he whispers against Merlin's lips, and Merlin sighs, and then he just lets whatever this is between them pull him forward into the kiss.

It's soft at first and gentle, oh so gentle, with Arthur still holding Merlin's left hand, and the fingers of his other slowly stroking up Merlin's arm, until they reach his shoulder, and Arthur's thumb starts rubbing against Merlin's collarbone. There is still a question in it, like Arthur asking permission before his hand moves up Merlin's throat, taking hold of his jaw and angling his face for a deeper kiss. Merlin's mouth opens in a groan and Arthur takes advantage, letting his tongue push forward to lick at Merlin's, still somewhat hesitant and almost uncertain, while Merlin's heart feels like it might jump out of his chest.

When Arthur pulls back, his facial expression is one Merlin remembers well, and when he opens his mouth it's exactly the same thing he asked Merlin the first time.

''Are you sure?''

Over ten years ago Merlin had just nodded, much too excited to find any proper words, but now he gives himself a second to contemplate the question. The answer is still the same though.

''Yes.''

There's no question what he is agreeing to, what they are about to do. They are no teenage boys anymore, but to Merlin it still feels like it's his first time – and in some regard it is. He lets Arthur pull him closer again, his broad hands stroking firmly up and down Merlin's back, pressing him against Arthur as he plunders Merlin's mouth. The hands sneak under his shirt then, roaming over naked skin and it feels good, surprisingly good and strangely secure. He is safe with Arthur, Merlin realises, because Arthur would never hurt him.

With that realisation Merlin feels himself relax, his tense muscles giving in, and he is flooded with a new wave of arousal. He fists his hands in Arthur's shirt and bites at his lip and then there is nothing hesitant in their kiss anymore as Arthur groans into his mouth and the kiss turns hungry and demanding and filthy.

Merlin is hard, and he can feel Arthur's erection rubbing against his groin in a deliciously teasing way, and then Arthur's grip turns firm, sliding from Merlin's back down to his arse, pressing them even closer together. Merlin's body arches of its own volition, like it has a mind of its own, and all Merlin can do is hold on tightly to Arthur's broad shoulders and kiss him some more.

''Merlin, god, Merlin. Merlin... Merlin,'' Arthur moans, like there's nothing as beautiful and perfect as Merlin's name. It makes Merlin brave enough to pull back and meet Arthur's eyes, which are blown wide with awe and arousal.

He swallows heavily, his eyes glued to Arthur's, and then he grabs the bottom of his shirt and pulls it up and over his head. For a moment he feels self-conscious, but Arthur's cheeks are flushed, and he's biting his lip again, and Merlin is shuddering with how much that makes him want Arthur in return.

''You... you have entirely too many clothes on,'' he says with more cheek than he feels, but Arthur just smiles at him and pulls his own shirt up to reveal his flat, slightly dusted stomach and his broad chest.

He looks different, Merlin realises, more mature and somehow a little rougher. It's a good look on him though, and Merlin wouldn't exchange this hardened and slightly shrewd Arthur for the golden boy of Merlin's youth. After all, Merlin is wearing his own battle scars, visible and not, and he knows that this Arthur understands.

He puts his hands on Arthur's chest then, and slides his fingertips over the smooth planes, brushing over Arthur's hard nipples, making him catch his breath.

''I had bought lube,'' Merlin says quietly, ''and condoms. For your birthday. I was on my way back home, to tell you that I wanted you to fuck me.''

Arthur shudders. ''Merlin...''

''I know I'm really late, but... Happy Birthday, Arthur.''

Arthur grabs Merlin's arse with both hands then, kissing and biting at Merlin's lips and tongue, and rutting against him with what can only be described as desperation.

''You're a bloody tease, is what you are,'' he groans, and then pushes Merlin away by his shoulders, taking a few, panting breaths. He watches Merlin for a moment, then he says, ''I want to. I can't even tell you how much I want that, Merlin. Want you. But you-''

Merlin quickly presses his fingers to Arthur's lips. He looks into his eyes, these incredible pools of blue that always made Merlin feel like he had been lost and now has been found again.

''I want you to erase all that they've done,'' he says and he is proud that his voice only wavers a little bit. ''This is my choice.''

Arthur grabs his hand and kisses the tips of the fingers that are still pressed against his lips. ''I love you,'' he says, simply as that, and Merlin has to blink so that he won't ruin it all by starting to cry.

Arthur tenderly strokes over Merlin's torso then, starting at his shoulders and trailing his fingers down to the waistband of Merlin's jeans. He hooks his fingers inside and pulls Merlin forward, kissing him softly while he slowly starts to undo the buttons. He makes Merlin lay down on his bed, almost like in Merlin's dreams, but this time he doesn't have to wait for Arthur's touch in vain.

Arthur's hands are strong and incredibly sure, and there are callouses which make Merlin wonder if Arthur is still fencing. Its a heady mixture of new and familiar, making Merlin feel excited and secure in equal measure, and all his fears of not being able to enjoy it are blown away. This is nothing like having sex for money, like sleeping with men who disgust you to earn your keep, because, for the first time in a decade, this is about Merlin's pleasure, Merlin's wishes and the man Merlin loves.

And then Arthur slides a hand up the inside of Merlin's thigh, and mouths at his hipbone, and Merlin stops thinking about anything but Arthur and how incredibly talented he is with his tongue.

When Arthur takes Merlin into his mouth, he feels like he might cry because it feels so good. Arthur takes one look at him and doesn't bother with teasing but swirls his tongue around Merlin's glands and then sucks him right down, pressing his tongue against the thick vein on the underside of Merlin's cock. It only takes a few strong pulls and the view of Arthur with his golden hair in disarray and his flushed cheeks hollowing around Merlin's cock, to make Merlin buck inside Arthur's mouth and spill his seed with a wrenched cry of pleasure.

For a moment he lies there, panting and almost dizzy, and thinks that he'd had no idea that all his life had been missing was Arthur Pendragon sucking his cock.

When he opens his eyes again, Arthur is looking at him from in between Merlin's wantonly spread legs, his chin on one of Merlin's knees, with the leg hugged against him and lazily stroking Merlin's thigh. He's still in his jeans, and he looks like a god.

''Uhm, do you want to...'' Merlin croaks, blushing when he feels his cock twitching in interest again.

Arthur presses a kiss to the inside of Merlin's knee and trails the fingers of his free hand up Merlin's thigh to his arse. ''Oh, I definitely want to, Merlin,'' he says with a smirk. ''I never had so much fun unwrapping my birthday presents.''

''Well then I'm sorry it took me so long,'' Merlin says, wriggling his hips a little.

But Arthur just stares at him - right at Merlin's face - with a tender smile, and then he says, ''It was worth the wait.''

A little later, Arthur takes his time preparing Merlin, and when Arthur's tongue strokes over his furled entrance Merlin's cock becomes hard again immediately. No one ever did that to him, and it feels incredible. Merlin is glad that he can have this at least with Arthur, for the very first time and out of his own choice. When Arthur lubes up one finger and slowly presses inside him, Merlin feels almost languid with pleasure and not ashamed when his body responds to it curling against his prostate.

He pushes back, wanting more, wanting Arthur, and after a moment he dares to whisper, ''Please, Arthur... I need-... I want-''

''What, Merlin?'' Arthur asks breathlessly.

''More,'' Merlin pants. ''You.''

Arthur gives him another finger first and then another, stretching him further while Merlin bucks his hips impatiently, begging, ''God, Arthur, please.''

Arthur forehead is pressed to Merlin's stomach and he is nuzzling his rock hard cock, whispering endearments into his skin.

Soon, Merlin. Soon. Don't want to hurt you. Love you. So beautiful. So perfect. Never letting you go again.

Then Arthur finally pushes inside him, propped up on his arms above Merlin and bending his head down to capture his lips in a desperate kiss. His arms are straining under his own weight and he looks glorious, all sweaty and ruffled and breathless. Merlin is so full of Arthur it almost hurts, and when Arthur starts moving, stroking inside of Merlin just right and making it so good, he thinks he'll go mad if he doesn't come right now, but still wanting that perfect torture to go on forever. The gaping hole inside of his soul is slowly closing, as something that has been missing for too many years settles back where it belongs.

Merlin looks up at Arthur then, at his friend, at the man he has become, and he finally feels whole again.



As always in early summer, Arthur wakes up when the first rays of morning sun crest over the building on the opposite side of the street and fall through his bedroom window. He blinks against the sudden brightness, and shifts under his blankets before he becomes aware of a warm weight that's pressed to his side and that's snuffling slightly against his chest. When the realisation hits him that it is Merlin who's lying next to him, his head pillowed on Arthur's chest and an arm slung around Arthur's waist, he freezes for a moment. The memories of last night readily flood his mind, of Merlin's shy looks and hot kisses, of him spread out wantonly on this very bed, reacting to Arthur's every touch with desperate moans and pleading sighs. He'd looked so vulnerable and so beautiful like that.

Carefully Arthur brings his arm up around Merlin and runs his fingers through the black mop of hair tickling his chin. He has always loved petting those stubborn curling strands, which look all wild and are so soft to the touch. Merlin snuffles a little bit more, and it makes Arthur smile – probably all dopey, but Merlin's still asleep and no one will see.

The last days have been hard on Arthur's patience, with Merlin giving him longing glances but shying away from any form of touch, and Arthur has always been an incredibly physical person with Merlin. Maybe because there had been so little physical comfort for Arthur to be had before Merlin came along. Now that Merlin has become part of this little family of theirs, Arthur has quickly fallen back to treating him like he did all those years ago and when he realised that Merlin didn't want that, it hurt. Arthur had reacted the only way he knew how, by retreating behind a polite mask and keeping his distance from Merlin as much as he could.

Looking down on Merlin's sleeping face, Arthur understands now that Merlin has just been incredibly afraid. Afraid of a form of physical contact that, for years, had only brought him shame and pain. Afraid of opening up when he's lived inside his shell for so long. Afraid of Arthur seeing him differently now, of being rejected and discarded. It makes Arthur's heart ache to think how alone Merlin must have been for such a long time, and he pulls Merlin's warm and pliant body against his, holding him close and vowing to never let him slip away again.

He knows Merlin has woken when his body becomes stiff like a board and his breathing, calm and deep a moment before seems to stop all together. Arthur carefully lets his arm fall down to the small of Merlin's back, keeping it a warm and reassuring presence there, above the sheets. When he turns his head, Merlin has his eyes screwed shut and he seems to be biting the inside of his lip.

''Merlin,'' Arthur says softly. ''It's all right. It's just me. You're safe.''

For a second Merlin turns even more tense, but then his body sags and the breath he's been holding leaves him in a rush of warm air that makes Arthur's skin prickle.

''Are you okay?'' Arthur asks and then, painful as it might be, he starts, ''Do you-?'' Regret it, he doesn't say, but Merlin understands him anyway because he looks up then, eyes wide and earnest and almost a little pleading.

''No,'' he says. ''No, Arthur.''

''Okay,'' Arthur breathes, bringing his other hand up to stroke over Merlin's cheekbone, down to the corner of his mouth. ''I'm- I'm glad.''

''So...'' Merlin ducks his head a little and looks up at Arthur through his long, black lashes. ''Did you like your birthday present?''

Arthur looks at Merlin - naked, with the sheets pooling around his hips and his long, lean muscles under the pale skin that Arthur has explored every inch of last night – and he feels his half-hard cock twitch in interest again. He swallows before he croaks, slightly breathless, ''Yes. It was... very nice.''

From the pretty blush on Merlin's cheek he knows exactly what he is doing to him and Arthur reaches for him, with his heart beating fast and his blood rushing in his veins, when there is a bump at the door and then Alex's happy, little voice calling, ''Daddy!''

Arthur's eyes jump to Merlin's and they are probably as wide as his own, but before any of them can say a word or come up with an escape, the door flies open and Alex comes rushing into the room in his crocodile pyjamas, Mr. Bear firmly tucked under one arm. He stops short in front of the bed, looking puzzled for a moment, and then he squeals, ''Daddy, Daddy, you've got Merlin in your bed!''

Arthur is pretty sure his head is red like a tomato, and he stutters, ''Uhm, yes... you see... Merlin couldn't sleep and so he came to sleep here.''

Alex grins, totally unfazed. ''Can I sleep with you too? Can we all cuddle?'' And he climbs up on the bed, plopping down between Arthur and Merlin with a bright smile.

''Won't Mr. Bear feel lonely if you don't sleep with him?'' Arthur asks reasonably, and for a moment Alex frowns. Then he declares, ''He can sleep here too, with Kilgharrah!''

Merlin looks at him with his eyebrows raised and mouths, Just retrieved him from the cupboard, but Arthur just shrugs. There is no way in hell he will tell Merlin that he and Kilgharrah have become a bit of friends in the last years, offering comfort in times of need.

Merlin grins and then he turns to Alex and says innocently, ''You know Alex, this is really a good idea, why don't we all sleep together from now on?''

''Yay!'' Alex yells and then starts jumping up and down on the mattress. When he lets himself flop down again, he looks at Arthur and asks, ''Why are Merlin and you naked, Daddy?''

Arthur chokes, and then he quickly pushes Alex out of the bed. ''Because we felt very warm,'' he says, ''And you better get ready for school now, or you'll be late and then you can't drive with Gwen.''

He hears Merlin's chuckle behind him, when he watches Alex run out of the room under more enthusiastic screams. He shakes his head and grumbles, ''Why don't we all sleep together, Merlin? I really hate you right now.''

''I thought you loved me,'' Merlin says softly.

Arthur knows he's trying to tease, but there is a note of uncertainty in it, and Arthur turns around to him and pulls him close, into a soft kiss.

''That too,'' he says, smiling against Merlin's lips.

*

Gwen has always taken Alex to school with her, and she still does, but it has become incredibly awkward in the mornings now. Arthur feels bad about it because Gwen is his friend and she has always been such a great help. He has even asked Lance how the situation could be solved, but his friend had just shrugged and told him that Gwen had to come around in her own time.

When Arthur opens the door this morning he asks her if she wants to come in for a cup since she's a bit early. Gwen fidgets a little and then, with a look to the dining room where Merlin and Alex are sitting, she tells him she'd rather just wait. Arthur sighs, and decides to pull out the big guns.

''You haven't been over in a while. We've missed you,'' he says with a warm smile.

''Oh,'' Gwen looks down at her shoes, obviously uncomfortable. ''I've just been busy, you know, and seeing as you don't need me for babysitting anymore...''

''Gwen, it might be true that I'm not so much in a tight spot these days, you know I had planned some down time after the last case, but that never kept you from coming over anyway.

Gwen pulls a face and pointedly looks over his shoulder, and when Arthur turns around he sees Alex hugging Merlin goodbye after Merlin has given him his lunch-box.

''Let's just say I can see I'm not needed anymore and I'd rather not play third wheel in whatever it is you are doing, Arthur. I'll wait in the car.''

''Gwen!''

But Gwen is out the door already, and Arthur sighs. He feels as if he has acquired an ex-wife without ever having married in the first place.

''Give Aunt Gwen a hug and a kiss, will you?'' he tells Alex when the boy hugs him on the way out the door. ''I think she needs it.''

''Okay, Daddy,'' Alex says cheerfully, and then runs down the stairs to Gwen's car with a wave.

*

Arthur is just about to close the door when another car pulls up in the space Gwen has just vacated, and a tall, ginger haired man gets out, raising his hand in greeting.

''Leon,'' Arthur says a little confused but smiling. ''What brings you out here?''

Leon waves what looks like a paper file and waggles his eyebrows at him while he takes the stairs two at a time. ''I've got news for you,'' he says with a smug smile, brushing past Arthur. ''But first I really need a cuppa, if you don't mind.''

''Course not. Coffee or tea?''

''Whatever it is you're having.''

Leon's been over often enough to make his way to the kitchen without direction, but he comes to an abrupt halt when he finds Merlin still sitting at the breakfast table.

''Oh, hello,'' he says somewhat surprised but recovering quickly. ''You must be Merlin. I'm Leon, a friend of Arthur's.''

He steps forward with his hand outstretched and Merlin gingerly gets up to shake it. Arthur realises that not only is Merlin nervous about meeting new people, but that he must have guessed that Leon is Arthur's friend from the Yard, and that he's a bit intimidated by that fact.

With the introductions made, Leon asks Arthur whether they should go to his office, giving him a meaningful look. But Arthur glances at Merlin and then shakes his head. ''No,'' he says decisively, ''Lets make ourselves comfortable. Alex is in school, and this is about Merlin after all, so I think he should hear what you've got to say.''

Leon nods in agreement, and Merlin apprehensively sits back down again, pulling at his fingers and keeping his eyes on the table top. Knowing that Leon is a good guy, Arthur gives his friend a nod and then excuses himself to put the kettle on again.

Bustling around in the kitchen he is still close enough to hear Leon when he says good-naturedly, ''It's good to finally meet you, Merlin. Arthur has told me a lot about you.''

''Yeah?'' Merlin mutters. ''I'd thought you would know all about it already, like from my file or something.''

Leon laughs. ''I meant more about you personally than about your case. I'm not officially involved with it, so that's why I can help Arthur a little with his own investigation. I'm friends with Percival Newman though, one of the officers on your case.''

Arthur can just about imagine Merlin's reaction, when there is a pause and Leon says, almost like an explanation, ''The tall, somewhat silent guy. Not that other arsehole. That's Valiant.''

Arthur sneaks a glance at Merlin from the corner and sees his eyes widen, and the tell-tale blush creeping up on his face. ''Oh,'' Merlin says, ''Yeah, that one was a bit of a fuckwit.''

Leon nods, grinning over his whole face. ''Exactly.''

The kettle blows and Arthur pours the water over the tea. He picks up a plate of muffins and the teapot and makes his way back to the dining room.

''I thought if we talk about corpses we might at least have a snack with it,'' he says with a wink and then innocently looks from Merlin to Leon. ''What are you two grinning about?''

''Oh, you know, we just bonded over our mutual hate for Valiant,'' Leon says amused.

Arthur looks at Merlin with raised eyebrows. ''That fuckwit,'' he says.

Merlin's eyebrows shoot up, but when he sees how Leon and Arthur are both grinning at him he gives in, and they all start to snicker.

''Okay,'' Leon says a moment later, taking a sip from his cup and grabbing a muffin. ''Now to the good news.'' He looks at Arthur appraisingly before he continues, ''I have no idea how you did it, but we got the permission to dig up those dead boys' bodies. We started with Mordred and there is a match of DNA with the scarf.''

''Yes!'' Arthur bumps his fist on the table, rattling his teacup. ''I knew it!''

''What scarf?'' Merlin asks with a confused frown, and Arthur looks at him grimly.

''The scarf Aredian tried to strangle you with. We had Percival send it to the labs and draw what DNA samples they could get from it. That's why I wanted to exhume those corpses. To see if any of the DNA of the other boys matches with that on the scarf, which would indicate very strongly that Aredian strangled them with it too.''

For a second Merlin looks shocked, and he involuntarily touches his throat, where the ghost memory of those ugly bruises still lingers.

Leon gives him a sympathetic smile. ''We only have the match of Mordred's DNA so far, but that combined with Nimueh Greene's testimony already proves Aredian to be a murderer,'' he says. ''It looks good for you Merlin.''

Then Leon looks back at Arthur and now his face takes on a weird expression. ''There's something else,'' he says and Arthur frowns.

''What is it?''

''Well,'' Leon starts uncomfortably. ''There's obviously some of Aredian's DNA on the scarf as well.''

''Yeah.'' That had to be expected, seeing as Aredian was the one who used the thing again and again.

''It has a very close similarity to Mordred's,'' Leon says. ''It seems Aredian was actually the boy's father.''

''What?'' For a second Arthur is stunned. ''Fuck,'' he mutters, and then looks up at Leon. ''He killed his own son?''

''It seems like it,'' his friend says heavily. ''Whether he knew it or not. You said the boy was an orphan who never knew his father, right?''

''At least that's what Nimueh told me,'' Arthur acknowledges. His brain is already running further, to what Aredian's housekeeper told him, to Alice saying Mordred had said he met someone who knew his parents. ''Maybe Mordred found out,'' Arthur says contemplatively. ''Maybe that's why he went to Aredian in the first place, because he was looking for his father.''

''And found him in a man who has used and prosecuted his kind for over a decade?'' Leon asks.

It seems cruel, and even more so when one takes into account what Aredian did to the boy. Arthur's sigh his heavy when he says, ''You can't choose your parents.''

''But,'' Merlin speaks up and his voice is wavering a little, ''If Mordred was Aredian's son, why would he call me by that name? While he... you know.''

''I don't know,'' Arhur says, although he has to admit he has a few ideas, one worse than the next. ''At least one of the others he might have killed was a prostitute too, and Nimueh said Mordred called Aredian an old pervert.'' Arthur gives Merlin an uncomfortable look, because he really doesn't want to ask him this, especially in front of Leon, but it's important to get this story straight. ''Did Aredian ever...?'' He trails off and Merlin blushes in mortification.

''I... I have no idea,'' he mutters, shooting an embarrassed look at Leon. ''He didn't treat me like his son if that's what you're asking, but he... he liked to punish me. He really liked that a lot.''

The idea of Aredian doing such things to Merlin sends a wave of rage through Arthur, but he balls his fists and takes a deep breath, telling himself to get over it already. Merlin's past won't be changed by his petty anger and jealousy.

''So did Aredian...?'' Leon grimaces.

''Have sex with his own son?'' Arthur asks and shakes his head. ''We will probably never know. But I sure as hell will tell the court about that.''

''What about the others?'' Merlin asks. ''You said there were others.''

Leon nods, taking a deep breath. ''We have the DNA examples of Galahad Gordon already but the lab isn't done with them yet. There is still some kind of delay with Pelinor Ramsey, some fuck up with the papers, I don't know, but we'll clear that up and anyway, we've got Aredian with this one already.''

''Pelinor Ramsey?'' Merlin asks, shocked, and it's clear that he has heard that name before.

''Yeah,'' Arthur says. ''Do you know him?''

Merlin shakes his head. ''I've heard of him though. He... he used to work at the Chalice.''

Leon and Arthur exchange a look.

''That makes a lot of sense, actually,'' Leon says. He looks at Merlin uncomfortably before he turns to Arthur. ''You think Nimueh knew what Aredian was planning?''

Yes, Arthur thinks, she knew exactly what Aredian was doing, but he says, ''I'm not sure. But when Pelinor Ramsey ended up dead and Aredian set his eyes on Merlin – how could she not have made the connection?''

''But why would she help Aredian?'' Leon asks sceptically. ''She's a sorceress herself. And the man killed her nephew. What would be her motive to help him re-enact that murder?''

''Survival,'' Merlin says, and when Arthur looks at him his face has become blank, but his eyes speak volumes. And Arthur knows Merlin is thinking of how far he has gone to ensure his own.

*

Before Leon goes he takes Arthur to the side. ''I don't know who it was you blew sugar up the arse, Pendragon,'' he says quietly, ''but I thought I just let you know. Percival said they had been told to wrap up their investigation. Apparently the crown court will hear the case within the week, if your theory proves right.''

Arthur's eyes widen, then he curses. ''That meddling old man.''

Leon looks at him surprised. ''I'd thought you'd be glad for an early court date.''

''Now that we've got that kind of evidence?'' Arthur asks grimly, ''Of course I am.'' Then he mutters, ''But this is his way of sending me a message.''

''A message?'' Leon asks confused. ''From whom?''

''My father,'' Arthur sighs, rubbing at his eyes.

''Your father?'' Leon gives him a worried look. He doesn't know the whole story, but he knows enough. ''So what does it mean?''

Arthur looks at him pained before he says, ''That I am still his son.''

*

Later that day, Merlin comes along when Arthur drives over to Alex's school to pick him up. It's a beautiful, sunny day and they have agreed to celebrate the new evidence in Merlin's favour with another visit at Madam Rose's, the rude Chinese restaurant, and maybe have a walk in the park afterwards. They put the ball in the car so that they can have an impromptu game if they want.

There's a great song on the radio and Arthur is humming along, drumming his fingers on the steering-wheel, and when he hears a small huff of laughter and looks up to the side, Merlin is looking at him with a smile that's full of fond amusement, open and beautiful, just like Arthur remembers it from all those years ago. He can't believe the turn his life has taken within barely more than two weeks. He can't believe he was lucky enough to find Merlin twice.

They park the car at the curb and him and Merlin both get out, just as the bell rings. A little later, small children pour down the steps and into the schoolyard, screaming and laughing in their delight of a free afternoon and probably making plans of building forts and playing footie with their friends already.

When Arthur sees Alex coming down the steps, he crouches down and spreads his arms, smiling as Alex runs towards him with his hair flying and his eyes shining brightly.

''Daddy! Merlin!'' he cries happily, and for a moment Arthur really doesn't understand what's happening.

There is a split second where he wonders what Valiant is doing here, at Alex's school, and then there is a sudden sound, like a very loud pop, and something hits him, right in the chest. The force of it makes him fall backwards, down on the ground of the school yard, and he has the vague thought that he must look utterly silly, and then, that it really shouldn't hurt that much.

The sound comes again, and suddenly everything is brilliantly, frighteningly clear. Arthur is aware of every single thing around him. The screams of the other children. The bright blue sky above him. The tiny little stones in the tar next to him. The burning fire in his chest where a bullet has ripped up his insides. And Alex. Alex on the ground next to him, half covered by Merlin's body. There's blood on Alex's cheek, and Arthur can't breathe. He feels like he's drowning. He tries to call his son's name, but all that comes out of his mouth is a gurgle and something warm that tastes like blood.

His arm feels to heavy too move, but he tries to inch his fingers forward, trying to reach his son, when he hears Merlin's strained whisper, ''Stay down Alex, god please, stay down.''

Alex head turns then, and Arthur can see his face. His eyes are blown wide with fear.

''Daddy,'' Alex says and Arthur smiles because his son is alive, and that's all that matters.

''Arthur?'' he hears Merlin's voice, panicked and anguished, but he can't really see him, everything becomes hazy, and all he can see is the painfully bright sky above him. There is a breeze on his face, tickling his forehead, and he blinks as his eyelids become heavy.

His last thought is that he's glad he got to kiss Merlin before it's all over.

Chapter Text

Merlin is sure that he will never be able to burn the memory of Arthur's lifeless body from his mind. It was quiet. Although he knows it can't really have been, since there were people running and screaming and police cars and ambulances rushing to the crime scene. But to Merlin, everything was still. There was just Arthur, lying on the ground, with his eyelids fluttering and a line of blood running from his mouth. He was smiling.

When the paramedics rushed towards them and started an incomprehensible dance of medical equipment, of chest tubes and oxygen masks and syringes, the sound finally came back with full force, and Merlin realised that he was holding a wailing and screaming Alexander to his chest, his arms wrapped around the boy so tightly as if he was afraid he might come undone if Merlin would not keep him together.

Two of the men hoisted Arthur's body on a stretcher, arranging and holding up a tangle of tubes that all seemed to be running into Arthur. Then they rushed him away; and Merlin was left sitting there, on the ground, next to a small, reddish brown spot that was Arthur's blood, which had been safely inside him just this morning and was now smeared over the pavement in an obscene display of mortality.

A moment later Merlin became aware of a hand on his shoulder. He looked up, and saw the doctor who had handled Arthur's body like that of a ragdoll. Merlin only now realised that it was Lance.

''Are you alright? Alex isn't injured, is he?'' Lance's voice was worried and harassed.

Merlin shook his head. He had made sure of that, by stepping in front of Alex and shouldering that bullet away, he had made sure that Alex wasn't hurt. Merlin had still been too late though, he had still failed. Because he had not been able to save Arthur.

''Come, Merlin,'' Lance said quietly, and started to guide him away from Arthur's blood. ''You and Alex can ride with us.''

*

And that's how Merlin came to be here, in the back of an ambulance with Alex tugged against him and Arthur's too still, blood-smeared body stretched out on the gurney in front of him. Arthur's face is half-hidden under an oxygen mask and tubes, so many tubes, and his skin looks waxy like this isn't Arthur at all. The medics have stripped him down to his waist and Merlin gets a glimpse of an angry red hole in Arthur's chest; it's hidden under a piece of plastic which doesn't look like it can keep the life inside of Arthur.

Lance is bent over him with two others, working hectically and snapping commands at them.

''The bullet hit his lung, but there is no exit wound'' he hears someone say, and that sounds bad, really bad, and Merlin can't think further to how this might end.

Alex is clinging to him as if Merlin is his lifeline, only sniffling slightly into his shoulder, now that the exhaustion and the mild sedative Lance gave him are taking their toll. Merlin holds on to him, this sweet little boy, who is Arthur's, and who he'll keep safe at any cost.

Because Merlin can't save Arthur. He can only helplessly watch him die.

*

The ambulance comes to a stop, and Arthur is unloaded into the hands of more people with serious faces and blue scrubs. Lance is shouting orders at them, and then Arthur is rushed away, vanishing through the winged doors of the emergency room, and Merlin's heart plummets. He needs to be with Arthur. It seems essential. As if as long as Merlin has his eyes on him, Arthur will stay alive.

He scrambles out the back of the ambulance, Alex still in his arms, and stumbles, nearly falling if it wasn't for Lance there, grabbing Merlin by the shoulder to pull him back. It's like a sting, and Merlin hisses, making Lance turn to him with a frown. He takes his hand from Merlin's shoulder and stares at it in shock. It's covered in blood.

''Merlin?'' Lance says urgently, ''Merlin, were you hit? I thought you said you were okay!''

Merlin looks down at Lance's hand and then at his own shoulder. There's a rip in his crimson t-shirt and a trail of blood is running down the back of his arm.

''It doesn't hurt,'' he says unable to care, because it doesn't, he feels nothing, only that crushing, suffocating fear that is drowning everything else out.

Lance grabs him and pushes up his sleeve and then he curses, while Merlin looks at the gash of raw tissue in his upper arm, with complete detachment. ''Okay,'' Lance says grimly, ''This looks like it's more of a graze and didn't hit anything major, but it's still bleeding too much for comfort and you'll definitely need stitches.''

He pushes Merlin towards the doors Arthur has gone through a moment ago, and then waves at a nurse hurriedly. The young man rushes over and Lance nods at Merlin's injury, asking him to take care of it. The nurse takes hold of Merlin's arm carefully, but then he suddenly hisses and draws away in what looks like revulsion, staring at Merlin's tattoo.

''You're a sorcerer,'' he spits, and Merlin flinches back like he's been struck, instinctively hugging Alex closer against him, as if he has to shield the boy.

''Shut your gob and take care of his injury!'' Lance growls at the nurse before he runs off towards another room, ''Or get your fucking arse out of my emergency room, because I can't deal with your bigotry while my friend's drowning on his own blood.''

''Arthur,'' Merlin whispers pleadingly, and Lance must have heard him, because he turns around briefly, looking at him with kind but serious eyes.

''I'll do all I can,'' he promises.

Then he is gone and Merlin is left with a scowling nurse who pushes him towards an examination room and proceeds to clean and stitch his wound with a stony expression. When he's done he simply gets up and walks away, leaving Merlin and Alex without a word of direction, never mind comfort.

''Where is Daddy?'' Alex whispers, his voice wobbly and his eyes big with worry.

''I- Lance is taking care of him,'' Merlin says, trying to sound calm and sure when all he feels is gut-wrenching fear.

''Will he be okay?'' Alex asks again, and Merlin squeezes him against his side, trying to make his voice work when he answers.

''Yes. You don't have to worry, everything will be okay.''

He picks Alex up and the boy immediately clings to him, wrapping his arms around him and burying his face against Merlin's neck. Merlin steps out into the hall, looking for someone who will be able to tell him where Arthur is, what's happening, and what Merlin is supposed to do now. The part of his brain that is still able of rational thought tells him that Arthur is probably in surgery somewhere. They probably want to get the bullet out of Arthur's chest, and Merlin is pretty sure that they'll have to cut him open for that.

He finds a nurse's station and asks the woman behind the desk if she knows anything about a patient named Arthur Pendragon. Her eyes turn sympathetic when she looks up at him and Merlin can only assume that he doesn't look his best.

''Are you a relative?'' the nurse asks in a friendly tone, but when Merlin shakes his head her face turns apologetic. ''I'm sorry, sir, but we can't give out that kind of information to non-relatives.''

Merlin frowns at her dumbly. ''No,'' he says desperately, ''You don't understand. I'm his friend. His... his best friend. I was there when it happened. I was with him in the ambulance, and they just had to stitch me up.'' He hoists up Alex a little. ''This is Alexander, his son.''

The nurse gives Alex a sad, little smile, but then turns to Merlin and says, ''I'm sorry, sir. But those are the regulations.''

Dread fills Merlin heart, because... what is he supposed to do now? ''What about Lance? Uhm... Dr. DuLac? Is he still in surgery?''

The nurse frowns now, and her smile becomes decidedly stiff. ''I really can't give you any further information, sir. If you would please step away now, there is a waiting room down the corridor if you want to stay.''

She pointedly turns back to her files then, and Merlin is left standing there with a child in his arms and a gaping maw of fear in his chest. He looks around, but there is nobody else there who'd look at him or seems inclined to help him.

He starts walking down the corridor in a daze, holding on to Alex who, with a more and more increasing whine, asks him, ''Merlin? Merlin, where is Daddy? I want my daddy, Merlin!''

The boy starts to cry again when Merlin finally finds the waiting room and sinks down in one of the chairs, rocking the small body and mumbling, ''I know, Alex, I know, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry...''

Mortified Merlin feels his own tears spill over, and he buries his face in Alex's blond mop of hair. He feels like he's been shipwrecked and Alex is the single thing left to keep him afloat. Somewhere in this hospital Arthur is fighting for his life, and Merlin is not there to be at his side. And then it hits him; somewhere in this hospital Arthur could already be dead.

*

This is how Morgana finds him – how much later he wouldn't be able to say – sitting there crying without a sound, with Alex curled up against him, the boy's blond head in Merlin's lap where he fell asleep some time ago.

''Merlin!'' she cries, and when he looks up at her, his first thought is that this can't be the Morgana he's met some days ago. That woman was arrogant and poised and dressed to the nines. This woman is a wreck of emotions with red-rimmed eyes and her hair hanging in her face. ''Where's Arthur?'' she asks, as if it was Merlin's fault that he couldn't present him at her request.

''I don't know,'' Merlin whispers in anguish. ''They won't tell me anything. They won't tell me- I don't know. I don't know where he is or what is happening to him. I don't know if he is...''

Dead.

He looks at her imploringly, pleading her to understand that it's her who has to help him, that it's her who has to find Arthur.

Morgana's eyes narrow and a familiar anger flickers in their depth, ''They won't tell you?'' she growls, ''Well that's unacceptable, and I will damn well tell them so!'' And then she turns around, stomping out of the room, muttering, ''And then I will shove Arthur's emergency contact note under their nose and they better tell me every damn thing there is to know, and if they know what's good for them it'll be that Arthur's gonna be alright!''

When she comes back a few minutes later, she has gotten back her composure somehow; maybe screaming at nurses and threatening doctors is what she needed to cope with this.

She sits down next to Merlin and takes hold of his hand, looking at him with sombre eyes.

''Here's what I know,'' she says. ''Arthur was shot. The bullet hit his lung and grazed his spine. It was apparently very difficult to get it out, but they managed to do so and they have hope that his spine wasn't too badly damaged. They can't really say yet. But the damage to his lung was worse. He's still in surgery, and they'll do all they can, but-'' Morgana's voice breaks for a moment before she soldiers on, ''It's still up in the air. He lost a lot of blood too, and if he makes it out of surgery, it will probably take a few days until they can say whether he'll pull through.''

Alive, Merlin thinks, he's still alive.

He says, ''I couldn't save him.''

Morgana frowns at him. ''Of course not, Merlin, there was nothing you could have done!''

He just stares straight ahead, unseeing, his mind replaying that few short moments when he saw Arthur frown, saw Valiant raise a weapon, heard the shots. He moved instinctively, his magic burning under his skin, trying to get out. He'd desperately tried to reach for it, but it was like clawing at rock bottom. He'd seen how Arthur was hit. The surprised expression on his face. And then there was a second shot and Alex was still running and it was like Merlin was seeing the bullet, and he just dived.

But he had not been able to save Arthur.

''Everything happened so quickly. I wasn't fast enough and I could only catch the bullet that was aiming for Alex. If I'd had my magic- why couldn't I reach it? I damn well could when it was only my own sorry life on the line!''

Morgana stares at him in shock. Her eye fly to the bandage on Merlin's arm and her eyes widen even further. ''You- god Merlin, you are a bit mad, aren't you?'' she says, but she bows forward and kisses his cheek, and there's a whispered 'thank you' fluttering over it.

*

All that they can do then, is wait.

More people arrive in the next hour. Leon steps into the room looking pale but collected. Morgana rushes forward when she sees him and throws her arms around Leon's neck. While he seems a little surprised, he pulls her close without question, stroking her back and mumbling into her hair.

A little later Gwen runs in, with her curls flying, and Merlin stiffens, all too aware that he wasn't on her list of favourite people even before this mess. As soon as she sees him though, she comes over and grabs him, hugging him so hard he thinks he might break something, while she mumbles ''Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you...''

Merlin feels overwhelmed by the invasion. He is glad to not be alone anymore, especially since Morgana's presence at least provides him with information about Arthur's condition, but he's too numb to answer their questions, and too distraught to draw comfort from their presence.

They seem like a close-knit group. Obviously, they all know each other well and care deeply for Arthur, having been in his life for the past ten years. Merlin knows that Arthur isn't his anymore – maybe he never was – but he feels like his life is draining away with Arthur's blood and he is unable to comprehend how life can still go on for them when everything has exploded and is drifting apart like dust in space.

When Morgana and Gwen ask him if he wants to come with them to the cafeteria, he just shakes his head. He's not sure he ever wants to eat again, and Alex is still sleeping half in his lap. Merlin doesn't want to disturb him.

A moment later Leon gets a call from work and excuses himself as he steps out of the room, leaving Merlin alone with his ghosts and nightmares once again.

And so Merlin is the only one there when Uther Pendragon enters the room, all tall and imperious, looking around with a frown on his face until his eyes get caught on Merlin. Uther has become an old man, Merlin thinks, and the years haven't been kind to him, but he is still an imposing figure and his eyes are as sharp and piercing as they always were.

''Merlin,'' Uther says, his mouth curling in what Merlin is sure must be disgust.

Even though he lived under the man's roof for so long, Merlin never had a close relationship with Uther Pendragon - hell, Uther didn't even have that with his own son. But he had been a presence in Merlin's life for pretty much his whole childhood and, while Uther was strict and distant, he could be friendly and sometimes even kind. The last time Merlin had seen him, he had smiled knowingly at Merlin and told him he expected him to make sure Arthur's birthday party didn't escalate too badly.

Now he's looking at Merlin as though he's something the cat dragged in after explicitly having been told to keep her messes outside. Merlin searches for a feeling of hurt or anger in his heart, but he finds he really couldn't care less what Uther is thinking of him right now.

He raises his chin defiantly and fixes Arthur's father with a cold stare.

''Mr. Pendragon,'' he says in nothing more but acknowledgement. He won't let Uther look down on him, not when it's his fault that Merlin is so helpless and unravelling at the seams. When Arthur might still die, and Merlin could have stopped this, if it wasn't for his magic being incarcerated by people like Uther Pendragon.

Almost instinctively he puts a shielding hand on Alex's blond scalp where it is resting on Merlin's thigh. Uther flinches, and when Merlin glances down, he realises Uther has just seen his tattoo - for the first time. Bitterly, Merlin wonders if it makes a difference to him, whether he cares at all that Merlin was his son's best friend. Now the very thing that marks Merlin as a sorcerer is touching Uther's grandson - Uther's grandson, who has magic, and who, Merlin is pretty sure, Uther would have marked in the very same way should he ever find out.

Suddenly an incredible rage, born out of his helplessness and despair, fills Merlin up so fast he can't hold it in, can't swallow it down and he grits out, ''Are you satisfied now?''

''Satisfied?'' Uther asks, lifting one arrogant eyebrow. ''My son has been shot, Mr. Emrys, that is hardly something that brings me satisfaction.''

''I could have prevented this, you realise that?'' Merlin spits.

Uther frowns at him, obviously not wanting to lower himself to engage in conversation, but unable to avoid Merlin's bitter glare. ''What are you talking about?'' he asks, full of haughty disbelief, and that only makes Merlin more angry.

''I could have stopped Valiant! Could have stopped that bullet before it ever reached him! If I had my magic, if I could touch it and use it, I could have kept Arthur safe! He might not even have needed saving in the first place!''

''Ridiculous,'' Uther barks, ''Magic corrupts to the core; it can't be allowed to roam freely-''

''I could have saved him! And now he might die, he might still die, and it will be your fault! Because you are too stubborn and hateful to believe that there are people who want nothing but to protect those they love, want nothing but to use their gifts to help people!''

Uther is red in the face now when he booms, ''I have seen what it looks like when people like you are claiming to help others! Magic is vindictive! A sorcerer will tell you that she wants to help, but she won't tell you how dearly it will cost you! Sorcerers are liars and charlatans and evil!''

''They are human beings! Good and bad like everyone else! I had to leave my home and family because I kept a kid from crushing his head on the asphalt. That was my evil deed!''

''And here I thought it was you killing the Secretary of the State,'' Uther sneers.

Merlin blanches. Aredian's twisted head is swimming before his eyes. ''That was... I couldn't... he tried to kill me. Just like he killed all those others. He was evil! He was a monster and you probably wined and dined with him. With a man who killed his own teenage son because he was a sorcerer!''

''He was a respected colleague-'' Uther sounds uncertain now, but Merlin is too far gone to care.

''And now Arthur might die! Because of you and your bigoted politics! Well then you both have murdered your sons and have another thing in common!''

Merlin spits this at Uther, vicious like venom, because he has to get that rage and hurt and helplessness out, and Arthur might die, he might die, and Merlin can't-

''Merlin?'' Alex voice is a small whisper, scared and needy. ''Merlin, why are you shouting? Is something wrong with Daddy?''

The small boy has woken, probably from the angry voices, and is now sitting up, clutching Merlin's shirt in a death grip and staring past him at Uther. Merlin sinks down in front of Alex, hugging him against his chest and trying to calm his own breathing.

''No, Alex, no, everything is alright. Your daddy is fine. He's still with the doctors but he is fine.''

Alex nods against his shoulder, mumbling an uncertain, ''Okay.'' Then he suddenly asks, ''Merlin? What's wrong with grandpa?''

''Hmm?''

Alex points over his shoulder and when Merlin turns around Uther is lying on the floor gasping and clutching a hand to his chest.

''What the-!?'' Merlin scrambles up and runs over to Arthur's father who looks at him with panicked eyes. ''Mr. Pendragon? Mr. Pendragon, are you alright?'' He realises that this is a really stupid question, because obviously Uther isn't, but this is just more than Merlin can deal with right now.

''I'm- I'll go and call a nurse,'' he assures an ashen looking Uther, and then runs out, looking around and trying to remember which way he came before. He runs up the corridor in one direction, finds only an emergency exit and turns back around. It feels like an eternity when he finally sees the nurse station, although it can't have been that long.

''Please, I need help! There's a man in the waiting room, I think he's having a heart-attack!''

The nurse looks up in alarm but thankfully reacts immediately. Without further question she calls for a doctor and then rushes up ahead of him, down the corridor. Merlin follows quickly, hoping he didn't leave Alex alone to watch his grandfather die after he just saw his daddy get shot. He comes running back into the waiting room on the nurse's heels when-

He stops short, staring at the scene in front of him in disbelief and growing apprehension. The nurse throws him a look and rolls her eyes, but crouches down next to Uther, who's sitting on the floor with Alex holding his hand.

Uther doesn't just look better, he actually looks well - physically at least. His face is a display of shock though, of fear, and maybe just a little bit of wonder.

Merlin stares at him and Alex, feeling his skin prickle from the magic, and all he can think is, Oh shite! and No no no. Not again.

He whispers, pleading and desperate, ''Please... he's only a child!''

Uther looks up at him then, and Merlin knows that he knows. There is no doubt at all in his expression. Then he says, ''I have no idea what you are talking about, Mr. Emrys. I'm feeling better already, so I guess it was false alarm.''

Merlin stares at him uncomprehendingly. Because Uther Pendragon might be many things but he's not a hypochondriac and Merlin knows what he has seen. He knows what he is feeling right now: the magic that still lingers in the room, curling around a sleepily blinking Alex like a purring cat.

The nurse takes Uther's vitals and frowns a little. ''Well your pulse is a bit high and erratic. I'd rather have a doctor check you over.''

The fact that Uther doesn't object speaks volumes, he would probably shrug it off if he hadn't lain breathless on the floor a few minutes ago, thinking he's about to die. The nurse helps him up and leads him out of the room, but before the door falls shut behind him, Uther throws Merlin a calculating look over his shoulder.

''Oh god,'' Merlin whispers when they are gone, sinking down into a chair. He looks up at the little blond boy who is biting his lip. ''What did you do, Alex?''

Alex looks at him wide-eyed and confused. ''I just sat next to grandpa and took his hand. I didn't want him to hurt and I didn't want him to die!'' His lip wobbles again, and Merlin quickly pulls him into a hug. ''Did I do something wrong?'' Alex whispers, and Merlin squeezes him closer.

''No, no, you did nothing wrong. You were very brave, and I'm sure your grandpa will be fine.''

''Like Daddy?''

''Yes,'' Merlin says with a small, slightly forced smile. ''Like Daddy.''

*

When Morgana comes back and Merlin tells her what happened she flips.

''That hypocritical bastard!'' she hisses, and crumbles her empty paper-cup in her hand until there's only a small white ball left. She's shaking, Merlin realises, and he thinks it's probably more from fear than from anger. Well, probably both.

''Don't worry, Merlin,'' she says fiercely, raising her chin. ''I'll talk to him!''

Her eyes are blazing and, before Merlin can say anything, she's out the door again, stomping down the corridor on what are probably four-inch heels. Merlin shoots Gwen a worried look, but she just shrugs and holds out a paper cup to him with a small smile.

''It's black, because I had no idea how you take yours. But I thought you might... well it's what you are supposed to do, right? Sit and wait and drink shitty coffee?''

Merlin has no idea what he's supposed to do, but he can recognise the peace offering, and he takes the cup with a mumbled ''Thank you,'' taking a sip from the bitter brew without tasting much. It's something to hold onto at least.

They sit and wait in awkward silence. At one point, Leon comes back in with Percival in tow, which makes Merlin freeze, but that giant of a man just gives him a friendly smile and a nod. Apparently Valiant has been taken into custody, and the presence of the two police officers is required at the Yard. They excuse themselves, but ask them to call if there is anything new in regard to Arthur.

And then Merlin and Gwen are alone again.

Gwen fidgets slightly, fumbling with her own paper cup, obviously nervous. Merlin would say something, but feels too tired and wrecked to come up with any helpful words. Alex snuggles closer to him, half dozing, and Merlin realises suddenly how that must hurt Gwen. He's not about to deny the little boy the comfort he seeks just to spare her feelings though.

''I'm sorry, you know,'' Gwen finally says, staring down at the coffee in her hands.

''About what?'' Merlin asks.

''I- I wasn't... I didn't really give you a chance,'' she admits.

Merlin sighs. He doesn't really have the energy for this, but he doesn't want to alienate her any further either. Not when she is obviously trying.

''You feel protective of them, I can understand that,'' he says.

''Yeah.''

''But... I know I have a lot of... there's baggage. Issues and stuff. But they... Arthur has always been my family. And now Alex is too. If they want me. And I think they might.''

''You just- you were like a bolt out of the blue. Arthur had never told us about you. He had never mentioned your name. And you seemed so-'' she trails off uncertainly.

''Broken?'' Merlin interjects bitterly.

''I'm sorry.''

He shakes his head. ''It's water under the bridge. I'm used to people being suspicious and wary of me. It comes with...'' He holds up his hand, making Gwen flinch.

''It's not that,'' she objects. ''I just... all those bad things... I wish Alex would never have to learn about them.''

Merlin looks at her with a frown. He can understand that, to some degree. Alex has wormed his way into Merlin's heart so easily and he wants to protect him and shield him from harm, but Merlin knows that's not the way life goes.

''If I have learned something from what happened to me,'' he says carefully, ''it's that it doesn't help to keep silent about things that are bad or hurtful or uncomfortable. If you ignore them and hide them, you only end up hurting the people you wanted to protect in the first place.''

*

Alex is half asleep again when Morgana finally comes back. She's been gone for a long time, and she looks pensive and really tired. Anyone else would slump down in a chair, but Morgana sits down with her back straight and smooths down her skirt.

''I've talked to Uther,'' she says, glancing at Merlin. ''He promised me he would not say a word about... about Alex.''

''And you believe him?'' Merlin asks, because he's not sure whether he does.

She looks at him then, and there is something in her eyes - a vulnerability Merlin would never have expected to see in her. ''He-,'' she swallows, ''He told me that, even if I have no use for a father, I would always be his daughter, and that he loved me. He... he said he would protect Alex and me at any cost. That I do not need to be afraid anymore. And... and that he was sorry that I ever had to feel that way.'' She shakes her head like she's in a daze. ''I- I never thought I'd see this day. I haven't seen it, not once.''

Merlin suddenly freezes. ''You didn't see Arthur getting shot either, did you?''

Morgana shakes her head. ''No. Of course not. If I had I would have said something, obviously. Although after Percival showed me a picture of his partner just now, I realised I had seen Valiant firing a gun. But I didn't know where or when or at whom he was shooting. I see a lot of things, bad things, that don't make sense to me.''

Merlin has never been a seer, so he doesn't know what it's like, but this seems like a pretty useless gift. He doesn't tell her that, but maybe she can read his thoughts.

''We can't all have your level of power Merlin,'' she says with a hint of her old snark. ''And most of us need to study and learn, which is damn difficult when no one is allowed to teach.'' She sighs, and fidgets with a ring on her finger. ''Anyway, this is not all I came to tell you.'' She looks up at Merlin, and his heart misses a beat. ''Arthur is out of surgery. They have moved him to intensive care, and I could quickly go in to see him. They won't let anyone else in, at least not today. I'm sorry.''

She sounds like she is; she sounds almost guilty actually, and Merlin has to admit he has to swallow down a flicker of resentment. He's not mad at Morgana, not really. He's angry at all the nurses and doctors who don't understand how essential it is for him to be with Arthur.

''You can probably see him tomorrow Merlin, okay? For now, I think we should go home. Alex needs some rest, and you look like you might keel over at any moment.''

She sounds very reasonable, but the idea of leaving this place makes his blood run cold and his stomach turn. He can't leave. He needs to stay. Even if he's not allowed to see Arthur, he needs to be as close to him as he possibly can.

''I- Can you take Alex home?'' he asks. ''Maybe you and Gwen-''

''Merlin, there really is nothing you can do here right now.''

''No, I know, I just-... I can't leave him.'' Not again.

Morgana looks at him for a long moment, then she sighs. ''I think you are being stupid, but if that's what you want...''

She pulls herself up and turns to Gwen with a tired smile that doesn't really reach her eyes. ''All right, let's go home,'' she says. ''Get some sleep and some food. Why don't we pick up some take away on our way home? Alex, what's your favourite?''

Alex only reluctantly lets go of Merlin, but he's just too tired to really protest it seems, and Morgana promises him that he can skip school tomorrow and come back to the hospital.

When they are almost out the door, Morgana turns back to Merlin and says with an awkward look, ''There is another waiting room, down at intensive care. Just... if you want to be closer to him or something.'' She shrugs, but fails at looking casual. ''Look after him, yeah?'' she says, and before Merlin can ask her how he is supposed to do this, she is gone.

*

Merlin gets up after a moment, thinking he'll make his way down to the second floor where the intensive care unit is located. He's been sitting too still for too long already, so he takes a few detours, wandering through the corridors of the hospital, watching as they slowly start to fall quiet, as night falls and the hand of the clock inches its way through the hours.

He is drawn though, drawn to where Arthur is, feeling the pull in his heart as a painful throbbing. He just wants to hold his hand, just wants to kiss his forehead and tell him. Tell him what he was too much of a coward to tell him before.

He finally finds the waiting room Morgana has pointed out to him and sinks down in one of the hard plastic chairs. Then he waits. It's an excruciating night for Merlin, which sometimes feels longer than the ten years of separation between him and Arthur. His mind keeps spinning, pushing images of Arthur at him: how he was laughing in the car, how he was kissing Alex goodbye, how he looked at Merlin that morning, when they woke up in Arthur's bed, and how he had kissed Merlin softly, like a whisper, for what might have been the last time.

He must have fallen asleep at some point because Merlin wakes up when someone is shaking his shoulder rather forcefully. His neck feels stiff, and he can only feel one of his legs, but that all takes a backseat when he sees a nurse, looking down at him with a grim expression.

''I'm sorry sir,'' she says, ''But you can't just sleep here.''

''What?'' Merlin mumbles confused. ''Oh, no, I was just... I must have fallen asleep. I didn't mean to-''

''Well then, what are you doing here?'' she asks impatiently, waving her hand as if to wave away his words.

''I- I am waiting,'' Merlin says dumbly. ''My friend is here. In intensive care. He got shot.''

The woman grabs his arm rather rudely and accuses him, ''You're a sorcerer!''

Merlin swallows. ''Yeah. I am.''

Her mouth becomes nearly invisible when she presses her lips further together. ''This hospital doesn't treat sorcerers, and their presence on the premises is highly discouraged. People have complained about your presence. I have to ask you to leave.''

Merlin looks around. The room is as empty as it had been when he came in hours ago. ''I don't understand, there's no one here,'' he says, ''who'd complain?''

''I don't have to justify myself to you. You are not welcome here, so please remove yourself!''

Stubborn anger boils up in Merlin, and he sits up straight and crosses his arms in front of his chest. ''No.''

The nurse narrows her eyes. ''I'll have to call security then.''

''Do what you want, but I'm not going to leave as long as my friend is here, fighting for his life!''

The threats weren't idle, it seems, because it takes only a few minutes until two men with roughly Percival's stature but nothing of his smile turn up. Merlin's heart starts racing. The walls are closing in as the men come closer to him with cold expressions on their faces. He grips the armrests until his knuckles turn white, but he knows he doesn't stand a chance.

''What is the meaning of this?'' an authoritative voice suddenly cuts through the room, and the two security guards as well as the nurse whip around, giving Merlin a glimpse of a slightly pale Uther Pendragon sitting in a wheel chair and staring them down.

''Sir, this man is a sorcerer. He was asked to leave but refused. We will remove him-''

''I know who and what this man is very well,'' Uther interrupts the man disparagingly. ''First and foremost he is a friend of my son. And secondly he is... '' Uther harrumphs. ''A friend of the family.''

Merlin gapes. He's sure he must actually look like a fish or something equally stupid and unattractive, but he can't bring himself too care when Uther Pendragon has just turned insane right in front of his eyes.

''Mr. Pendr- what?''

It seems Merlin isn't the only one who is gobsmacked.

''Now, I'm sure you all have jobs to do that don't include harassing Mr. Emrys here,'' Uther continues unimpressed. ''Or at least that's what the management of this hospital assures me of whenever I make my donations.''

That gets them moving. ''Of course, Mr. Pendragon,'' the nurse says with a simper. ''It was a misunderstanding. We didn't realise Mr...'' She sends him a glare behind Uther's back. ''Emrys was an acquaintance of yours. Is there anything else we can help you with?''

Uther looks her up and down coolly. ''I am here to see my son,'' he says imperiously. ''Mr. Emrys will accompany me.''

Merlin's eyes widen, and he can just catch his jaw before it meets his chest again. Then he starts to shake. Arthur. He'll finally be allowed to see Arthur. He couldn't care less whether it's with Uther Pendragon or the devil himself. At this point he'd sell his soul to anyone who'd have it for the chance to see Arthur.

Uther only looks at him silently for a moment, then he turns the wheel chair and dismissively commands the nurse. ''If you could show us the way now.''

The nurse is all too eager, obviously trying desperately to make up for her blunder, and Merlin wouldn't be surprised if she actually started to curtsey. He follows in their wake with his heart in his throat, until they reach a door with a window in it, showing a darkened room beyond.

''We can take it from here,'' Uther tells the nurse, and it's clear he will brook no dissent.

The nurse actually does curtsey a little, and scurries off with another, ''Of course, Mr. Pendragon.''

Merlin is left alone with Uther, who raises an eyebrow at him, demanding, ''Well? Maybe I could bother you to open that door, Mr. Emrys, seeing as I am a bit hampered at the moment.''

''Oh,'' Merlin blinks, ''yes, of course.''

He opens the door, stepping through and holding it open for Uther, but all he can see, all he can focus on, is Arthur. He's lying in the hospital bed, surrounded by machines, his upper body half raised and his arms resting at his side. The golden hair looks slightly dull, spread out on the stark hospital sheets and his pale face is hidden behind the intubation tube.

''Well?'' Uther asks again when the door falls shut behind him. ''What are you waiting for?''

It's true, the urge to rush towards the bed and Arthur is almost over-whelming, but Merlin remains frozen next to the door, giving Uther an uncertain look. ''Don't you-'' he starts, but Uther impatiently waves his hand.

''Believe me, Mr. Emrys, I'm all too aware whom my son would rather have at his bedside.''

Merlin swallows, but nods, because he won't deny it and he's pretty sure Uther wouldn't appreciate it.

He slowly makes his way to Arthur's bed. His chest feels tight and his eyes are burning when he looks down at the man he loves so fucking much, so much it might tear him apart. He looks broken, and that is wrong. Arthur is supposed to stand in the sun, laughing with his head thrown back and his eyes sparkling, not lie in a hospital bed with chapped lips and bruised eyes and too pale, waxy skin.

Gingerly Merlin picks up Arthur's hand. There's a needle in it, with an IV line leading to a drip bottle, and Merlin thinks that Arthur's hand has never felt this frail. He squeezes slightly and rubs over the indentation between Arthur's thumb and fingers. His heart feels heavy in his chest, as if it's about to drag Merlin down into some dark abyss, but Arthur's hand is his anchor. As long as he can still feel the slow pulse on Arthur's wrist, Merlin won't drown. And maybe, maybe Merlin can be Arthur's anchor; maybe he can keep him here in this world.

''I love you,'' he whispers, unable to care that Arthur's father is watching him from the back of the room silently.

He feels a surge then, and he almost staggers, as something hot and golden flares up inside of him, spreading through Merlin's body and then racing down his arm and to his hand where it is still holding on to Arthur's. He has to grit his teeth as his magic fights to get out, fights to get to Arthur and wrap him in a cocoon of golden light and warmth, to keep him safe and sheltered and make him whole again. He wants to, he wants to so much, and he begs his magic to understand, because it's not his fault that he can't.

When the rush of power abates, Merlin falls to his knees, pressing his forehead against the cool cloth of the bed sheet and Arthur's too cold hand. He's still shaking and his breath is laboured. He hears Uther's voice, but it's like it's travelling through cotton wool.

''Mr. Emrys? Mr Emrys!'' and then, ''Merlin.''

Merlin chokes out a sound between a laugh and a sob, because he feels like he's been ripped to shreds, but he's still holding Arthur's hand and now there's Uther Pendragon who sounds actually worried.

''I'm... I'm fine,'' Merlin whispers. ''It's just,'' he swallows, hesitating for a moment to admit this to Uther, but then he says, ''my magic wants out, wants to make Arthur better, but- The repressants hold it inside, like a prisoner in my own body. It doesn't like it.''

''Your magic?'' Uther asks, and Merlin can hear the shock and the fear. ''It should be neutralised by the medication!''

Merlin shakes his head. ''That's not how it works,'' he says. ''The magic's still there, I just can't use it, can't take hold of it. Many sorcerers don't feel much of it, but I'm-''

''You are powerful,'' Uther says.

''Yes.''

''If your magic is so strong, can it overtake you?'' Uther asks and he sounds calm almost, interested. It's the weirdest thing, and Merlin wonders if Uther ever talked with a sorcerer like this before. Ever asked these questions, sought the knowledge.

''It's not an entity,'' Merlin explains, ''Nothing separate from me. It's a part of me, fuelled by my emotions. It wants to get to Arthur and heal him because... because-''

''Because you love my son.''

Merlin turns his head to Uther then. ''Yes,'' he says.

Uther sighs. ''Well, I guess it can't be helped,'' he says. ''And it's not as if I don't have a grandson already.''

Merlin gapes.

''He told me he was in love with you. Back then, when you ran away. Then he stormed out and never came back.''

Merlin says nothing. What should he say? It's not like he can honestly tell Uther he's sorry about that.

''I'm a stubborn man, Mr.Emrys. It's one of the things my wife used to despair about. And I think if... you might find you'll despair over it with Arthur from time to time. He's my son after all.''

Merlin smiles. He has despaired alright, many, many times. But just like he imagines Arthur's mother did, he loved Arthur all the more for the strength of his believes and his unwavering loyalty. Then again, Arthur has never persecuted a whole group of people, taking away their rights and leaving them open to abuse of their fellow citizens.

''I'm not easily swayed from what I believe to be right,'' Uther continues, ''but I can't deny that recent events have opened my eyes to another side of the situation.''

Merlin snorts out a bitter laugh at that.

''You can't deny that magic is dangerous! It was magic that killed Arthur's mother.''

Merlin squints at him. ''Arthur said you told him he had killed his mother.''

Uther's eyes widen. ''I told him no such thing! It was the sorceress Nimueh who was at fault. I never blamed Arthur, not for a second.'' He raises an eyebrow at Merlin who looks at him stunned. ''Yes, I believe you made her acquaintance as well.''

''She's...'' Merlin shakes his head, he can't even say what Nimueh is. Selfish? Evil? Misled? ''But not all sorcerers are like her. And you blamed a whole group of people for her crime, for her mistake!''

''I'm not asking for your forgiveness, Mr. Emrys,'' Uther says sharply. ''I did what I thought was right.''

''Well it wasn't,'' Merlin says bitterly.

''No,'' Uther concedes after a moment of silence. ''Maybe it wasn't.''

*

Arthur doesn't get better. Actually he gets worse. The next day Lance tells them with a worried and much too apologetic face that Arthur has developed pneumonia due to the lung injury. He's on medication, but his body is weak. When he tells them that they have to keep believing and be strong, Merlin wants to punch him, and that's saying much as Lance is one of the nicest people he has ever met.

Merlin spends as much time as possible with Arthur. He practically lives in the hospital, and Morgana has long given up trying to drag him back to the house. She just brought him a duffle bag of clothes and a toothbrush. She and Gwen also force him to eat and he does so reluctantly. But as soon as he can, he's back at Arthur's bedside, wrapped in a gown and wearing gloves, because the last thing that Arthur needs are more germs.

He just holds his hand and talks to him. Telling him about Alex and about all the things that happened to Merlin himself during the ten years they were apart. He tries to concentrate on the good things, like Will and Freya, people he met that showed him kindness, however small. His magic keeps up a constant pressure, exhausting Merlin quicker than he's used to. It's still fighting him, but it seems more content when he's at least close to Arthur and not at the other side of the hospital, where Morgana drags him to have lunch.

Merlin doesn't believe in any gods, but he keeps wishing and hoping and begging for whatever powers might hear him to help Arthur, to not take him away from Merlin. But Arthur's condition deteriorates, and so Merlin finally faces Morgana, sitting in the furthest corner of a half-deserted cafeteria.

''This could work, Morgana,'' he rasps. He knows he looks not much better than Arthur at this point, what with the rings under his eyes and the weight he has lost, and the dishevelled hair he can't be bothered to comb. ''It worked with Uther.''

Morgana's face hardens. ''Alex only kept his heart from failing completely. It's not like he could actually heal the heart disease. What makes you think this would be different with Arthur?''

''Because I will be with him,'' Merlin whispers urgently. ''My magic wants to heal Arthur. It's all I can think about. I feel like I might explode soon if my magic can't get to him and...'' He waves his hand around indicating some form of magic.

''Cuddle him?'' Morgana asks sarcastically.

Merlin glares at her. ''I think Alex could work as a conduit. I can't do magic, but he can. He can heal, which to be honest was never something I was very good with either.'' Merlin grimaces, remembering how he tried to heal a sparrow that had been hurt by flying against his bedroom window when he was five and ended up setting it on fire instead. ''I think you normally have to have a lot of knowledge how the body works and stuff, but Alex obviously is a natural. And my magic responds to him. I think I could let it flow into him and give him the power he needs.''

Morgana looks at him sceptically. ''And what if it goes wrong?''

Merlin sighs, and then has to blink against the tears that always seem so ready these days. ''You heard Lance,'' he says quietly. ''They don't think Arthur will make it.''

What do we have to lose, he doesn't say. He also doesn't believe it will go wrong. He is sure that his magic is trying to tell him something, almost like a subconscious knowledge.

''And what if it works?'' Morgana asks, and she looks almost guilty now, because of course she wants it to work. She loves Arthur too, and doesn't want to lose him either.

''What do you mean?'' Merlin asks, looking away.

''Oh, come on, Merlin, don't play stupid!'' Morgana hisses, suddenly angry. ''You said it yourself, the doctors believe Arthur won't make it, it looks that bad. What do you think they will assume when he suddenly recovers? We can't risk anyone finding out about Alex!''

Merlin looks her squarely in the eyes. ''They won't. Because they won't even know he was there. And if they think there was magic going on...'' He shrugs. ''Well, there's a registered sorcerer who has been sitting at Arthur's bedside for days.''

''Merlin!'' Morgana exclaims wide-eyed, but then thankfully lowers her voice again after a quick look around. ''You are on bail! You already are in to your neck, even with all that stuff coming out about the government sponsored prostitution ring, now that Valiant is talking. But if they think you did magic...''

Merlin stares her down with a determined look, and he is aware that he echoes Arthur's own words from only a week ago.

''I don't care.''

*

He doesn't tell Alex exactly what he is planning. Merlin might be confident about their chances, but it's not like he isn't scared of failure, and he won't put that responsibility on Alex's small shoulders. He just takes him to see Arthur, but this time he tells him to pull off his gloves and take his daddy's hand. Merlin does the same, but stands behind Alex, clasping both of his hands firmly on the boy's shoulders.

He can feel his magic sing happily, and it's almost as if he can hear Alex's response, an innocent bright bubbling against Merlin's palms.

''Alex,'' he says, ''do you believe in miracles? In magic and fairy tales and the power of love?''

Alex looks at him over his shoulder with earnest blue eyes and nods.

''Good.'' Merlin smiles at him. ''Then I want you to hold your daddy's hand very firmly and think of how much you love your daddy and want him to be well again. Want him to wake up and be able to play with you again. Go to the park and play footie, and sit at your bed in the evenings to read you a story...''

Merlin keeps on talking and, while he talks, he feels his magic rushing out of him. He tries to slow it down, afraid it might be too much for Alex, but it's like trying to stop a flood wave with your bare hands, and Merlin stands no chance. His magic bursts out of him, gloriously happy to be finally able to get where it has wanted to go for days – right into Arthur.

Merlin can see that Alex is feeling it, knows that something is happening, but the little boy raises his chin when a sudden whirlwind picks up his hair and just holds on to his daddy's hand faster, eyes determined and his mouth stubborn.

It's Arthur and Alex and they are both precious and Merlin loves them so much. He closes his eyes and just lets it all go: his magic, his love, his need for them, his longing, his hope.

He just lets it all go. Lets it all flood into them. Because, right now, Merlin is not afraid to die anymore.

Chapter Text

Epilogue


It's an unusually bright and sunny day for a funeral. The sky is cloudless and has that clear, incredible blue that seems almost unreal. There is a soft breeze rustling the trees, but apart from that it's quiet. The congregation is small if one takes the occasion into account, but Merlin couldn't care less about that. Those people who have become important to him are there. Morgana and Leon. Gwen and Lance.

Alex is standing next to him, right at the front, next to the gleaming casket. He is clutching Merlin's hand tightly while tears are slowly running down his cheeks.

''It's not your fault, Alex,'' Merlin says quietly, squeezing the little boy's fingers a little tighter. ''Some things can't be changed, not even by magic.''

Alex nods and sniffles, and Merlin crouches down and lifts the boy up, letting him press his tear-stained face into Merlin's suit jacket.

Morgana steps up next to him, and briefly puts a hand on his arm. She isn't one for public displays of emotion, and her black dress is as immaculate as the poised and regal expression on her face. ''It's not your fault either, you know that right?'' she says, with a quick, sad smile. ''Nobody could have prevented it. He just...'' She bites her lip. ''I guess it was his time.''

Leon comes over too, giving Merlin a small smile. ''I just heard it from Percival, Merlin,'' he says. ''I know this might not be the right circumstances, but I wanted to let you know as soon as I could. The charges against you have been officially dropped. You are a free man again.''

Merlin feels stunned for a moment. People have kept telling him that this would happen; that the evidence was too compelling, the scandal too huge. Still, Merlin can hardly believe that after ten years, he can finally throw off his shackles. Well partly at least. Merlin is still a registered sorcerer, and he still has the tattoo, but that, too, might change soon.

When Arthur was shot by Valiant, the whole mess made the news quicker than the government could control the damage, and everything came to light. How members of the government pretty much condoned and supported sexual slavery. How a former Secretary of State was a murderer and even killed his own son because he was a sorcerer. How there was actually a mass grave up in Leeds with young sorcerers who had tried to run, had tried to resist or simply had committed suicide because they couldn't take it. There is even evidence that the Prime Minister might have been in the know.

It apparently is more than even most of the more conservative citizens can take. If the polls have it right the ruling party is finished, and there will be a landslide at the elections next week like this country hasn't seen it yet.

Everyone can feel it. There is a new era dawning.

''Don't look so surprised,'' Morgana says softly, when he keeps staring at Leon without a response. ''I told you Arthur would get you off, didn't I? He kept his promise.''

Merlin swallows. ''Yes. Yes, he did,'' he says, his emotions threatening to overwhelm him. ''And I can never repay that. Arthur saved my life, it's as simple as that.''

''Somebody said my name?''

And there he is – finally – golden and glorious in the afternoon sun, but solemn in his black suit and stark white shirt. He's a little pale. The last days have not been easy for him, and he's not completely recovered yet. To Merlin though, he's the most beautiful thing under the sun, all the more beautiful for the fact that Merlin nearly lost him.

Arthur comes over and pulls Merlin into a soft kiss. It's just a brush of lips, the way they have become used to share in public, but it's still exhilarating to Merlin every time.

''Only you,'' Merlin mumbles. ''Only you would have the lordliness to be late to your own father's funeral, and come striding in as if it's to be expected that everyone would wait for you.''

Arthur rolls his eyes. ''I'm barely a few minutes late, Merlin. And I have you know that I've never been lordly in my life.''

There's snicker coming from Morgana, and Leon has developed a suspicious cough all of a sudden, and Arthur sends them one of his best glares. Too bad they don't work on Morgana, but at least Leon looks mildly chastised.

''And by the way,'' he says, and now he's actually starting to look incredibly smug, but Merlin is close enough to see the tenderness hiding in his eyes. ''I have a very good reason.''

When he looks at Merlin, there's that secret smile on his face, the one that's just for Merlin, and that says all the things Arthur still has trouble saying out loud sometimes. He does though. When they lie in bed at night he mumbles it into Merlin's skin, and when they sit in the grass in the park, watching Alex run around them with his kite, he hugs Merlin from behind and whispers it into his ear. And sometimes, when they have a fight – and they do – he looks at Merlin with an angry face and he says it, almost like an accusation.

I love you.

Merlin smiles back, and somehow that always makes Arthur blush a little – something Gwaine can't keep from crowing over when ever he's around. This time though, Arthur just nudges him. He indicates with his head at something behind Merlin, and Merlin turns and looks around, and then he sees-

''Mum,'' he whispers.

His mother is standing there, a few yards away, with more grey in her hair and more lines on her face, but with that same generous smile, those same loving eyes. His heart is a jumble of love and guilt and relief, of sadness and joy, and he has no words but this one.

''Mum.''

Hunith has even less, because she comes forward with a few determined steps and then she crushes him into a hug. He's taller than her now, and she feels small in his arms when he holds her close and buries his face in her hair.

''My boy,'' Hunith whispers. ''My baby.''

''Mum,'' Merlin says desperately, and then the words come back and he can't hold them in, they are running out of him like water from a well. '''I'm sorry,'' he chokes, because that's still the most important one. ''I'm sorry mum, I'm so sorry, I never meant for it to happen, please don't be mad at me, I'm sorry.''

''Oh Merlin,'' his mum gently pushes him back and takes his face into both of her hands, just like she used to when he was a child. ''I'm not mad at you, darling. I'm prouder of you than you can ever imagine. I know what you did. You saved another boy's life, and you didn't even have to think about it for a second. That’s just who you are. How could I ever be mad at you for something like that?''

Merlin shakes his head, not really able to look her in the eyes. ''You don't understand, mum. I did things, bad things, and... and depraved things-''

''Hush now,'' Hunith firmly shakes her head. ''That’s not important. What's important, is that you made it through all that, and that you are here now.''

*

The service itself is uneventful. Arthur says a few words, about how his father was a man who in the end was driven by his love for his family. Loving his wife and losing her might have led him astray, but his love for his children and his grandson brought him back to the right path in the end, and he tried hard to repair what he had broken and help those who he had hurt. Not everybody believed that he truly had a change of heart, but those closest to him had seen that his guilt was a heavy weight on his shoulders.

Merlin thinks that it might have been that guilt which finally proved too much for Uther Pendragon's heart. He feels sad, though he has to admit his grief is more for Arthur and Alex. Merlin himself has not quite been able to forget that it was Uther who forced Merlin to leave his home and family for ten years. There were others who supported his anti-magic policy, but it was Uther Pendragon who enforced it almost thirty years ago. He might not have condoned everything that people did in the name of this policy, but he had helped to built the foundation on which the hate and the injustice could prosper.

Uther has treated Merlin with nothing but earnest politeness in the last weeks though, and maybe one day Merlin can let go of the bitterness, at least for the sake of his family. He has found a new one and has gotten back his old, and it's still amazing to him each day that he has become part of a group of people who accept him for what he is.

And then there is Arthur. He might still be recovering, because there are things magic can't heal, but, if Lance is to be believed, it's only a matter of time. He's got some physiotherapy and extended periods of rest to suffer, but Merlin's plan worked. Alex was able to heal Arthur with their combined love. Well that's how Morgana describes it to get a rise out of them, but Merlin tries not to react because, in the end, it was exactly that. It took a lot out of Merlin - he slept for two days afterwards - but when he woke up, there was Arthur.

''You're the biggest idiot I have ever met,'' he said, and Merlin smiled so broadly that it hurt.

''Well, you're the biggest prat I have ever met,'' he said, ''and an ungrateful one at that.''

''No,'' Arthur said, shaking his head and looking at him with serious eyes. ''Never that.''

And then he kissed him, and Merlin had to think that every kiss from now on would be unexpected. Because, for a while, he had thought that he had already received his last.

*

The wake is a lot more eventful, but then it's more of a barbecue than a wake anyway. Merlin sits down for a long talk with his mum, who insists that he tells her everything that has happened. He skirts around the more gruesome details, but he can see it in the tears in her eyes that she hears what he isn't saying. Gaius has come with her, and he's become an old man, which doesn't seem right. He hugs Merlin long and hard, but never pries.

Leon and Morgana excuse themselves first, and Arthur can't stop being smug about it for the rest of the day, because he insists that it was their shared worry for his life that finally brought them together. When Gwen and Lance drag them away from the others at one point to tell them that they have filled out the adoption papers, Merlin has to think that it's almost too perfect, but Gwen looks excited and radiant, and he is happy for her.

Their life isn't a fairy tale, because Merlin isn't Julia Roberts and Arthur sure as hell is too much of a prat to be Richard Gere, but Merlin is okay with that. Fairy tales are overrated.

He sits there, on their blanket in the park, watching Arthur and Alex goofing around with Alex's new puppy, watching his mum laughing at them, and Gaius shaking his head in fond amusement, and Merlin realises – in a moment of unshakable clarity - that he finally has found his way back home.