Harlequin's Slash Fic

Seven Steps

Title: Seven Steps
Author: Harlequin
Artists: The awesome tindu for the art, and the wonderful gealach_ros for the graphics.
Betas: The amazing asifidletyou, with admirable support from altocello and cinnatart on technical matters; Thank you, all! Remaining infelicities and misguided choices are alas my own.
Pairings/characters: Merlin/Gaius, with a full supporting cast of Alice, Arthur, Erika (OFC), Freya, Gwen, Hunith, Lance, Leon, Morgana, Teague (OMC), and sundry others
Rating: NC17
Word Count: 36,400
Warnings: Includes a secondary character death, as per canon. Also involves, as will be obvious, a significant age difference between the two lovers.
Summary: Merlin is an art student, working as an orderly at a Pendragon Care care home during the summer break; he falls in love with Gaius, one of the (temporary) residents. The feeling is mutual, but such an unexpected relationship is never going to be easy to establish when both men feel so diffident about their claims on each other. And that’s before taking into account the mutual antipathy between Merlin and Gaius’s beloved godson Arthur, not to mention a surprising addition to Merlin’s family, and Merlin’s grief over his best friend Freya being institutionalised…
Author’s notes: This all grew out of a Gaius/Merlin prompt on kinkme_merlin: ‘When Merlin signs up to be a summer volunteer at the local old age home, he never once expected to meet the great love of his life there.’ My first thought was, ‘Ooh! I could do that.’ Then I dreamt up Pendragon Care, and Gaius’s relationship with Uther and Arthur. And then… Well. All this happened!
♦ I would very much like to thank everyone who encouraged me along the way, and I’m especially grateful to my artists and betas. It’s just wonderful that so many of you feel kindly towards this rare pair! And really, as a writer, I feel I have an embarrassment of riches in collaborators here…
♦ A special thank you is also due to the_muppet for organising yet another brilliant paperlegends challenge!
Artist’s notes: Coming soon!
Story link: Read it here, at our Seven Steps website, or on AO3
Art link: art by tindu
Graphics link: graphics by gealach_ros
Disclaimer: We do not own these characters, and are only taking the liberty of playing with them for a time…

one

Merlin knocked quietly at the door, and paused; listened for a moment: nothing. The door was open, though, and he was expected, so he dared a peek around the jamb, and discovered that the room’s occupant was sitting in an armchair with his injured leg propped before him, reading a book, lost to the world. Merlin smiled, and watched for a moment: the morning sun glinting cool on waves of white hair, a worn old page being turned by instinctive fingers, blue eyes alighting on the words, the fingers absently lifting to push a very modern pair of silver half–moon spectacles back up his nose –

Perhaps glimpsing Merlin or sensing he had company, the man looked up with the barest hint of annoyance souring one corner of his mouth.

‘Good morning, Mr Bonham,’ Merlin said, respectfully muting his usual cheeriness a touch. ‘My name’s Merlin. I’m sorry, I knocked, but –’

The man was just looking at him now, staring intently over the top of his glasses.

‘I guess I knocked too quietly.’

A scowl abruptly contorted that otherwise genial face. ‘I’m not deaf!’

‘No. No, of course not.’ Merlin gestured at the book. ‘You were reading.’

‘Yes. I was.’

‘I didn’t want to interrupt. I hate being interrupted at the wrong moment.’ The man was looking somewhat mollified, so Merlin added a dash of hope to his smile, and turned to fetch the wheelchair. ‘Are you ready for your shower, Mr Bonham?’

‘Ah. Yes.’ That intent look was back, with a quizzical note added by the right eyebrow.

‘I didn’t expect you to be up already,’ Merlin continued conversationally as he parked the wheelchair and ensured the brakes were on. ‘I’m sure Gwen told me you were supposed to be in bed.’

‘I’m not ill!’ Mr Bonham protested. ‘I’m not even old. Not really,’ he added as Merlin looked towards him again – though all Merlin was doing was considering the logistics of shifting one man and a cumbersome cast; his entire leg was out of action. ‘Not old enough to be here, anyway.’

‘Of course not,’ Merlin murmured. ‘You’ve broken your leg.’

‘Exactly! I’ve broken my leg! In three places, no less! I needed surgery. But I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself.’

‘Of course you are.’ The partial plaster cast was enclosed in one of those hard plastic boots, so it would be relatively light, but the shape, size and rigidity of it would still make it clumsy. ‘Here, Mr Bonham. If you put your arm across my shoulders, and hold on, then we’ll swing you round…’

‘You know what defeated me? Seven steps. There are five steps up to my front door, and two steps down at the back, and they wouldn’t believe me when I said I could manage well enough on my own.’

‘On your own?’ Merlin echoed as he settled him into place.

‘Yes! What’s wrong with that? Some of us value our independence, you know!’

‘Mr Bonham, you didn’t get out of bed on your own this morning, did you?’

A defiant glance was undercut by a shred of guilt.

‘I’m an independent sort, too,’ Merlin said as he looked around the room. He indicated the top drawer of the tallboy: ‘Are your fresh clothes in here?’

‘Yes.’

‘It’s not like I don’t understand. But if you break the other leg as well, you’ll be stuck here for a horribly long time.’ Mr Bonham glared at him while Merlin quickly picked out sky blue boxer shorts, a spring green t–shirt, a navy blue robe. ‘What do you think?’ Merlin asked, displaying them in some sort of order.

‘Fine,’ was the terse response.

‘I think the colours will suit you,’ Merlin continued as he bundled the clothes up in the robe, and walked over to lay it on the man’s lap. ‘Bring out your blue eyes. And your bathroom gear? Oh yes.’ The usual place in the bedside cabinet. The nurses imposed some order, though Merlin wasn’t quite attuned yet with what they insisted on and what they let go. ‘Are you ready, then, Mr Bonham?’

After a moment, he cleared his throat. ‘Yes.’ They were halfway down the corridor before Mr Bonham spoke again. ‘Of course you have a point,’ he stiffly conceded. ‘I apologise.’

‘No need. I know they’ve been shorthanded here lately; that’s why I’m on board now. If you like being up and out of bed early, I can always come by your room first thing, soon as I arrive.’

‘Well –’

‘Promise I won’t help more than I need to. Just be there to catch you if necessary, yeah?’

The man twisted around to look up at him for a moment, quizzical again. ‘Who are you?’

‘My name’s Merlin,’ he responded easily. ‘Merlin Emrys.’

‘I see.’

They’d reached the bathroom now. Merlin had only done this a half–dozen times, but he knew what to do, and an air of unruffled confidence combined with a discreetly averted gaze did most of the work for him. ‘Can you undress your top half, Mr Bonham?’

The man sighed, and replied in a rather more subdued manner, ‘Yes.’

Merlin busied himself making sure everything was within reach of the shower chair, that the water was running at the right temperature. All of which was of course already fine. Then he turned to take the pyjama top and cardigan Mr Bonham had been wearing, and put them in a laundry bag. ‘Now, if you stand up as well as you’re able, and balance yourself on my shoulder, we’ll get your track pants and shorts down to your thighs, and I’ll swing you round so you can sit in the shower. Then we can deal with the shorts, I’ll get your cast covered up, and –’ Merlin took a breath, and grinned at him. ‘And that was far too much information all at once, wasn’t it?’

A hint of the scowl had returned. ‘I’m not stupid, either!’

‘No, of course not, Mr Bonham. I’m sorry. Well,’ he added, full of hope, ‘shall we get started, then? Let’s get you standing first.’

But the problem was – The problem was – Mr Bonham was staring at Merlin intently again, with those piquant blue eyes, so very focussed on him; his hand firmly wrapped around Merlin’s shoulder, seeming so secure on his feet despite the cast; and as Merlin bent to push down those shorts, his peripheral vision couldn’t help but encompass the man’s cock, the pink flesh hanging plump and heavy over a generous pair of balls – and Merlin shouldn’t have even noticed, but the problem was that the man’s cock was paying attention to him, too. It visibly thickened, and then it twitched in Merlin’s direction, before actually kicking out towards him – and Merlin couldn’t help himself; he really should have restrained himself, but he huffed a quiet laugh, and as he was helping the man sit down again in the shower chair Merlin smiled at him, and Mr Bonham’s mouth quirked in embarrassment and an echoing humour, so Merlin compounded all his sins by winking at him.

Well, from there, Merlin managed to be professional and removed, and Mr Bonham managed to be quiet and relatively quiescent, but it was a long forty–five minutes before Merlin was unhurriedly handing the man back into the armchair in his room. ‘All right, Mr Bonham?’ he murmured.

‘Yes,’ he replied just as soberly. ‘Yes, if you are.’

Merlin took heart, and smiled again, though not as brightly as was his usual wont. ‘I’ll see you first thing tomorrow morning, then…?’

Mr Bonham nodded once, decisively. ‘Thank you, Mr Emrys. I’d appreciate that.’

‘Thank you. I hope you have a good lunch!’ he called back as he left. ‘I’ll be back to take your vitals this afternoon.’

‘Yes,’ Mr Bonham wryly replied, ‘it seems that I do have a pulse.’

And there was a moment in which that sweet–sharp blue gaze caught his own, and Merlin’s heart thudded in relief and – and something that felt oddly like giddy delight, and that had him distracted for the rest of the day.

All of which only got worse when he was taking Mr Bonham’s vitals, and found that while his blood pressure was fine, the pulse in the man’s wrist was running significantly faster under Merlin’s fingertips. He commented on it as coolly as possible.

‘Oh good heavens,’ was the response, dry as a fine chardonnay, ‘I do wonder why…’

Merlin knocked quietly at the door again the next morning, and he peeked into the room to find Mr Bonham sitting on the side of the bed with his left foot dangling a few inches above the floor and his right stuck out ungainly in the cast. ‘Good morning, Mr Bonham,’ he said brightly as he walked in. ‘How are you today?’

‘I’m well,’ said the man, twisting round as soon as he heard Merlin, and tracking him with that blue gaze. ‘I’m very well today, thank you.’

‘I’m glad to hear it.’ Merlin surveyed him with a smile. ‘And I’m glad you waited for me.’ He tipped his head towards the bed, and then reached for the handheld remote. ‘That’s far too high for someone who’s essentially mobile. Shall we see if we can figure out how this works? I know all remote control technology is a form of dark magic, but surely we should be able to lower and raise the bed…’

‘Raise the dead…?’ came a murmured echo from the head bent towards his own.

Merlin guffawed and glanced at his new friend. ‘Yes, exactly –’ and he thumbed a button on and off, just quickly, just enough to make the bed quake for a moment, to prompt Mr Bonham to clutch at Merlin’s arm with one hand and the edge of the mattress with the other.

‘Oh, Mr Emrys!’ he cried, startled and amused in equal measure.

‘I’m sorry,’ Merlin was immediately apologising, reaching to steady him, hands reassuringly firm on his ribs and shoulder. ‘I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.’

Those blue eyes considered him thoughtfully. ‘Oh my… You’re quite the mischievous imp, aren’t you?’

‘Sorry.’ Though he couldn’t help but grin at their shared humour, because he suspected he’d judged this man perfectly aright –

‘Yes, perfectly. You mustn’t be gentle with me. I wouldn’t want that.’

‘No, of course you wouldn’t,’ Merlin quietly agreed. ‘All right now?’ he asked rhetorically. Though he left one hand balanced gently against the man’s waist as he powered the bed down far enough that Mr Bonham’s feet could reach the floor.

They were proper again as Merlin provided a shoulder to lean on so that Mr Bonham could shuffle over to the armchair. They were sober.

And once he was settled, Mr Bonham looked up at Merlin solemnly and said, ‘We seemed to get off on the wrong foot yesterday.’

Perhaps he should have remained sober, but Merlin couldn’t resist. He grinned, and retorted, ‘Well, that’s only to be expected when your right foot’s in a cast!’

Mr Bonham stared at him for a long horrible moment in which Merlin feared he’d been more flippant than charming yet again. But then a chortle welled up within the man, and he smirked happily. ‘Yes, exactly. And it literally is my right foot, too!’

‘We’re doing fine today,’ Merlin observed.

‘Yes. Yes, we are.’

Merlin nodded. ‘Got everything you need?’ But it was all there: the book, the water jug and glass, the silver half–moon spectacles. ‘Good,’ he said, as he turned to walk out.

‘You’ll come back, won’t you?’ came the cry behind him.

‘Sure.’ He turned again at the doorway, just his head. ‘I wouldn’t miss our shower session for all the books in the British Library.’

And Merlin left. But he could have sworn he heard the silently intoned reply, And neither would I.

They were quiet while Merlin got him into the wheelchair, and sorted out a set of clean clothes, speaking only when they needed to. They worked together at this task as if it were already familiar. Eventually Mr Bonham was sitting naked in the shower – naked but for a flannel, which Merlin had let casually drop over his genitals – and Merlin was crouched before him, easing a waterproof cover up over the cast. ‘Can you just lift your foot for a moment, Mr Bonham?’ he asked, when he found that part of the long plastic bag was snagged under the cast’s unwieldy heel.

The man obliged. And then he murmured, ‘Perhaps you’d better call me Gaius.’

‘Gaius?’ Merlin echoed with a smile, turning his head to consider him. ‘That’s unusual.’

‘And Merlin isn’t?’

‘There are a few Merlins around. I’ve never known anyone called Gaius before, except for…’ he had to scramble through old memories from secondary school. ‘Roman emperors! Wasn’t it one of Julius Caesar’s names, or something?’

‘That’s right. But that’s far too grand an association for me. It means happy. Joyful.’ He cleared his throat and added with a touch of irony, ‘Gay.’

Merlin’s grin widened, and he ducked his head to start taping up the bag around Mr Bonham’s thigh. Gaius’s thigh. ‘Joyful. That’s perfect.’ When he was done, Merlin let his hand rest where it was – on the hard covered cast, not on anything inappropriate, though even so he was being too familiar. ‘And you’ll call me Merlin, won’t you? No more of this Mr Emrys.’

‘Does that make you think of your father?’

‘Uh… no.’ Merlin stood, and offered the man – Gaius – an apologetic smile. ‘You all set there?’

‘Yes, thank you.’

He drew the shower curtain, and then wandered off with crossed arms, listening for a few moments to the fall of water, the adjustment in force, and then the heavy–soft pulse of it as Gaius ran the handheld showerhead over his own body. Once Merlin thought he wouldn’t be a distraction, he explained. ‘I never knew my father. And Emrys wasn’t his name.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘No, I –’ He shrugged, though obviously that would be lost on his companion. ‘I love my mother, I love her dearly, and I never felt a lack of anything – important.’

‘She must be a very special woman, then.’

‘She is.’ Merlin let a wistful moment go by. ‘I’d love to know what he’d make of me, though. I’d like to think he – might even approve.’

‘How could he possibly not be proud?’ Gaius asked bracingly.

Merlin guffawed. ‘I’m hardly the sort of son most men would want.’

This above all: to thine own self be true.

‘Ah. That’s sage fatherly advice, right there.’

‘Indeed.’ After a moment, Gaius said, ‘You strike me as someone who is his own self. Your father could want for nothing more, and hope for no less.’

He mused over that for a while, but Merlin wasn’t really in any position to know what his own father might have to say about the matter. ‘Do you have children?’ he eventually asked. ‘Gaius?’

‘Oh, no. Alas, no. Not the marrying sort, my dear.’

‘No. Well.’

A short silence felt unexpectedly edgy – which was soon explained by a diffident request from Gaius. ‘This is a horribly inappropriate moment to ask, but could you help me? I need to stand up from the chair, and I’m – I’m afraid to do so, with the tiles so soapy and wet.’

‘Of course. I’m sorry,’ Merlin offered smoothly. ‘I should have thought to offer.’

‘If you could just help me up, then I’ll lean on this railing here.’

‘You can lean on my arm if you want, or I can hold you. Whatever feels most secure to you.’ He stood there, keeping a wary half–eye on proceedings just in case, but Gaius seemed comfortable enough with him there, even while soaping up and rinsing off all his most intimate areas. ‘All right?’ Merlin asked once he’d turned off the showerhead and seemed to be done.

‘Yes. Yes, I think I’m ready for the drying cycle now.’

Merlin laughed, and went to fetch the towels.

‘So, I broke my leg,’ Gaius said, while they both worked at patting him dry. ‘What’s your tragic tale? What brings you to Pendragon Care, Chiswick?’

‘Paying off my student loans. Or some of them, at least!’

‘Ah. And what do you read?’

‘I’m an art student,’ he said with the apologetic shrug most people seemed to expect. ‘At the College in Kensington.’

‘An artist! Oh, that’s wonderful! That explains the colours.’

‘Sorry –?’

‘My clothes,’ Gaius said, gesturing towards the little folded pile that awaited him. ‘Other orderlies have simply taken the first items that came to hand. You coordinated them.’

‘Ah.’ Merlin thought about his choice today of the wine red shirt with the navy robe, and the dark green shorts. ‘Well, maybe I just wanted to make sure you’re looking your best.’

‘For whom?’ Gaius asked dryly.

‘For me!’ Merlin offered with a wink.

‘Oh!’ Gaius put a hand to his face, and turned away as best he could. ‘It’s so very steamy in here,’ he murmured, ‘you might suspect me of blushing…’

‘A bold thing like you?’ Merlin teased.

‘Bold?’ Gaius turned back towards him. ‘Well, then. Do you have someone in your life? A young woman, perhaps?’

‘No.’ Though Merlin knew Gaius would hear the equivocation in his tone. There was a longer, sadder, truer answer that he wasn’t sharing; not yet. ‘Anyway,’ he added, grinning up at Gaius again. ‘For me, now… it wouldn’t be a woman.’

‘Ah…’ And he was definitely blushing now. And interested. There was a piquant brightness in those blue eyes. But Gaius said, ‘Perhaps I should introduce you to my godson.’

‘Perhaps you should,’ Merlin returned, letting his tone grow fond. ‘Though what would you like to introduce me as, mmm?’

Gaius stared down at him in disbelief as his meaning dawned. ‘Oh! What a tease you are, Merlin Emrys!’

‘And you love it.’

‘Well, yes, I’m afraid that I do.’

On the following morning, Merlin went to collect Gaius for his shower – and was surprised to find that there was someone already in Gaius’s room, conversing far too familiarly to be medical personnel, though it definitely wasn’t regular visiting hours. Merlin hovered just out of sight by the door jamb, not wanting to interrupt, though he knew all too well that even warm–hearted Gwen grew mildly peevish when things got in the way of The Schedule.

It was a young man talking with Gaius – or talking at him, rather – in tones that were almost guaranteed to rub Merlin up the wrong way: privileged, authoritative, impatient. Gaius’s cheerfully mild murmurs in reply were as good as lost in the relentless flow. ‘I know you don’t like being here, Guy,’ the man was deigning to acknowledge, ‘but it’s only for a few weeks.’

‘Even a few days can seem like an eternity,’ Gaius observed.

‘I appreciate that you like to be independent, Guy, believe me.’

Merlin’s mouth twisted in annoyance. Guy, for god’s sake. This prat called Gaius Guy, with no thought of his dignity or undoubted preferences. Guy!

‘I’m sure I’d be feeling much the same in your situation,’ the young man ploughed on, obviously comfortable in the assumption that he would never be old and alone and unable to live where he chose. ‘I’m just glad that we could find you a room when you needed it. If you can be patient –’

‘It’s all right, you know –’ Gaius supplied.

And Merlin picked that moment to knock at the door and breeze in, though it soon proved to be rather inauspicious.

‘– I’ve found good reason to be content.’

Merlin stalled there, his mouth open and his arms all set for a hearty declaration – instead the words stuck in his throat, their edges snagging, while he dazedly wondered if he himself were the good reason. Meanwhile, Gaius smiled gently at him, and the young man – a tumble of fine golden hair expensively cut, and a dark suit exquisitely tailored – waited with a brow arrogantly raised.

Finally the words loosed themselves, which again may have been unfortunate, as what had seemed in rehearsal to be nothing more than deliberate shock–and–awe, became in the context of what Gaius had just possibly said, outrageously familiar. ‘Off with your clothes, then, old man!’ Merlin declared. ‘It’s your favourite part of the day.’

Gaius – thankfully – merely chuckled as if this were the most charming of jests.

The young man, however, was unimpressed. ‘Huh,’ he said, crossing his arms, and considering Merlin with a coolly assessing gaze. After a moment, he turned back to Gaius as if deciding that Merlin was rude and inexplicable, but mostly harmless. ‘Will you be all right, Guy?’

‘Yes, of course. I’ll be fine.’

‘Good. Then I’ll leave you to it.’ A curt nod served as the man’s farewell to Gaius; he strode out with a last steely warning glance at Merlin.

Gaius was sitting in the armchair with his hands cupped together in his lap; he smiled up at Merlin, and gently chided, ‘My dear, you shouldn’t…’

Merlin, meanwhile, had managed to stumble to a conclusion or two. ‘Was that your godson?’

‘Yes, that was Arthur.’

‘He’s an arse.’

Thankfully Gaius again was merely amused. He was taking this far better than might be expected, for after all why wouldn’t he take his godson’s part over that of someone he’d known for three days? But he remained silent.

‘I notice,’ Merlin eventually commented, as he belatedly started gathering clothes and bathroom gear; ‘I notice that you don’t bother explaining or defending him.’

‘Arthur hardly needs me for any of that.’

‘You weren’t serious about introducing me…?’ Merlin asked. ‘He is so not my type.’

‘And you’ve never been wrong about that before?’

Merlin glanced at him, and then brought the wheelchair over, positioned it and set its brakes.

When he reached to help Gaius stand, Gaius stopped him with a gentle touch to his forearm. ‘You shouldn’t treat him so dismissively, for your own sake, Merlin. You’ll be out of a job, if you’re not careful.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘He’s Arthur Pendragon. Son of Uther Pendragon…?’ When Merlin shook his head, Gaius explained, ‘Owner of Pendragon Care. Your employer.

‘Ah…’ Merlin nodded, and thought about it. There was really only one conclusion: ‘He’s still an arse.’

When he leant in close again, Gaius tapped his cheek as if mock–slapping him, but it was really far more like a fond caress. Merlin indulged himself for a moment, pushing in against Gaius’s palm… But then it was all friendly business–as–usual, even though Gaius cheerfully commented, ‘It is my favourite part of the day, you know.’

Merlin just laughed.

‘So, what’s with Arthur Pendragon?’ Merlin asked his two companions over lunch.

Leon’s wandering attention was immediately snagged. ‘He’s here today?’ Then, with the questions spilling over and obliterating each other: ‘What do you mean, what’s with him? Is something wrong? What happened? Is he all right? What did you do?’

When the onslaught paused, Merlin managed to stammer out something along the lines of, ‘Of course he’s all right. If you like that sort of thing.’

For a long moment Leon stared at him pensively; but then he turned to Gwen. ‘You didn’t tell me he was here today!’

Gwen huffed a laugh, and shook her head at the man. ‘If you’re very good, and don’t go chasing off after him,’ she said, ‘I’ll assign you to accompany him on his inspection tour this afternoon.’

‘Guinevere Thomson, you are the best ward manager I’ve ever worked for.’

Both Gwen and Merlin laughed out loud at such blatant flattery. ‘And you’re the best…’ Gwen paused, and assessed Leon teasingly. ‘No, actually I can’t say that. But you are the tallest nurse I’ve ever worked with. No contest there.’

Leon was grinning fit to burst as he turned back to Merlin. ‘So, where did you see him? What was he doing?’

Merlin was echoing Gwen’s shake of her head. ‘Seriously? You’re getting all excited over that prat?’

‘He’s not a prat,’ Leon protested. ‘He’s just –’

‘Misunderstood?’ Merlin supplied dryly. ‘No, he was being a complete arse to Gaius. Mr Bonham, I mean,’ he added with a quick glance at Gwen.

‘But Mr Bonham is an old family friend of the Pendragons, isn’t he?’

‘You’re not saying that excuses it…?’

Gwen was frowning with concern by now. ‘Is there a problem I should know about?’

‘Well, no – it was just the way he spoke to him. So bloody patronising. And he called him Guy! I mean, there was just no respect there at all.’

‘Arthur,’ said Leon – and paused as if he had to savour the name. ‘Arthur,’ he eventually continued, ‘is a very busy man, with a lot on his mind. He has responsibilities that you wouldn’t –’

‘No, I wouldn’t,’ Merlin cut in. ‘But I wouldn’t forget a few simple courtesies, either.’

Leon opened his mouth to retort, but Gwen took the opportunity to push her chair back and stand up. ‘You,’ she said to Leon, ‘be at my desk before three, and on your best behaviour.’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ he said with a grin, hardly even having to tilt his head to look up at her. ‘Thank you, ma’am.’

‘And you,’ she added to Merlin, ‘don’t be so quick to judge others rather than yourself. Dr Bonham does indeed deserve your respect, as does Mr Pendragon.’

‘Oh,’ said Merlin, suitably humbled. ‘Sorry.’

‘Apology accepted,’ she said loftily. But Gwen couldn’t maintain such a pose for long. She reached to gently touch the table by Merlin’s hand. ‘You’re doing good work here, Mr Emrys. Don’t fail us now.’

‘No, ma’am,’ he said in turn. ‘Thank you, ma’am.’

She turned and headed off.

Merlin and Leon considered each other for a long moment. ‘So,’ said Leon at last, ‘I guess I don’t have another rival in my hopeless quest, then.’

God, no,’ Merlin reassured him. ‘Not at all.’ And they shook hands on it. Merlin felt, as he’d felt from the first with Lance, that he and Leon could become great friends.

Before he left on the Saturday evening, Merlin dropped by Gaius’s room, and knocked quietly at the door. Gaius’s instinctively wide smile invited him in. ‘Are you heading home now?’ Gaius asked. He was sitting up in the bed, and he’d been reading, but he’d already slipped the bookmark in and put his book down. ‘It’s kind of you to come to wish me goodnight.’

‘It’s my weekend,’ Merlin said, just in case Gaius hadn’t worked that out. ‘I’ll be back on Tuesday, though.’

‘Yes, you must come back.’

‘Could I stay for a few minutes?’ Merlin asked, already heading for the armchair that faced the bed from across the small room. It was further away from Gaius than the other chair, but he could look at him directly.

‘Of course! Stay as long as you like. You must know I’d appreciate the company.’ Except that a hint of self–consciousness betrayed the fact that – already – not just any company would do. Not anymore.

Merlin sighed a little, and pulled his smallest sketchpad from the pocket in his scrubs. He absently began pencilling in an oval, broad at the top, and then tapering at the bottom – though not narrowing too much. Gaius had quite a strong, square chin. He murmured, ‘I understand I should have been addressing you as Dr Bonham.’

‘Oh…’ Gaius laughed dryly. ‘In another life, perhaps.’

‘Even if you’ve retired –’

‘I did recently retire, yes. Though I don’t suppose one ever stops wanting to heal others, just as you’ll never stop drawing. Did Sister Thomson chastise you?’

‘Only in the gentlest ways.’ Merlin added in the long proud line of the nose, the relatively neat nostrils. ‘So, where did you practice? What did you specialise in?’

‘I was a lowly GP, here in London.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes.’ Gaius regarded him quizzically. ‘Why do you sound surprised?’

‘Um. How did a lowly GP end up being godparent to the heir of the Pendragon empire?’

‘Ah…’ Gaius nodded, and sat back.

The light overhead suddenly highlighted his mouth and the bracket of lines down either side. Merlin quickly sketched them in while he had such clear details in view.

‘I was teaching up in Edinburgh when I first met Uther. He was one of my students – and in many ways we were completely dissimilar. Yet we became fast friends. I even introduced him to Ygraine – Arthur’s mother.’

‘Did that break your heart?’

‘Oh no; Uther was never mine to win or lose. But when they moved to London, I followed – and for his sake, that is true. There wasn’t much work at the time, so I filled in as a locum for a while – and discovered all the trials and tribulations of being a GP.’

Merlin scoffed a laugh. ‘It can’t have all been toil and trouble!’

‘No, there was the occasional moment of reward – reward and revelation, if you want to be alliterative! But I never looked back, or wanted for anything more.’

‘Even while Uther was empire–building?’

‘Even so.’ Gaius was quiet for a while, perhaps pondering his memories. ‘Uther is the archetypal self–made man. He came from origins as humble as my own.’

Merlin was frowning over the pencilled–in eye sockets now, which were prominent, but then forgotten again when the fond–clever glint of that blue gaze snared his. After a silence threatened to stretch on for too long, Merlin dared to prompt, ‘And yet you’re still friends? With Uther, I mean. Fast friends?’

‘Well, they do not forget me. Not even now that Ygraine is long gone.’

‘She left?’

‘She died.’

‘Oh.’ He wouldn’t feel sorry for Arthur. He just wouldn’t.

‘Perhaps at times, I am a little… disregarded. But I really don’t mind, do you see? Because I value my –’

‘– independence,’ they both chorused.

‘Exactly,’ Gaius agreed with a laugh.

‘Well,’ said Merlin, hinting at the shape of the long tumble of white waves framing the face and balancing that wide brow. ‘It’s not that I don’t empathise,’ he continued, as he stood. ‘I’m an independent sod, too,’ he explained, as he headed over to stand by Gaius’s side. Merlin showed him the sketch. ‘But you’re such a handsome old fellow…’

‘Heh!’ Gaius scoffed, though he was obviously pleased. ‘Your talent might make me appear somewhat attractive…’

‘I hope you’re open to the notion of interdependence instead.’

Gaius just looked up at him, mouth forming a silent oh.

‘Would you like this?’ Merlin was about to tear the sketch from the pad, when Gaius stopped him with a hand laid gentle on his forearm.

‘I’d rather have one of you.’

‘Oh. Oh, all right. Sure.’ Merlin grinned as a plan formed. ‘Tonight I’ll think of you, and I’ll look in the mirror, I’ll watch myself thinking of you – and I’ll draw what I see.’

Gaius was struck speechless again.

‘I’m declaring my intentions, Gaius.’

‘Oh my dear, you mustn’t jest…’

‘I’m perfectly serious.’

‘You can’t be that cruel. If you’re cruel, Merlin, then I’m lost.’

‘You’re not lost, Gaius, there’s no danger of that. You’ve been found.’ And he took Gaius’s hand in his own, and pressed a kiss to the back of it. Turned it over, and pressed a kiss to the palm, pushed his own cheek into it, cradling Gaius’s hand around himself. ‘Goodnight,’ he whispered, as he stepped away.

‘I’ll see you on Tuesday?’

‘I’ll be counting the hours!’

‘As will I,’ Gaius admitted. ‘Goodnight!’ he called as Merlin reached the door.

And Merlin turned back for a moment to wink at the man. Then he strode away.

two

Working full time was tiring, no matter how active he generally was, so Merlin had been desperately looking forward to sleeping in on the Sunday morning. It was with massive disappointment, then, that he heard the doorbell ring at about ten o’clock. He groaned, and burrowed under the pillow. It rang again, and he twisted away from the noise, tried to force himself asleep again, throw himself down deeper into oblivion. No such luck. His own senses wouldn’t be dulled, and whoever was at the door was refusing to be ignored. ‘Lance…?’ he tried in the general direction of the wall between their bedrooms – but then he remembered that Lance was off on another of his photographic quests for the most sublime ruins, the most intense landscape, the most picturesque bit of moss on the most texturally fascinating rock.

Merlin groaned and dragged himself across the bed, clambered to his feet, and shambled down the hall, running a hopeless hand over his mop of thick hair. No doubt he looked a fright, especially as he hadn’t deigned to grab a t–shirt on the way. Let them cope with him in nothing but a pair of boxers, if they were going to ruin his weekend. The bell rang once more, and he called out, ‘All right, all right!

But when he finally opened the door, then all was forgiven and forgotten, all was well – for it was his mother on the doorstep, it was Hunith – and in her arms, wrapped up warmly and held close, was his son, little Teague Kavanagh Emrys. He, at least, was fast asleep.

‘Teague!’ Merlin cried under his breath. ‘Oh my sweet little bundle o’ joy,’ spilled from his lips as he took the baby from Hunith, eagerness tempered only by infinite care. ‘Oh it’s been too long since last I saw you, my darlin’ baby boy. D’you think he remembers me?’ he asked Hunith, ‘D’you think he’ll know me?’ before crooning down into that beloved little oblivious face, ‘Oh, but you will, my sweet, you’ll know me again soon enough… We’ll create some new memories, if you don’t have any old ones.’

Hunith had followed Merlin inside, and was watching the pair of them as Merlin wandered in vague circles round the living room, holding Teague high against his chest and rocking him gently. She was smiling with a surrendering fondness, though she looked tired.

‘It’s great to see you as well, Mum,’ Merlin offered. ‘What a surprise! Wait –’ he added on a sudden fear. ‘You didn’t kidnap him or anything, did you?’

‘No.’ Her smile turned wry. ‘No. The Kavanaghs know where he is and who he’s with.’

‘Oh. Good. That’s good. I didn’t think I’d get to see him for ages yet. My next visit wasn’t scheduled until – um…’ But he didn’t want to think about all that when he had his baby son in his arms again, and Teague was starting to stir, reaching out with one chubby little hand to bat unerringly at Merlin’s chin though his eyes were still closed. ‘Oh my little darlin’… It’s your daddy, darlin’… It’s Merlin…’

‘I’ll fetch his things in,’ said Hunith, turning away. ‘He’ll need feeding soon.’

‘Let me help you.’

‘No. No, you have a few minutes with your son. Merlin – we need to talk. But that can wait. Just –’ with her hands out as if pleading for calm – ‘Just have a few minutes together. I’ll warm up his milk, put the kettle on for tea. All right?’

‘Sure.’

‘Then we can talk.’

Well, it sounded serious, but Merlin couldn’t get too worried, not with this unlooked–for happiness snug and warm in his embrace. He sank into the big armchair, and shifted down, leaning back far enough that Teague was half–lying against him – and as Teague stirred, he rolled forward, and pushed himself up on his little arms to look up at Merlin with his mother’s dark mysterious eyes. They considered each other solemnly for long moments. ‘Hello, my darlin’,’ Merlin eventually said, with a world of hope in every word.

Oh,’ said Teague, ‘ah.’ And he lay back down again, though with his face turned towards Merlin’s.

Merlin beamed. ‘Hello,’ he softly repeated, wondering if he dared imagine that Teague had just echoed him. ‘Oh, I’ve missed you. I’ve missed you so much. One day when you’re grown I’ll tell you that, and I hope you’ll believe me. I hope somehow you’ll remember this. That I always missed you so…’

Oh…

‘Yeah, that’s it, my darlin’, that’s it exactly.’

‘Interesting,’ said Hunith thoughtfully.

‘Yeah, he’s echoing me! Like we’re actually talking back and forth.’

A dry look was aimed his way. ‘Babies will do that at three months, you know.’

‘No, I didn’t know,’ he replied easily. ‘Oh, but he’s gorgeous, isn’t he? And bright as a button!’

Hunith laughed, but she had been distracted by something. ‘This is interesting,’ she repeated, tapping a thoughtful finger against his large sketchpad.

‘Ah.’ He’d left it lying there open to the drawing he’d done for Gaius. ‘Sorry, that’s a tad inappropriate to leave on display.’ Late the previous night, he’d hauled the armchair – the one he was sitting in now with Teague – over to face the large faux–Venetian mirror that he generally ignored, and he’d stripped off, and he took himself in his left hand, indulged himself in a long slow pleasuring – watching himself turning on, imagining Gaius watching him with those wistful–warm blue eyes – and with his right hand, as promised, Merlin had drawn all that he’d seen, the ornate frame of the mirror and all it contained.

‘What’s happened?’ Hunith asked, still staring down at it pensively. Not judgementally, but seriously, thoughtfully.

‘Um…’ Merlin tried, ‘I’m taking a life drawing class?’

‘No, I mean… You’re in love.’

Merlin got up, still holding Teague close, and stood beside her to consider the sketch, trying to do so dispassionately. ‘Is it that obvious?’

‘Yes.’

And, anticipating Gaius’s reaction, Merlin grinned and said, ‘Good.’

After a moment, Hunith sighed. ‘Give me Teague, Merlin, and go put some clothes on. The tea will be ready. And we need to talk.’

And still he didn’t fear.

‘Have you heard from Freya at all?’

Freya… Merlin was sitting in one of the kitchen chairs with Hunith beside him; he frowned absently down at Teague, who was cradled in his arms while Merlin fed him from a warmed–up bottle Hunith had provided. Dear little Teague, with his thick lick of dark hair that he could have got from either parent… ‘Not for a while. A month or so. She wasn’t meant to call me, even then.’

‘Merlin,’ said Hunith heavily yet directly, ‘I have some bad news. She’s finally been hospitalised.’

Grief trembled through him, no less bitter for being expected. ‘Has it got that bad, then?’

‘Yes. I honestly think they kept her at home as long as they could. Probably a little too long, for all their sakes. But it’s done now, and I can’t imagine her being released, not for a long while yet.’

‘Mum –’ But then his tears fell like a sudden April shower, and Teague was still echoing him enough to scowl around the teat of the bottle, so Merlin turned to Hunith and said, ‘You’d better –’ and Hunith gathered Teague into her arms while Merlin sat beside her and wept for his best friend, for the mother of his son.

Once he’d quietened again, Merlin went to find the rogue box of tissues that had for some reason been abandoned in the hall cupboard, and he blew his nose, wiped his eyes. Went back to sit beside his mother, who now had Teague up against her shoulder, gently patting his back.

They sat there silently for a while, until Teague let out a sweet little pop of a burp – Merlin giggled, while Hunith murmured approvingly in Teague’s ear. After a few more minutes, Hunith settled him back in his carrier on the floor by Merlin’s feet, and the baby fell asleep with one of Merlin’s fingers clutched in his fist.

‘He’s yours now,’ Hunith eventually said, low. ‘He’s ours. The Kavanaghs have washed their hands of the whole thing.’

Merlin glanced up at her, and then carefully drew his finger out of Teague’s grasp, so he could sit up and face her. ‘What?’

Fury flashed somewhere behind Hunith’s eyes, but she kept her voice and demeanour calm. ‘They are the most selfish people I know. I couldn’t even imagine – When it suited them, they wouldn’t let you be a part of his life. Now they want nothing to do with him.’

‘It’s all right, Mum. We knew they were like that. It was always a wonder that Freya wasn’t.’

‘But, Merlin –’

‘What do they say about absolute power? And money. The love of money. Have you ever met a rich person who isn’t a complete and utter prat? Well, other than Freya, obviously, but then it never had anything to do with her; it was all her parents, her mum especially.’

‘Merlin.’ Hunith shifted around on the chair, turning further towards him and leaning forward to demand his attention. ‘Teague is ours now. That’s a serious responsibility.’

Merlin considered her for a moment, considered her possible meanings, but then the protest spilled out of him anyway: ‘You say it like I wouldn’t want that! I love him, Mum. Why wouldn’t I want him with me? The only better place for him to be is with Freya, and obviously that’s not an option anymore.’

‘You haven’t thought –’

‘You think I’m not capable of raising my own child?’

‘Merlin –’

You raised me on your own.’

She smiled at that, though reluctantly, and cupped his face. ‘Teague is truly blessed to have you. But I know what I’m talking about when I say it will be harder than you can imagine right now. I think –’ Hunith sighed, as if already knowing his answer. ‘I think it’ll need both of us. Move back home with me, Merlin.’

He could feel his mouth setting obdurate, even while he paid her the compliment of considering what she was saying.

‘Merlin, honestly, you don’t know what’s involved. Your heart is in the right place – but it’s not as if you even had any younger brothers or sisters to help me with – and then there’s your studies to consider –’

‘Exactly. I don’t want to quit my course. And it has to be here, after all the trouble I went to to get accepted, they’re the best in the country. There’ll be childcare at the College, there must be –’

‘Merlin –’

‘I’ll make it work, Mum. You did.’

‘What do you know about looking after a baby, Merlin? And with no help? It’s a twenty–four/seven commitment, and there’s only you. I’m sure Lance will do what he can, but there’s only so much he’ll be able to help with, and it’s hardly fair to ask him to take on anything like the burden of a child. You’ll have to quit your job. Where will you find the money to live on and to pay your fees? Benefits aren’t much, you know, and –’

‘Mum. Stop. Please stop. I’m staying here. I’ll make a go of it.’

She was quiet for a time.

Merlin watched his son sleeping peacefully, and thought about how Teague had been since he’d arrived, how happy and bright and contented he’d seemed. ‘Freya always said what a good boy he was, how easy to look after.’

‘It won’t always be like that, Merlin, and that doesn’t make him bad, but simply a child.’

When he lifted his head again, he saw that Hunith had turned a little further and was staring back towards the lounge room. He felt sure she was gazing in the direction of his sketch.

And she confirmed that a moment later, by saying, ‘Who are you in love with, Merlin? Is that why you want to stay?’

‘I’d want to stay anyway, but that’s one reason, yes. Not that – Well. I don’t think it’s going to affect the situation, Mum.’

‘There aren’t many young men who’d be happy to take on a baby as well, Merlin.’

He smiled a little wryly, torn between so many conflicting impulses. ‘Right now, I’m the only one who’s talking about taking anyone on, Mum. But I want to stay. I want to be in love, you know? I want to enjoy that. There’s time enough to work out the rest later.’

‘Oh, Merlin…’ she said, softly chiding him.

‘Mmm, yes?’

But Hunith was smiling, too, now, fond and warm. ‘All right. There’s more that I’ll fetch from the car. All the baby gear of yours that I kept; I’m sure you won’t mind that the fashions are nineteen years out of date. Various supplies from the supermarket. And a couple of books –’

‘Do–it–yourself manuals?’

‘Exactly. They, at least, are right up–to–date. I asked for advice on which to buy. I asked for advice from the sort of people you’d like.’

He grinned up at her. ‘You knew this was going to happen, didn’t you? You knew what I’d want to do.’

‘Yes, my darling, of course.’ She reached to stroke his thick hair, and let her hand briefly settle as if blessing him. ‘It’s what I chose, too, twenty years ago, and I haven’t regretted it for a moment.’

‘Can’t he sleep with me?’ Merlin asked much later that evening, when parenthood was starting to feel rather more challenging. ‘It’s a double bed, there’s plenty of room.’

Hunith was also starting to look rather worn. ‘It’s not safe, Merlin. Once he’s more mobile, Teague could easily end up falling off the side, or trapping a limb between the headboard and the mattress. Not to mention – Merlin, I’m sorry, but if you rolled onto him in your sleep, you could – you could do him great harm.’

‘But of course I wouldn’t do that! I mean, I’d know, wouldn’t I?’

‘Not necessarily.’

‘But I would! I’d always be aware of exactly where he was. My instincts would save me from hurting him.’

‘That’s the romantic view of parenting, Merlin, not the reality.’

For a moment they teetered on the edge of irritability – but then the front door opened, and Lance’s cheerful, ‘Bonjour!’ rang out. ‘Home at last, mon cher!’

‘We’re in here,’ Merlin called.

And then Lance was there, exclaiming in delight to see Hunith, enfolding her in a hug that cheered her immensely – and then he seemed happier still to meet Teague for the first time. ‘Enchanté, little one,’ he murmured, matching Teague’s smile to a nicety, and shaking his hand. ‘I always knew how perfect you would be…’

‘He’s living with me now,’ Merlin said – as Hunith caught her breath, no doubt thinking he might have eased into that announcement rather more carefully. ‘I hope that’s all right.’

‘Oh, but it is marvellous!’ Lance cried. ‘What marvellous news!’

Merlin looked at Hunith, whose smile was already easier – though she asked, ‘What about during the day, though, if you’re going to continue working and studying?’

‘I thought I’d ask Erika,’ Merlin said to Lance.

‘Perfect. Why don’t you go to see her now?’ Lance had caught sight of the flat pack cot that Hunith had carried in and to which she was still clinging. He rubbed his hands together in something like glee. ‘Yes, you go see her now, and I – I shall assemble this!’

Merlin snorted in amusement. ‘Be my guest!’

‘You shall see, I am quite the homemaker… Hunith, I am sure you will like to meet Erika. Put your mind at rest, yes? Teague and I will be quite all right here, and when you come back down, he shall have a new cot!’

Hunith put her hands on Lance’s shoulders, and pressed a kiss to his cheek. ‘You are a wonderful man, Lancelot, and I am so very glad that my son – and his son – have such a good friend.’

‘Oh, everyone loves Merlin, Hunith; I can claim no merit for that!’

Merlin arrived at work on Tuesday exhausted. ‘What’s wrong?!’ Gaius cried as soon as he got a good look at him. ‘You’re so pale, Merlin… Are you all right?’

Merlin offered him a small smile before helping Gaius up off the bed and onto his feet. ‘Let me get you settled.’

Gaius immediately stalled. ‘But then you’ll have to run off to your other duties. Tell me! Is something wrong? Or have you just been –’ Disappointment lengthened his face for a moment. ‘No, then perhaps you’d better not tell me.’

‘It’s not what you think, old man,’ Merlin announced – and got him moving again. Once Gaius was settled in the armchair, Merlin crouched before him, hands on the armrests, and gazed up into those concerned blue eyes. ‘There is a new man in my life, Gaius, but not in the way that you’re thinking.’

‘No?’

‘No. I’m a father. I have a baby son.’

‘Oh!’

‘Even though,’ Merlin added, with a nod acknowledging Gaius’s confusion, ‘I’m not the marrying sort, either.’

‘I see… Or, rather – I don’t see at all.’

‘It’s a long story. I’ll tell you a bit of it while you’re having your shower. You can choose which bit,’ Merlin added – and even he was relieved to feel a wicked little kick to his smile. ‘But as of Sunday, Teague’s living with me now. Teague – his name is Teague.’

‘That’s beautiful. Why did you choose it?’

‘We both choose it. It’s Irish for poet.’

‘Beautiful,’ Gaius whispered. And he reached a trembling hand to carefully stroke fingertips down Merlin’s long cheek. ‘Oh my dear…’ He sounded grief–stricken.

‘If I’m pale, it’s only cos I have to get up at night to feed him now.’

‘Of course.’

‘I’ll just have to get used to different sleep patterns, that’s all.’

Gaius smiled a little wistfully. ‘How brave you are!’

‘Oh, but it’s for Teague. I’d do anything for him. That’s just the way it is, isn’t it?’

And in a whisper, as if Gaius was hardly even aware of speaking, he observed, ‘You were never mine to win or lose…’

‘But you’ve already won me, Gaius.’

‘What…?’

Merlin smiled at him, deliberately cheerful. ‘I’d better get on. I’ll see you for your shower!’

‘I’m counting the minutes!’

‘Good,’ said Merlin with a laugh. And then he headed out with a purposeful stride.

Despite Merlin’s offer to tell Gaius part of the story, Gaius remained silent, watching Merlin as he carefully helped undress him, participating in an absentminded way. Watching him as if he’d lose the chance too soon, too soon. It was only when Gaius was in the shower and no longer so distracted, that Merlin asked, ‘Which bit do you want to know about?’

And Gaius promptly answered, as if he’d decided hours before, ‘Tell me about Teague’s mother.’

‘Freya.’ Merlin nodded to himself. Of course she was the most important part of it, after Teague himself. ‘She’s my best friend. I’ve known her since – god, the first day of school. Literally, I think. And we really were friends. People assumed – well, all kinds of things. But she always knew I was gay, and I always knew she wouldn’t – That’s not to say we didn’t have our moments of falling in love with each other every now and then. Luckily never at the same time, I guess!’

‘No…’ Gaius agreed. ‘Quite.’ Though he seemed rather unsure about that.

‘And cos people assumed we were together, and cos we were never… quite what anyone expected, there weren’t many other options for either of us.’

‘So, eventually you…’

‘No, it wasn’t like that. She’s…’ Merlin blinked. But it wouldn’t do, not at work. Not even if it was just him and Gaius alone, and the door was locked. He cleared his throat. ‘She’s not well. She has this condition – There are times,’ he continued in slightly stronger tones, ‘when she’s not herself. And it was getting worse. About a year ago, we realised – she and I realised how bad it was gonna get for her. How this – curse – would take away everything that mattered to her. And I was leaving anyway, I almost can’t believe that I left her at all – I was getting ready to move here for art school. She insisted I mustn’t change my plans. And one afternoon… It was comfort. You know? It was our first time. For each of us, I mean. And it was –’ He sighed. ‘Anyway, I wouldn’t change a thing.’

‘Merlin…’ Gaius said, almost too softly to hear over the running water.

‘I wouldn’t change Teague, or anything about him. He’s the most awesome little man… I could never wish him away. Her parents – god, they’re right bastards! They wanted her to get rid of him – and they’re Catholic, too. Insisted on getting some kind of dispensation. It was all she could do to stand up to them, but she did. They cut me right out of things, that was the deal she had to agree to. D’you see? So I’ve pretty much spent more time with my son in the past couple of days than I have since we first knew he existed.’

‘What happened? What changed?’

‘They had to –’ He swallowed, hard. ‘They had to put her in an institution. I guess we always knew that was coming. And Mum says – My Mum runs a care home like this, only independent, not part of anyone’s empire. Anyway, she knows. She’d have made sure they only committed her if it was really necessary. She says they kept her at home as long as they could. Maybe even too long. But now they’ve cut Teague right out of her life, too. See? And, I, uh –’

Suddenly the tears came again, another brief storm, and seeking comfort he went to draw back the shower curtain, and he sat on the floor there beside the curve down into the wet area, with his back to the tiled wall. Gaius turned off the showerhead, and reached out for him, and they held hands there while Merlin wept.

Merlin went to visit Gaius on his way out that evening, wanting a few extra minutes with the man even though he knew he’d have to start being prompt for Teague’s sake. ‘Are you all right?’ he asked, as he swung his backpack down onto the armchair. ‘You didn’t take a chill?’

‘I’m fine,’ Gaius insisted easily.

‘You’re not in any pain? No muscle spasms?’

Gaius chuckled gently. ‘It was only for a few minutes, you know.’

‘Gwen ’d have my hide.’ It was one of The Cardinal Rules, to dry off a patient immediately after bathing them. ‘Are you sure…?’

With a smile, Gaius gestured at the extra cardigan he was wearing. ‘You see? I was too warm, but I’ve kept it on for your sake. So you wouldn’t fret. And I’m feeling perfectly comfortable.’

Merlin was smiling, too, echoing Gaius for a moment, and then feeling that wicked little tug at the corner of his mouth that Gaius seemed to inspire. ‘Not that Gwen would approve of this, either,’ he added, digging into the flat compartment of his pack. ‘But I’m back in my civilian clothes, right? This is just two friends, not an orderly and a resident.’ He produced the sketch he’d done, presented properly in a black card folder, as he’d do for a class project. ‘I promised you a portrait of me thinking of you…’

Gaius turned the cover, and gasped a little. He stared at it for long moments, taking it in, eyes roving and yet always returning to Merlin’s face, Merlin’s figure. Gently he brushed a fingertip against the very edge of the pencil marks, as if hardly daring to believe it was real.

‘D’you like it, then?’ Merlin asked with cheeky confidence.

‘Oh, Merlin… But you weren’t –’

‘Yeah, I was.’

‘Not of me!’

‘Why don’t you believe that?’ He swung to settle his rear on the bed beside Gaius’s hip, facing him – and he reached to brush a fingertip just as gently against Gaius’s cheek. His skin was soft and smooth and perhaps a little dry, like the finest paper.

‘It’s perfectly obvious why, my dear. Take pity on me, and don’t make me spell it out.’

‘I felt a spark between us, right from the start. Like recognising like. And you felt it, too, I know you did.’

‘And so we are friends, Merlin – we’re even rather unlikely as friends! But don’t make me wish for more, when it’s so very obvious that –’

‘Gaius –’

‘How can you be so sure of anything, when only a year ago you –’

‘I knew what was happening then, just as I know what’s happening now.’

‘Oh, my dear…’ Gaius murmured, gazing wistfully at the sketch again. ‘How very beautiful you are!’

‘I wouldn’t believe it for a minute,’ came those clipped arrogant tones Merlin already loathed.

Merlin almost sprang up to square off against the young man who was now standing at the other side of the bed, but at the last moment decided it would be more obnoxious of him to stay right where he was – and just to add insult to injury he let his thigh press close against Gaius’s side.

‘Arthur!’ Gaius cried, letting the sketch fall to his lap, and not bothering to close its cover. ‘How very good it is to see you. I wasn’t aware you’d be visiting today.’

‘No. Morgana’s still coming this evening –’

Though Arthur seemed oblivious to it, Merlin felt something within Gaius quail at that news.

‘But I – Well, something came up.’ Arthur was staring down at the offending sketch. ‘You know as well as I do, Guy, that any form of self–advertisement is by its very nature exaggerated.’

‘That might be the kind of ruse you’d resort to,’ Merlin retorted.

‘I have no need of ruses, I assure you.’

‘Neither do I.’ Merlin gestured proudly at the sketch and all it revealed. ‘What you see is what you get. Or what Gaius gets, anyway.’

‘Huh! I’m sure Guy can do far better than some… some two–bit writer or actor, trying to make ends meet as an orderly.’

‘Art student, you clotpole. Hence the drawing…?

Arthur flushed – and then just as quickly got furious –

‘Merlin,’ Gaius said, resting a placatory hand on his forearm, ‘be quiet. Arthur, please. Don’t let him goad you.’

‘As if!’ Arthur protested. He turned and paced away for a moment, arms crossed firmly. Then he came back. ‘Gaius,’ he said stiffly, ‘if this is a bad time –’

‘No, it’s all right. I’m afraid Merlin has somewhere to be. Don’t you, my dear?’

‘Yes.’ Of course, there was Teague. It wasn’t backing down, if he was going to fetch his son. And anyway, Gaius had asked him to. It wasn’t a retreat, but a strategic manoeuvre, and he was still standing firm on the higher ground. Even if Arthur didn’t realise that. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow, Gaius?’

‘Of course. I’ll be waiting here. I’ll have been thinking of you.’ And he let his fingers settle again on the edge of the picture.

‘Good.’ Merlin nodded. Got up a bit clumsily, feeling strange under Arthur’s scrutiny despite his most defiant intentions. He swung his backpack over his shoulder, and nodded once at Gaius, swept his gaze past Arthur fucking Pendragon, and strode out of there.

Silence as he headed down the corridor, past the low level buzz of desultory conversations, the static of television game shows. Until, just a little too soon, just before Merlin was out of earshot, Arthur finally burst out, ‘Guy, you can’t be serious!’

‘Oh, but I am,’ came the quiet reply.

Merlin grinned, his heart stirring within him. He stopped, of course, and shamelessly listened in, forehead resting lightly against the cold brick wall.

‘No, really – he’s just impossible!’

‘Perhaps…’ Gaius diffidently suggested. ‘Perhaps it’s not about me. Perhaps he’s like this with everyone.’

Arthur snorted. ‘If he were, I’d have been spending all day every day dealing with the complaints and harassment suits!’

‘Ah. How very reassuring you are!’

‘Huh.’ Merlin imagined Arthur crossing his arms even tighter.

‘Arthur, have I ever asked you for anything?’

A brief silence, as if Arthur were seriously thinking about this. ‘No. No, you haven’t. Not since I was a child, and you asked me to behave at my mother’s funeral.’

‘Then, Arthur, please. Let this be. It may well never come to anything, but let me enjoy whatever it can be. Grant me this one favour – and I’ll never ask you for anything more, as long as I shall live.’

Another pause, but still Arthur protested, ‘You can’t ask me to stand by, when he’ll cause you nothing but trouble!’

‘You don’t know that.’

‘I can guess well enough.’

‘You can hardly distrust his motives,’ Gaius argued. ‘If Merlin were after riches, he’d be trying to seduce you!’

Arthur snorted. ‘Fat chance.’

‘Well, then. Please don’t interfere.’

‘Well. I won’t, then. But if I see anything to concern me – I only have your welfare in mind, Guy.’

‘If you are genuinely concerned about anything specific, then say something to me, and I’ll listen, I promise.’

‘Then I promise, too.’ The conciliatory tones seemed reluctant.

But Merlin’s grin had broadened. Gaius wanted him; perhaps even as much as Merlin wanted Gaius.

He was late back, but found that Lance had already collected Teague, placed him in the new cot, and wheeled it into the kitchen so that Teague could watch him cooking dinner – with commentary along the lines of, ‘I like to have a little vin with dinner, mon petit cher. Some of it goes in the cooking…’ Merlin stood there in the doorway, watching this cheerful domestic bustle as avidly as Teague was.

When Lance finally noticed him, Merlin called out, ‘Honey, I’m home!’

‘Enchanté! Daddy’s home, little one…’

‘Lance, you are going to make someone a great wife one day.’

‘My darling, whatever you end up being, whomever you end up being it with: you will be great, too.’

Merlin laughed, and bent over Teague to smile down into his face. ‘Hello, little man. Did you have a good day? Did you get up to all kinds of mischief? I bet you did…’

‘Erika said he was perfect. An angel compared to her two rogues! I don’t think you have to worry much about those arrangements.’

‘That’s wonderful… Must be your dinner time, too,’ he added, as Teague started trying to grab his finger and bring it to his mouth. ‘Everything’s going so well!’ Merlin commented as he headed for the cupboard that now contained Teague’s formula and clean baby bottles.

Lance gasped and clutched at his heart. ‘Do not jinx us! You foolish Englishmen, so modern and blasé… You will bring the curse down upon us!’

‘It’s nice to know you’ll always find a home in the soaps, Lance, if your photographic career doesn’t work out.’

‘I am not joking!’ he warned, all dark eyes, flashing knife, and French–Romany charm.

‘Sure…’

They managed well enough, despite the interrupted sleep patterns, until Saturday.

When Merlin dashed down to the basement flat of their converted house with Teague’s carrier in one hand and bag of gear in the other, he was nonplussed to find Erika, Paul and their two little ones all bundled up and obviously on the way out. ‘Good morning, Merlin!’ Erika greeted him in her usual bright fashion.

His heart was already sinking. He knew what had happened. ‘You weren’t expecting Teague today.’

‘No. It’s Saturday, you know,’ she helpfully pointed out as if he might not have realised.

‘Morning,’ Paul said gruffly as he hefted a suitcase and a kit bag of baby gear, and headed up to street level.

‘I work Tuesday to Saturday.’

‘Oh.’ She stared at him. ‘When you said for the week –’

‘Why wouldn’t you assume what’s perfectly reasonable? Oh god…’ He collapsed back against the wall. What to do? He had to be there in half an hour.

‘Is Lance at home?’

For a moment hope fluttered within, but was as quickly shot down as he remembered: ‘He’s already gone. One of his photography quests. You know how he gets.’ He wouldn’t even have his phone on.

‘Childcare at the hospital?’

‘Not on the weekends, and anyway I’ve been talking to them all week – they’re overfull as it is.’

‘I’m sorry, Merlin. If we were at home, I’d take him for the day just this once, but we’re going to visit Paul’s family in Gloucester for the weekend.’

‘I know. It’s all right. It’s my fault, I should have thought.’

Paul had come back down to collect one of the children. He didn’t say anything to Merlin, but he didn’t look madly impressed either. ‘I’ll see you up there, Erika.’

‘I’m an idiot. I’ll just have to take him in with me.’

‘Are you sure?’

He shrugged. ‘What else can I do? If they send me home again, well… I can’t think what else to do other than call in and ask for the day off. At least this way, I will have tried.’

‘It’ll be all right,’ she offered, in her usual optimistic way. ‘You’ve made friends there, I’m sure.’

‘I have,’ Merlin agreed with a dawning smile. ‘I have, too.’

‘Gaius…’ Merlin put the carrier down on the bed beside where the man was sitting, though he hung onto it with one hand to make sure it remained steady. ‘Meet Teague. Teague, this is Gaius.’

‘Oh!’ Gaius honestly seemed quite stunned. ‘Oh, my dear… you’re as adorable as your father!’

Teague grabbed at Gaius’s tentatively reaching hand, and observed, ‘Doh… dah!

‘Doh,’ Gaius echoed with a laugh. ‘Dah!’ Teague, quite naturally, beamed up at him and clutched onto a finger as if he’d never let go.

Merlin grinned. ‘You’re friends already…’

‘Oh, I hope so. What a marvellous little creature he is…’

‘Gaius. I need a huge favour.’

Gaius turned to look at him. ‘Childcare arrangements fell through?’

‘Yes.’

‘Need to leave him here with me for the day?’

‘Is that even possible?’

‘Of course! Oh, my darling. You must know I’d be delighted. Here, help me over to the armchair, and let’s get settled. Did you bring his… oh my, whatever he needs.’

‘A whole bag of it. Everything I’d normally give Erika to see him through. Plus I ducked upstairs to fetch this book my Mum gave me. It has everything in it, a whole schedule. D’you see I’ve bookmarked it?’

Once Gaius was sitting again, he fumbled on his spectacles, and scanned the relevant pages, while Merlin settled Teague’s carrier just by his feet. ‘I can manage… most of this, my dear. Almost all of it.’

‘Of course, I’ll come back whenever I can to help out, to make up his formula and warm his bottles… I’ll ask Leon to pop in, too. Are you sure this is all right?’

Gaius looked up at him very directly with his sincere blue eyes. ‘You must suspect a little of how very much I want you to rely on me, Merlin.’

‘I do,’ he whispered. And he lifted one of Gaius’s hands to press a kiss against the palm. ‘I do rely on you.’

‘Then all is well. Go on with you! We’ll be fine here – won’t we, little Teague…?’

Dee… uh.

Merlin smiled. ‘I’ll see you both soon! Have fun, and make lots of mischief!’

‘We will, my darling. We most certainly will…’

‘Huh,’ said Arthur Pendragon, considering Merlin with folded arms, a moderately severe frown hinting that if only this were the good old days he’d have Merlin beheaded. ‘You’re just a lawsuit waiting to happen, aren’t you?’

Merlin had skidded to a halt just within the door, delighted at seeing Gaius leaning over Teague’s carrier, trying to mock–wrestle one of his toys from him. Such games are good for developing baby’s grip, ran inanely through his mind, and hand–eye coordination… Merlin was delighted, yes – and defiant and horrified as well to find Arthur there.

‘I told you, Arthur,’ Gaius mildly announced, ‘Teague is here visiting me.’

‘Yes, well, that might wash during visiting hours, Guy, but you’ll excuse my scepticism now.’

‘My arrangements fell through. At the last minute. If there’d been any other option –’

Arthur considered him for a long horrible moment.

Merlin belligerently didn’t respond.

‘Well,’ Arthur said at last. ‘You’re lucky we’re so short–staffed, or I’d have sent you home. Without pay. You’re lucky it’s not a weekday, either.’

‘So…’ The prat wasn’t going to be reasonable about this, was he?

‘So. This must never happen again. Do you understand me?’

‘Yes.’

‘It’s not fair on my staff, and it’s certainly not fair on Guy. He has his own physical wellbeing to worry about, without trying to handle a baby on his own.’

‘Arthur,’ Gaius reproved him. ‘I am not so incapable as all that.’

Arthur nodded at him in acknowledgement, but then turned back to Merlin. ‘For today, I’ll overlook it.’

After a moment, Merlin found it within himself to say, very calmly, ‘Thank you.’

Don’t let it happen again.’

‘No.’

And Arthur strode out.

Merlin reeled for a moment, and then he headed over to crouch beside his son and his friend. ‘I’m sorry, Gaius. I didn’t want to get you into trouble with Arthur.’

‘It’s all right. He’s really a far more decent man than you’re assuming.’

Merlin quietly snorted. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘It’s your favourite part of the day.’

‘And Teague?’

‘He can come with us, if you don’t mind.’

‘My darling, today of all days, I don’t mind a thing.’

At the end of a long day, Merlin headed for Gaius’s room… and was dismayed to hear Arthur’s unmistakably clipped tones issuing forth yet again. Merlin slowed a little, listening in an attempt to gauge just how much trouble he’d brought upon poor Gaius; eavesdropping in the hopes of better preparing an adequate defence. What first confused his plans, though, was that Arthur seemed to be using his best storytelling voice. Merlin came to a halt before he reached the doorway, and frowned as he listened intently.

… the figures for the third quarter were, however, even poorer than expected, with no improvement in income and few savings in running costs. Well, Master Emrys,’ Arthur continued in a more conversational tone, ‘you may want to skip the rest. I anticipate tears before bedtime. Ah, yes, and here they are: In addition, the requests for urgent maintenance work and suggested general capital improvement projects have continued to increase. While this suggests diligence and increased attention on the part of our staff, there is no hiding from the fact that such an investment of resources cannot be undertaken in the current climate without –

A brief pause.

‘I do take your cogently argued point, but ultimately these reports all reduce to a request for more cash, and frankly I do wonder why my father should always be expected to bail – Ah, no – no – that’s my ear, and I would very much appreciate it remaining attached. Just so, thank you.’

A slightly longer pause.

Ow! And how will you like it, Master Emrys, when I wrench your ears off…? You should realise that I can get quite a grip on them, too, seeing as you’ve inherited your father’s unfortunate protuberances…’

Merlin found that he had dashed into Gaius’s room so fast he was panting. He stood there for a moment as his thoughts caught up with his instincts, and he belatedly realised he didn’t really have to worry about the son and heir of Pendragon Care tearing the ears off a baby. ‘Oh!’ he ended up saying. ‘Um…’

Arthur was sitting in the armchair opposite the bed, Teague held upright against his shoulder, just as Hunith had done to burp him. Arthur’s other hand held a printed report of some kind, pages folded back, from which he’d apparently been reading. And the man looked really rather ridiculously handsome in a pair of gold–wire spectacles. ‘Mr Emrys,’ Arthur greeted him frostily.

‘I, uh –’ Merlin had by then glanced around to find that Gaius was dozing in the other armchair, one of Teague’s toys in hand and various baby paraphernalia spread about him within arm’s reach.

‘I told you it wouldn’t do,’ Arthur didn’t forbear to point out. ‘Guy has been through a great deal already. You expect too much of him.’

‘Did, uh – Did Teague cause any trouble?’

‘No. No, to be fair, he was hardly even grizzling when I arrived. And no doubt Gaius would have woken if he had started crying, but that is not the point.’

‘No. No, well. It won’t happen again. I’ll make other arrangements for Saturdays.’

‘See that you do.’

‘I already said I would, didn’t I?’

Arthur looked coldly sceptical –

And Merlin belatedly thought to rescue Teague from the arms of this prat. ‘Hey, little man,’ he murmured as Teague settled into his embrace with a delightful cooing sound, reaching a chubby little arm to bat at Merlin’s nose. ‘Thank you for being so good today…’ He’d even behaved himself for Arthur fucking Pendragon, when really Merlin wondered why Teague hadn’t screamed the place down as soon as the man picked him up. Perhaps his people instincts weren’t finely attuned yet…

‘Well, I can’t exactly say that it was my pleasure, however, I do think that –’

‘I wasn’t thanking you,’ Merlin retorted.

‘Weren’t you,’ Arthur coldly replied.

After a furiously silent moment, Merlin did what Gaius would have asked of him – though with a certain lack of grace. ‘No. But. Obviously. I was going to thank you next. For taking care of Teague.’

‘Were you.’

‘So. Thanks. Yeah.’

Arthur stared at him for a time, and then abruptly did something completely unexpected. He smiled. In a frosty, constipated way, it was true. But it was a smile. ‘That was very sullen of you,’ he remarked. Then Arthur Pendragon buttoned his suit jacket, turned on his heel and headed for the door. ‘Say goodnight to Guy for me. Goodnight, Master Emrys!’

And he was gone.

Merlin sighed, and considered Teague for a long moment. ‘You have been very good,’ he remarked.

Mah,’ Teague responded, and then made a querying kind of, ‘Oh…?

‘It’s more than time for your feed, isn’t it?’ Merlin sighed again, and looked at Gaius, who was still dozing. Well, Merlin needed to heat Teague’s bottle. He could take Teague with him down to the ward’s kitchen – but if Gaius woke, he might panic to see an empty baby carrier. He might try to get up and find Teague, which wouldn’t do Gaius any good, and which would also make Arthur Pendragon right about Merlin expecting too much of Gaius – none of which would do at all. Or Merlin could leave Teague here while he went down to the kitchen – but then Teague might start crying, and that wouldn’t be fair on Gaius either, let alone on the other residents and staff nearby.

Well.

There was one other solution. But none of his options were good.

Merlin put Teague in the carrier for a moment, crouched by the kit bag, and rummaged around for one of the measured containers of formula. He mixed it into a bottle of water and shook it up – but then held the bottle for a moment, considering it and Teague and the oblivious Gaius…

Finally he wrapped his hand around the bottle, and focussed in that strange familiar way. Murmured, while deliberately also thinking the words – with intent, as it were – ‘As warm as Teague’s blood.’ The contents of the bottle stirred with a twist of glowing gold; instead of feeling cool against his palm, the bottle now made his hand feel cool.

Merlin gathered up Teague, and went to sit in the armchair Arthur had recently occupied. Settled Teague back in the crook of one arm, and a moment later he was feeding happily.

When Merlin finally looked up, he found Gaius watching him with a quiet blue gaze. Merlin smiled. Gaius seemed to be slowly considering him. But after a while, Gaius smiled, too. And though it was a sad, wistful kind of smile, Merlin’s heart warmed.

three

Leon was uncharacteristically silent as they ate their lunch. ‘What’s up?’ Merlin eventually asked.

‘Haven’t seen Arthur for days,’ was the gloomy and not entirely unexpected response.

Merlin rolled his eyes. ‘I, for one, count myself lucky.’ Then he had second thoughts. ‘Gaius likes to see him, though. Dr Bonham,’ he corrected himself, with a glance at Gwen. ‘Dr Bonham is very fond of him, strange to say.’

‘It is not strange,’ Leon protested. ‘You just refuse to see Arthur’s best qualities.’

‘And for good reason! They’re overshadowed – overwhelmed – by the rest of him.’

Leon just shook his head, as if the point wasn’t even worth arguing.

‘I don’t get it,’ Merlin persisted, genuinely intrigued. ‘You’re not the sort to be swayed by a perfect fall of golden hair.’

‘You’ll see. One day you’ll see.’ Leon sighed wistfully, sitting back in his chair and gazing off into his imaginings. ‘It is perfect, though, isn’t it?’

Gwen chuckled. ‘You pretend to be noble and make disinterested judgements, Leon, but his beauty drives you crazy. Admit it!’

‘Of course he’s beautiful! He’s the most beautiful man on the planet. But there’s so much more to him than that.’

Merlin snorted.

Anyway,’ Leon continued, pointedly trying to change the subject. ‘Gwen. Are you applying for the senior ward manager job? You’d be brilliant.’

‘Oh no…’ she responded with an uncomfortable laugh. ‘No, I wouldn’t think so.’

‘You’d be so much better than that idiot who was in it. What was her name? I can’t even remember, I’m so glad that she’s gone. She was useless!’

‘Well… I like what I do. I miss the fulltime nursing, as it is. And one ward is enough to take care of, really.’

‘You could do more, though. You could get this whole place running properly.’

‘Oh…’ She lifted her hands to her face, unfailingly modest. ‘Stop it, Leon. You’re flattering me.’ Her hands fell back to her lap, and she looked at him dryly. ‘Why are you flattering me?’

‘It’s the truth!’

‘You would be good,’ Merlin offered. ‘You remind me of my Mum in lots of ways, and she’s brilliant. She started off as a nurse, back when I was a kid, became a ward manager, and now she manages the whole place.’

‘Oh! Oh, thank you, Merlin…’

Leon was grinning. ‘You’ll take a compliment from Merlin…’

He doesn’t want anything from me.’

‘Yeah right.’

‘Except permission to excuse myself,’ Merlin said, getting up, with a grin that matched Leon’s. ‘Think I’ll go see how Gaius is doing, before I start taking the vitals.’

Gwen was smiling up at him sweetly. ‘You’ve made a friend there, haven’t you? Dr Bonham has been much happier these past two weeks, and that’s exactly how long you’ve been with us, isn’t it?’

Leon sniffed in disapproval. ‘I thought he was happy because Arthur was visiting.’

‘No, that’s you,’ Gwen and Merlin chorused – and they all laughed, even Leon.

‘Dr Bonham has meant Arthur coming here more often,’ Leon admitted. ‘I’m grateful to him for that. Usually we don’t see Arthur more than once or twice a month.’

‘You’ll be sorry once he goes home again, then, won’t you?’

Very sorry.’

‘Me, too,’ he murmured, resting both hands on the back of the chair he’d been sitting in, feeling the weight of anticipated grief.

‘I’ll tell you what, though,’ Leon added mischievously, ‘I don’t think any of us are going to miss Morgana’s visits, are we?’

Gwen shivered, Merlin was amused to note. ‘Who’s Morgana?’ he asked. ‘I haven’t met her yet. Have I?’

‘Arthur’s half–sister,’ Leon supplied. ‘The result of some earlier affair of Uther’s, before he got married. She has her own law firm; handles all the Pendragon Care business.’

‘What a gossip you are!’ Gwen chided. When Leon had the grace to look chagrined, though, she forbore telling him off. ‘Merlin? I think you’ll find Dr Bonham in the main lounge area.’

‘Yeah?’ He knew that Gaius had tended to keep to his room, reluctant to treat his residency here as anything more than a temporary imposition. Gaius seemed to be a naturally friendly person, but Merlin could understand him not wanting to create any unnecessary ties to a place he didn’t want to consider a home. ‘He’s decided to mingle?’

Gwen’s smile grew. ‘Go find him. I think you’ll like what you see.’

Gaius was sitting in an armchair with his leg propped before him, with a semicircle of six – no, seven children before him, of a variety of ages. And he was performing conjuring tricks.

The lounge was large, and the sun poured in through the windows and skylights. A few of the other residents and adult visitors were sitting around, watching or ignoring Gaius as they wished. Merlin stayed in the dimmer reaches of the corridor, and watched as Gaius entertained what must be all the ward’s visitors under the age of thirteen.

For a while, Gaius kept finding an otherwise ordinary blue cotton handkerchief in all kinds of unexpected places. It started in the pocket of his robe, then disappeared into his palm; reappeared in his book, neatly tucked away with the bookmark; disappeared again, before reappearing in the pocket of a little girl – who was standing quite near Gaius, but Merlin couldn’t see how he could have reached over to plant it there. There were gasps of awe all round.

‘How about a card trick?’ Gaius offered. This was met by a chorus of approval. ‘I don’t have a pack of cards here, though… Do any of you?’ The children all shook their heads, looking disappointed. ‘What about you, young man?’ Gaius asked, indicating someone towards the back of the group.

‘No, sir. Sorry, sir.’

‘Have a look in your jeans pocket – your back pocket.’

The young fellow reached back, and produced – to his own shock – a pack of ordinary playing cards, old and worn, with a distinctive swirling pattern of red and gold on the backs.

‘Perfect!’ Gaius exclaimed. ‘Bring them here, then, would you?’ And even though the child was spooked, he was still brave enough to approach this genial old man. Gaius shuffled the cards, and then fanned them out face up, to let the children see that this was obviously a regular pack of fifty–two cards, each one different. Then Gaius turned them over face down, and had the young fellow pick out a card, look at it, and then slip it into his own pocket without Gaius seeing.

Another shuffle, and then a pass of Gaius’s hand – the sunlight glowing gold for a moment against his fine pale skin – and when Gaius fanned out the cards again, they were all each and every one the seven of hearts. Gasps all round. ‘What was your card?’ Gaius asked.

The fellow produced his card. The seven of hearts, rather battered but true. More gasps. Gaius chuckled, looking pleased with himself.

The kids were just starting to get over their astonishment and clamour for more when one of the visiting parents strode in and called away a girl named Lucy. The group reluctantly broke up as other visitors began reclaiming their children. Visiting hours were ending, and the afternoon’s business was about to begin. Soon Merlin would need to start his rounds, checking and noting each resident’s vitals, but he figured he could allow himself a few more minutes. He went over to crouch beside Gaius as the last child wandered off.

‘You’re full of surprises,’ Merlin commented.

‘Oh well,’ Gaius responded with a shrug, though he seemed pleased with himself. ‘It’s just tricks.’

‘I couldn’t see how you did it.’

‘Couldn’t you?’

‘No. You must be very… dexterous,’ Merlin said with a wink.

Gaius laughed. ‘Alas, no.’ He held up his hands, which Merlin thought were perfect – strong, with nicely proportioned fingers. ‘Not these doddery old things. No sleight of hand here.’

‘They’re lovely. But how did you do it?’

‘My dear… it won’t be long before you’ve winkled out all my secrets, I’m sure. But it seems that day isn’t yet.’

‘Soon, though,’ Merlin whispered fervently.

‘Soon,’ Gaius promised him.

On the following afternoon, once Merlin had finished his rounds, he helped Gaius into the wheelchair, and took him off to the other end of the building for a physiotherapy session. They were understaffed, so the therapist Alice asked Merlin to wait while she interrogated Gaius about how he was feeling, and whether his leg was causing him much pain – at which Gaius proudly announced that his medication had been reduced, and he wasn’t uncomfortable at all. With Merlin’s help, Alice fitted Gaius with a rather less clumsy plastic cast. And then she presented him with a standard–issue walking stick.

Gaius took one look at it, and baulked. ‘No.’

‘Dr Bonham, I’m afraid it’s necessary.’

‘No. I’m not ready.’

‘It will take courage to walk on your own again after such an incident, but I can assure you that you are ready –’

‘No, I mean –’

Alice sailed remorselessly on. ‘With your medication reduced, there’s far less chance of dizziness –’

‘But –’

‘All I ask for today is that you try standing with the help of the stick, while holding onto that handrail. If you can take a step or two with it, then that’s all well and good, but let’s start small.’

‘I mean,’ Gaius insisted, apparently too mortified to even glance at Merlin, ‘I’m not ready to be an old man with a walking stick. Not yet.’

‘Ah. Ah, I’m sorry.’ She smiled in wry apology. ‘Well, if it’s any reassurance, you’ll only need the stick for a few weeks, and in some ways it’s a precaution – a precaution you must be diligent in respecting! A little patience and humility now will reap its rewards for you soon enough.’

‘Ah, well,’ said Gaius, somewhat resigned. ‘I do see your point.’

There were other people already there in the larger room beyond Alice’s office, doing various exercises. Someone called for her, and she looked to Merlin for a moment. And he, of course, had been eager to help all along. ‘Come on, Gaius,’ he said. ‘Let’s try it out. I’ll be there to catch you if you fall.’

‘Yes, and see me make a fool of myself, too, no doubt.’

Alice headed out for a moment, with a muttered request to wait until her return. Merlin bent to whisper in Gaius’s ear, ‘I’ll still love you, fool or no.’

‘Oh my dear, if I believe that then I am already so very foolish…’

The therapist returned with more mutterings about the impossibility of the staffing situation, and asked Merlin to wheel Gaius out to where a sturdy handrail ran along one side of the room. Without any prompting, Merlin helped Gaius to stand; he only needed a firm hand at his elbow now. And then Alice handed over the walking stick, which Gaius accepted with a resigned sigh. ‘Use the stick in your left hand,’ she advised, ‘to take most of the weight when you’re using your right leg, while you’re stepping with your left.’

‘Come on, then, old man,’ Merlin said, crossing his arms and leaning nonchalantly by the handrail, about five paces away from Gaius. Alice shot him a startled look, but didn’t comment. ‘See if you can’t catch me.’

‘Cheeky rascal,’ Gaius murmured fondly, with a twinkling glance of blue. But then he put his head down and concentrated on coordinating what was in effect one more limb than he was used to.

‘That’s right,’ said the therapist as he took a step with his right leg. ‘Try to just let your hand rest lightly on the rail. Use it for balance, and so you know there’s something to grab if you need to.’

‘Oh, he knows he has something to grab…’

Gaius chuckled, and managed to take a step with his left, despite wobbling a little as he tried to settle his weight on both the stick and his broken leg.

Merlin had put a hand out, just in case, but when he saw it wasn’t needed for support, he beckoned instead. ‘Is this come hither working for you…?’

‘You know that it is, you wicked thing.’ A third step.

‘You’ve still got it, old man.’

‘Such delusion in one so young…’ Gaius’s breath was coming a little hard now, perhaps from the exertion, perhaps due to other reasons as well. ‘It’s very sad.’

‘One more,’ Alice asked as Gaius took a fourth step. ‘I’m very pleased with the progress you’ve made, Dr Bonham.’

‘No doubt something to do,’ Gaius suggested, ‘with the motivation.’

A fifth step, and the physio clapped her hands in brisk satisfaction. ‘Well done! I think that’s enough for today.’

‘Two more,’ said Merlin. Gaius was standing right in front of him now, and his right hand was resting on Merlin’s forearm instead of the handrail. ‘You can manage two more, can’t you?’

‘Dr Bonham –’

‘I can, if you want me to.’

‘Only if you’re sure, Dr Bonham.’

‘I’m sure,’ Gaius replied, while staring up at Merlin.

‘Come on, then,’ he whispered. And he backed slowly away, in sync with Gaius as he took one more small step, and then another, not wobbling at all now but staring at Merlin intently. ‘Seven steps,’ Merlin said quietly once they’d come to a halt again. ‘You said you were defeated by seven steps.’

‘Yes.’

‘You just got even. From now on, you’re winning.’

‘I can’t believe you even remembered.’

‘Of course I did…’ Merlin glanced around, but Alice had found something to gaze at on the other side of the room, and the other residents and staff were wrapped up in their own concerns. He leaned in and pressed a kiss to Gaius’s cheek – which was soft and fine and sweet. ‘Course I did,’ he murmured.

And then the therapist was wheeling Gaius’s chair closer, and the moment broke though the feelings remained – until Alice waved a mug at Gaius when they were all back in her office. A naff–looking plastic mug with a cover. ‘It will be a while still, before you can go home. But don’t leave us without one of these.’

Gaius was aghast. ‘It’s like a baby’s mug!’ he protested. ‘It’s pastel blue!’

Merlin smoothly supplied, ‘You can keep Teague company when he graduates from bottles.’

‘How will you take care of yourself at home on your own, if you can’t even carry a cup of tea from the bench to the table?’

‘I shall make the tea on the table!’

‘How will you carry the kettle of hot water to the table?’

Gaius sighed, and apparently surrendered to the indignity. ‘All right. Not so long ago I’d have given anything to be at home again.’ Then he glanced up at Merlin. ‘It seems as though that was in a previous lifetime.’

Merlin handed over a present the next morning, after he’d helped Gaius to his armchair. ‘Thought you might like this,’ he said; it was a Starbucks thermos mug, which of course happened to have a lid. ‘See, it’ll keep your tea warm for you.’

Gaius pondered it, turning the brushed chrome and black rubber object round and around in his hands. Then he looked up at Merlin over the top of his half–moon spectacles. ‘I know what it will do,’ he countered.

‘It’s not much of a present.’

‘Oh, no… it will only save my dignity.’

‘I mean… A guy gave it to Lance to take with him on his photography expeditions; I think he hoped he was the gay one. Lance has never used it – not that he minded. And he didn’t mind me asking for it to give to you. But I didn’t even wrap it, did I?’ Merlin shrugged. ‘I’m pretty crap at this.’

‘Come here,’ Gaius said. Merlin leant in a little. ‘Closer,’ Gaius murmured, his hand reaching to shape a warm palm against Merlin’s cheek. Merlin leant in further – and then for the first time Gaius kissed him, just a gentle brushing of his lips where his palm had been. ‘I never thought to find such kindness. Not anymore.’

‘I’m not being kind.’ Merlin stood tall, and Gaius sat back in the chair in order to look up at him. ‘Only selfish, very selfish.’

‘Then perhaps you’ll permit me to ask a favour…’

‘Anything,’ vowed Merlin. ‘Well, you know. Anything that doesn’t harm Teague. But you wouldn’t ask me for something that did.’

‘Of course not.’

‘So… anything.’

‘You’ve given me a rather wonderful idea.’

Merlin stood on the path leading to Gaius’s front door, gazing up at the man’s home. Curious, and warm, and giddy. It was a terraced house at the quiet end of a row, with trees and a canal running alongside. If he had his bearings right, then they weren’t far from the river. The house was tall, there was a basement level, and three stories as well – though now Merlin thought about it, he realised he didn’t know if it all belonged to Gaius. The tiny front garden was full of happy–looking shrubs, with a carpet of dark heart–shaped leaves spreading below.

Just in front of where Merlin stood were the five steps that had meant Gaius couldn’t stay at his beloved home. Merlin nudged a trainer–clad toe against them disconsolately, wanting to kick them, resenting them for making Gaius miserable. But he couldn’t hate them. He might not ever have even met Gaius without those steps. And that would have been awful. He nudged his toe against them again, in a fonder manner this time. And then he climbed up to the top, hauled Gaius’s keys out of his pocket, found the right one and – it slipped in easily, and turned, snicking open. It felt familiar, as if he were meant to be there.

And yet as he pushed the door ajar, he was nervous about entering – instead peering in as if worrying about intruding on someone. But the house was quiet and cool and empty, and after a moment Merlin stepped inside.

The first thing that struck him was how clean everything was: clean and polished and perfect. Maybe that was only because of the contrast to the messy chaos he, Lance and Teague lived in. The next thing Merlin noted was the wealth of things that were so neatly organised, everything not only clean but in its place – so many things, curiosities, books, ornaments, oddments. A wealth not necessarily in money value, but in the evidence of a life lived fully, a mind full of curiosity and interest. A wonderful life.

Then Merlin noticed the colours and the textures. All muted and yet all rich – the house mostly creams and full of natural light, but furnished in reds and greens and blues, and then of course all the oddments in every kind of hue and sheen… It was all marvellous, just marvellous – and he hadn’t even left the hallway yet.

Merlin wandered along the shelves and cupboards that lined the hall, not touching anything but his gaze alighting on one intriguing object after another. And the books, the books…

He passed the staircase going up, turned left, and found himself in the kitchen. Again, it was beyond clean, and fully equipped, and all lovely warm creams, now finished with cheerful yellows and blues. The room was large enough to contain a table with four chairs, and two small sofas. Wide glass doors led to a paved area, and then there were two steps down into a back garden which sloped along a length of lawn, with large flowering bushes down one side, and the trees that lined the canal running tall just beyond the wooden fence. Merlin looked out at this lovely little patch of nature, and imagined a two–year–old Teague rolling down the grass, giggling and gurgling with joy.

After a moment he sighed, and turned back towards the front room, one long room that had perhaps once been two, lined with bookshelves and curiosities, with luxurious cushions on the chairs and lamps scattered throughout. Merlin grinned to himself ruefully and imagined the mischief a two–year–old Teague could get up to, how many things he could smash and besmirch…

There was one chair which was obviously Gaius’s. It was a large armchair, tall–backed and upholstered in a vivid dark red, an almost jewel–like velvet. It had been used and loved so long that the seat cushion had a comfortable dint in it. Merlin didn’t dare sit there, but he bent to rest a hand on the worn velvet, calling to mind Gaius’s warmth. A lamp stood at the chair’s right shoulder, a rack held books and academic–looking magazines on one side, and a table with coasters and a few oddments waited on the other.

Merlin sighed. No wonder Gaius had wanted so very much to be able to stay in his own home. It was a beautiful place, and so perfectly an extension, an outer echoing of its owner. He felt… He felt privileged. He was sure that Gaius would rarely invite people into such a place, such a sanctum. Perhaps only Arthur and Uther Pendragon, and Ygraine before she died. A friend or two, maybe. Someone to help with the cleaning, surely. Someone he trusted. Only people he trusted.

He trusted Merlin. To come here on his own. To see so much of who Gaius was and had been and hoped to be.

Merlin loved it. But he also felt… that there was no place here for him or Teague. Any wistful daydreams he might have formed… Well. There was no reason why they couldn’t still see each other. And Merlin was perfectly happy living with Lance – and Lance had been so great about Teague, Lance was taking care of Teague right now, and had lent Merlin his car to make this trip to Richmond… Merlin sighed.

He headed out for the hallway, and looked longingly up the stairs to where Gaius’s bedroom must be. But that would be intruding too far. And perhaps he should save himself from the for–now–unanswerable yearning of wanting to share that bed, to laugh and live and love in it, to wake up beside Gaius every morning for however much time they would be blessed with.

Well.

Perhaps he should just do what he came for, and not dawdle around all maudlin. He wondered what Gaius imagined him doing, whether Gaius thought he wouldn’t dare do more than dash in and out again, or would stay for a while, perhaps make himself a cup of tea, or whether he’d… god… go upstairs and lie on the bed, on Gaius’s bed, and stretch naked on the covers – Merlin imagined blue brocade – and touch himself, and leave his seed behind as a wistful token of what he wished for the future…

Merlin growled, forbidding himself. He went to the under–stairs cupboard and opened the door; a light flickered on. Boxes and various things were stored there, neatly arranged. A pair of walking boots and two umbrellas waited within easy reach, and three coats of various types were hanging from hooks on the back of the door. And there was a staff propped in the corner.

Merlin picked it up and turned it carefully in his hands. It was wooden, of course, and covered in rows of runes. It was perhaps five feet tall, and as he shifted he had to be careful not to let it mark the walls. There was a handgrip, though it was hardly an ergonomic design. But this had been what Gaius thought of. Instead of a baby–blue mug, Merlin had given him a Starbucks mug of black and chrome. Instead of a hospital–issue walking stick, Gaius had thought of the staff, perhaps long stored forgotten here, waiting for a use to be found, waiting for a place and a purpose… Merlin turned it in his hands again, then traced a fingertip along some of the runes, wondering what they meant – he took it as a matter of faith that they meant something.

So he’d found what he’d come for. He turned, and closed the cupboard door behind him. As he headed back down the hallway, his gaze trailed over the shelves and all they contained. The books were amazing – a real assortment, all sizes and proportions, all kinds of covers. And the titles… Merlin paused. The titles. So many of them containing the words magic or sorcery, wizardry or necromancy, and a hundred variants. His breath snagged in his throat. An amulet caught his eye, and a round silver mirror circled by more runes. He headed for the front room again. More books, a lot more – many medical, of course, a whole bookcase packed with medical texts, and another of general titles – but the rest were all about various aspects of magic.

And then Merlin’s gaze fell on a pack of cards sitting on the table by Gaius’s chair. An old, worn pack, with the backs a distinctive swirling pattern of red and gold… Merlin stared at them. It was the same pack he’d seen Gaius conjure up at the care home. It was the same pack.

He picked it up warily. Shuffled through until he found the seven of hearts. It had a crease across one corner, as if it had been deliberately bent some time long ago. He remembered that. He remembered noticing the fold back at the care home. Gaius had –

Well. There were rational explanations. A second matching pack, the other half of a pair – though usually they were a different colour, blue and gold perhaps. Or Arthur had brought the cards back here one day. Surely it wasn’t – it wasn’t possible – that –

That Gaius had magic, too.

Merlin took a last wild look around the room, and pushed the cards into a pocket, grasped the staff. And left at a run.

‘You’ve got magic!’

Gaius looked up at him, startled – and then intrigued.

Merlin had already done something he’d never done before; he’d closed the door of Gaius’s room behind him, though it usually stood open. Now he advanced towards him with the carved staff in one hand, and the pack of playing cards in the other – which he brandished. ‘You’ve got magic, Gaius.’

‘What on earth makes you think such a thing?’

Merlin didn’t get too close, but he was still looming over the man where he sat in the armchair by the window. Gaius seemed unafraid. ‘The cards. You made them appear the other day, when you were doing conjuring tricks for the children. I should have known then! You even – I knew I was missing something. You thought I’d seen it!’

‘What exactly do you think you would have seen?’

‘You’re not denying it, are you? Not really.’

‘Merlin, my dear…’

‘Magic! Or whatever it is. I don’t know what it is, and I’ve had it all my life. I’ve always been able to do things – I don’t even know what to call it, Gaius! I’ve never met anyone else who is anything like me. Until now. Until you. And you knew all along, didn’t you?’

Gaius had been gazing up at him, involved and intrigued and not giving an inch. But now he finally yielded. He sighed a little, and said quietly, ‘Not all along. Not for quite a while, actually. I thought – Well. We both thought it was other things, didn’t we?’

Merlin surrendered, too, kneeling before Gaius now, and laying down the staff on the floor. Sitting back on his heels to gaze up at his friend, as he pleaded, ‘Tell me… Is it magic? I don’t understand why I’m like this. It’s something I was born with, I think – but Mum never had any answers for me. Maybe I had it from my father, but she never thought so. Was it the same for you? Were you all alone? Gaius –’

‘My dear, hush… There’s no need to rush, we have time to learn about this. I’ll tell you all that I know, I promise – for what it’s worth.’

‘It’s worth everything.’

‘I doubt that I have enough answers to satisfy even a small portion of your curiosity!’ Gaius declared with a wry laugh. ‘But maybe we can work out more answers together. And you, Merlin… from what I sense, you will surpass me in all.’

‘How can that be, when I hardly even know what to call it?’

‘Oh, Merlin…’

‘Have you been all alone, too?’ Merlin asked again, quietly. ‘It’s been – Well, you can guess. Mum always knew, of course, and I told Freya. But that’s all. Not that I’ve hidden it from Teague, but that hardly counts. Not yet.’ Merlin frowned. ‘Will Teague have it, too, do you think? Is it something in your DNA or whatever?’

‘I don’t know. He might.’

Which was troubling. But of course it was far preferable that Teague inherit Merlin’s magic rather than Freya’s curse. The two combined would be… terrifying. Merlin shook his head, not wanting to ponder such things. Instead he looked back up at Gaius. ‘Did you tell anyone? Uther, I suppose. And Arthur. Maybe Ygraine?’

Gaius sat back a little, drawing in a long breath. ‘No… No, I didn’t. Uther was always… a man of this world –’ Gaius grasped the arm of the chair, and then tapped against it with a knuckle. ‘The world you can measure. He was – and is – a great believer in science. Even when it has failed him.’

‘And so were you…? As a doctor, I mean. Science must have meant a great deal to you.’

‘Yes, but I have believed in other things as well. Other… not worlds. Other perspectives. Other ways of healing. I used to try to discuss it with Uther. I never told Arthur. He has a strong and noble heart, Merlin –’

‘Arthur has a heart…?’ he protested.

Gaius watched Merlin for a moment with sorrow. ‘You will see it one day. You will know it. Perhaps Arthur lacks a little in imagination –’

‘Hah!’

‘But that’s no excuse for you to do likewise.’ Gaius sighed. ‘I wish you could like him more. I feel that you and Arthur could be great friends, Merlin. You would complement each other.’

‘Oh, Gaius…’ Merlin stared back at him imploringly. ‘I can’t, I just can’t. I’m sorry, I know that you – care a great deal for him. You love him. Of course. He’s your godson! But I think I could do anything you ever asked of me except for liking Arthur Pendragon.’

Gaius leant forward to cup Merlin’s cheek in one hand, to run a thumbpad along his cheekbone. ‘I am sorry for it,’ he murmured.

‘Are you? I’m not! I mean – Gaius, it’s you I like. It’s you I love. Right?’

‘But when you said…’ Gaius sighed and drew back again, taking his hand away. In fact, tucking his hands up together in his lap, as if he must restrain himself now. ‘When you talked about us recognising each other. Don’t you think that was the magic? And our sexuality as well, I’m sure – we share that, it’s true. But, my dear, it’s not love that you feel for me.’

‘Isn’t it?’ Merlin asked from the hollow place that had abruptly appeared within him.

‘No, my darling… It’s just the recognition. It’s the magic sparking, as it sees itself in another.’

No, Gaius…’

‘Merlin –’

‘Don’t do this. Please don’t do this. I love you, Gaius, I’m sure I do. It might be other things as well, but –’

‘Just let it be, Merlin. At least for now, just let it be. We have time, but we should concentrate on the magic, don’t you think? It’s far more important, after all.’

Merlin found he’d recoiled, smarting, as if he’d just been slapped in the face. ‘What?’

‘We have so much to learn together.’

Merlin pushed forward a little, and rested one gentle hand on Gaius’s left knee. The older man looked down upon Merlin’s touch as if it foretold his doom, as Merlin asked, ‘Are you saying you don’t love me?’

‘Of course not.’ Gaius stirred himself, obviously not intending to lose this one. ‘Of course I can’t say that. A man would have to be cold and in his grave to not respond to you, my dear, and I am certainly not dead yet. But you are misunderstanding your own responses.’

Merlin could feel his jaw set mulishly.

Think about it,’ Gaius pleaded. ‘Think about it, and you’ll see I’m right. Talk to anyone you like about it, and they’ll tell you the same thing.’

‘You know I can’t – not when there’s magic involved as well.’

Gaius nodded. ‘Exactly. Anyway,’ he said, sitting back, and shifting his leg under Merlin’s hand, twitching it away as if deeply uncomfortable; Merlin had to let him go. ‘Anyway,’ Gaius said, bringing out an inarguable point, ‘shouldn’t you be going home now to take care of Teague? Who’s looking after him?’

‘Lance,’ said Merlin. ‘I’m sure Lance is fine,’ he added, though he stood up, and then bent to retrieve the staff; took it to the other corner by the window to prop it up. He placed the cards on the table by Gaius’s chair. ‘Suppose I’d better go, though.’

‘Yes. I’ll see you on Tuesday morning,’ Gaius added, as if they were, after all, simply resident and orderly.

‘Yes.’ Oh, how Merlin wanted to bend down and press a farewell kiss to that sweet soft cheek – but he restrained himself, and forced himself to turn around, to head for the door. ‘I’ll see you then!’

‘Goodnight, Mr Emrys.’

‘Goodnight,’ he lamely replied as he opened up the door, and let it catch against the magnet that kept it fixed against the wall unless there was a fire alarm. ‘Goodnight, Dr Bonham.’ He felt as if he’d just gained everything he’d ever wanted, every impossible thing – and then lost it again, all within an afternoon. As he walked away he thought his heart might shatter.

Merlin didn’t get very far. He didn’t even reach the end of the long corridor, for he found Lance loitering just by the doorway to the ward manager’s office, with Teague sleeping in the sling tied across Lance’s chest. Merlin’s heart sped in panic. ‘Lance!’ he cried low, jogging the last few steps. ‘Is something wrong? Is Teague all right? What is it –?’

‘Everything’s fine,’ Lance was immediately assuring him, hands outstretched placatingly. ‘Everything’s fine, mon cher, I promise.’

Merlin had checked for himself already, of course, as far as he could: his gaze had searched Teague’s tiny form, and his hand had shaped itself to that dark hair and the fine skin and bone beneath it. ‘He seems all right.’

‘He is all right, Merlin, I promise. We just went for a walk, and ended up here…’ Lance gestured helplessly into the office.

Merlin glanced in to find a rather fond–looking Gwen considering them both. ‘Hello, Gwen! So, you’ve met Lance at last.’

‘Yes.’ She got up from her chair, and came out to join them, offering her hand to Lance for him to shake. ‘Hello, properly, Lancelot. It’s a pleasure. I’ve heard so much about you.’

‘Merlin has talked about you, too,’ Lance offered. ‘Guinevere…’ Merlin had never seen him so bashful, so self–conscious. In fact, he couldn’t recall Lance ever being bashful at all. ‘Um… Merlin says that you remind him of Hunith, and of course Hunith is truly wonderful.’

Gwen nodded. ‘It sounds like quite a compliment.’

‘Oh, it is,’ Lance earnestly continued. ‘Hunith is an amazing woman. Well, she’d have had to be,’ he added, slinging a friendly arm around Merlin’s shoulders, ‘to cope with this one on her own.’

You seem to cope all right,’ she observed.

‘Ah yes, we are… How do you say it? That expression you use. Yes, we are the odd couple! Each of us is odder than the other.’ Lance was grinning at this joke, pleased with himself. Merlin ruffled Lance’s hair, returning the grin with interest.

Perhaps inevitably, Gwen was taking it all in a rather different manner than Lance intended. ‘That is so sweet!’

‘Well…’ And Lance himself seemed to be having second thoughts now, though not along the same lines as Gwen’s. ‘Well, perhaps I am not so odd, after all. I want only what everyone wants. Love, and a family. People to call my own.’

‘And now you have them,’ Gwen said, gesturing at Teague and Merlin. ‘I’m very happy for you.’

Merlin guffawed, and could hardly prevent himself laughing. He made shooing gestures at Lance. ‘We’d better get going, honey.’

‘I suppose it is time to get home,’ Lance agreed with massive reluctance.

‘It is my day off, after all.’

‘Yes, we must make sure you enjoy the rest of it,’ Lance said heavily, still staring when he dared at Gwen. ‘I will cook you anything you like for dinner,’ he offered Merlin, though immediately adding, ‘Perhaps the lovely Guinevere would join us…?’

‘Oh, no… No, I mustn’t intrude.’

‘It wouldn’t be an intrusion,’ Lance earnestly assured her. ‘You would be so very welcome in our little circle.’

But the two of them were talking at such cross purposes, that all Merlin could think to do was get Lance out of there before he dug himself in any deeper. ‘Goodnight, Gwen! I’ll see you Tuesday.’

‘Goodnight, Merlin. Goodnight, Lancelot! Have a nice evening together.’

‘Oh, we will,’ Lance fervently replied – at which Merlin finally burst out laughing – and Lance would have done something bizarre like sweep into a low bow, if Merlin hadn’t hurried him around the next corner and out the door.

‘Lance, you dear sweet idiot,’ Merlin murmured fondly as they headed for the car park and Lance’s car. ‘You like Gwen, don’t you?’

‘She is magnificent! Why did you never tell me…? Oh, but a woman like that… she must have a lover already, or a devoted husband, not to mention a dozen other men clamouring for her attention.’

‘I don’t think that’s going to be the problem,’ Merlin informed him.

‘Ah! You give me hope!’

‘Get in the car,’ Merlin advised. And he didn’t feel like disobliging Lance’s sweep of fine feeling, so he just drove them all home again, while Lance spun odes to Gwen’s kindness and beauty.

Of course Merlin had found out the number for the phone in Gaius’s room, and saved it to his own phone. He hadn’t used it, but he’d liked knowing it was there. That night he called as soon as Teague was safely asleep.

Gaius picked up immediately, though he sounded befuddled by the late hour. ‘Gaius Bonham; hello.’

‘I love you,’ said Merlin, low and intent. ‘It might just be the magic for you, but it’s love for me. Or it’s love as well.’

After a moment, Gaius confessed, ‘It’s not just the magic.’

‘Good.’ Merlin sighed. ‘I want to know all about that, too, though! I want it all. I warned you I was selfish.’

‘My dear –’

‘Just for tonight, don’t tell me no. Don’t tell me why not.’

‘Then for tonight I won’t do that, Merlin.’

‘Goodnight, Gaius.’

‘Goodnight, my dear. Sleep well.’

‘I’ll be dreaming of you,’ Merlin promised. And he hung up.

four

‘You!’ cried Arthur as he strode into Gaius’s room one evening.

Despite himself, Merlin started, and stood from where he’d been sitting cross–legged on the floor at Gaius’s feet. ‘What the hell…?’ he muttered. His hands had fisted; he forced them open again, forced them to stay down at his sides.

Arthur was radiating fury, his blue eyes blazing. ‘Merlin Emrys. It is going to give me such great pleasure to terminate your employment.’

‘What?! What have I done this time?’

This time, indeed,’ Arthur threw back at him with bitter satisfaction. ‘So, you acknowledge there’s been a whole string of offences.’

‘Arthur, please –’

‘Guy,’ said Arthur, holding a hand palm–out towards the old man. ‘Please don’t interfere.’

‘Don’t talk to him like that!’ Merlin retorted. ‘And anyway, his name’s Gaius.’

Arthur stared at Merlin for a long moment, as if wondering what rock he could possibly have crawled out from under. ‘You have been behaving entirely inappropriately towards the residents of this facility –’

‘Only one resident!’

‘Ah! Then you admit it.’

Merlin tilted his head for a moment, quibbling. ‘Anyway, it’s not inappropriate. It’s entirely consensual. And I love him. We love each other.’

‘What utter rubbish!’

Arthur,’ Gaius quietly protested, as if pained.

God, thought Merlin, of course he’s pained!

‘The issue of consent cannot be applied –’

‘Don’t you dare talk to us like that –’

‘– in such unequal circumstances. And how else should I talk to you, when you have proven yourself so heedless of Guy’s wellbeing or dignity?’

Don’t call him that.’

‘You flirt with him quite openly –’

‘Why shouldn’t I? Just because you’re squeamish about things that don’t concern you!’

‘You make him the subject of gossip – and whether fond or malicious makes no difference!’

‘You should be grateful that no one here has anything much to talk about, other than love.’

Arthur visibly gritted his teeth. ‘Will you please stop trying to claim the high moral ground, when you know very well what a hypocrite that makes you!’

‘You wouldn’t know the high moral ground if you tripped over and fell on it.’

‘Oh yes. Nicely argued. Very cogent. Not.’

Merlin was, for a moment, reduced to glaring. And restraining his magic. He found himself having to physically rein in his magic – for the first time since his school days – for fear that it may explode out of him and reduce this prat to a pile of smoking ashes.

‘And then, when I raise the issue with Sister Thomson, all she has to say in your defence is that you already have a partner, with a rather strange name, who is some kind of French gypsy.’

‘Oh right,’ Merlin scoffed. ‘So you’re a racist as well as a prat.’

‘I am not.’ Though Arthur had lost the fine edge of his anger now, as if realising he was on the back foot. ‘But you have to admit, he doesn’t sound as if he’s the trustworthy, reliable sort.’

‘I trust Lance to share my home. To help me take care of my child.’

Arthur crossed his arms, and at last looked past Merlin at Gaius. ‘Did you know about this Lancelot fellow, Guy? All the time that Mr Emrys has been flirting with you –’

‘Lance is not my partner,’ Merlin insisted. ‘He is not my boyfriend or my lover. We share a flat. That’s all. He’s my friend.’

‘Guy –’

‘Do you even know anything about friends?’ Merlin cried.

‘Guy, just tell me if you –’

‘Will you stop – fucking –calling him that?!’

Arthur was glaring at Merlin again. ‘I’ll call him what I like! He’s my godparent!’

‘Merlin,’ said Gaius, quietly yet insistently. ‘Arthur, please –’

And when Merlin glanced at him, he saw that Gaius was trying to struggle to his feet. He immediately stepped closer again, to help him, to steady him – regret falling through him, shame silencing him. Once Gaius was standing, leaning on Merlin’s arm, Merlin looked across at Arthur again – who seemed to have been startled out of his rage. At least, he was watching Gaius thoughtfully now, his gaze flicking to Merlin on occasion, though his colour was still high.

‘Mr Emrys,’ came Gwen’s voice in the sudden quiet. ‘Mr Pendragon. You will both oblige me by leaving the ward – by leaving the premises. Now.’

‘Sister Thomson –’ Arthur began with stiff formality.

‘I might regret this later,’ she continued, ‘but right now, I don’t care who your father is. Arthur, I want you to leave. You, too, Merlin – you have no right to be here. It’s not your shift, and it’s not visiting hours. You’re abusing your privileges here.’

‘Sister Thomson,’ Gaius offered, ‘they’ve stopped arguing. They had already stopped before you arrived. Perhaps if we allow them to talk through the remaining issues –’

‘They can do that somewhere other than on my ward.’ Gwen crossed her arms, and was formidable enough. Leon suddenly loomed behind her, appearing more worried than anything; but Gwen hardly needed the backup in any case. ‘They’ve been behaving like children. I see no need not to treat them as such.’

‘You’re right, of course, Sister – but if we might encourage them to now behave as adults…? I have this rather fond dream in which they become fast friends.’

‘Gaius –’

‘Guy –’

‘Dr Bonham –’

‘Let me help you sit down again,’ Merlin said quietly to Gaius. ‘Or do you want to move to the bed? I think I’d better get home, anyway.’

‘The chair is fine,’ Gaius murmured. ‘I wish you didn’t have to go,’ he added as Merlin helped ease him down.

‘But there’s Teague waiting. And Gwen’s right –’

‘Sister Thomson is right,’ Arthur smoothly insisted. ‘We’ve caused enough disruption.’

Despite himself, resentment stabbed through Merlin. ‘Now who’s trying to claim the high moral ground…?’

Both of you,’ Gwen said. ‘Get out. Now. I won’t ask you again.’

Gaius’s hand whispered a sad caress down Merlin’s forearm, and he nodded a farewell to Arthur.

‘Nurse Wilde,’ Gwen added to Leon, ‘if you’ll kindly escort them to the door – and watch them as far as the car park. I won’t have this breaking out again while they’re in the home or on the grounds.’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ Leon murmured. His bright yearning gaze was on Arthur, of course, but he spared a concerned glance for Merlin as the two of them walked past and out into the corridor.

A turbulent silence lasted despite or because of all the stares they drew from the other residents and staff, and then continued on until Arthur paused near his ridiculously expensive–looking pale–gold car. ‘Merlin,’ Arthur finally said.

‘What?’ Merlin crossed his arms, all too aware of Leon watching them from the front doors, fifty feet away. He would not give in to the urge to harm this arrogant man, verbally or physically or magically. He would not.

‘Guy seems to think that – that we complement each other.’

Merlin scoffed. ‘Sure. You’re a prat, and I’m not. We complement each other perfectly.’

Strangely enough, Arthur didn’t get angry again. He simply watched Merlin for a long moment, and then observed, ‘Well. We are both wilful, and we both like to be right.’

‘I am right,’ he retorted without heat.

Arthur huffed a laugh. ‘I am willing to concede… that we both have Guy’s interests at heart.’

Merlin in his turn watched Arthur, wondering. Eventually he said, ‘Thank you.’

‘Though no doubt we would still disagree on how those interests are best served,’ Arthur quickly returned.

‘Ah.’ That meant, of course, that Arthur didn’t want Merlin loving Gaius. Or not as anything more than a friend.

Arthur glanced around the car park. ‘Is one of these yours?’

‘No. I catch the bus.’

‘Then, can I offer you a lift home?’

Merlin thought about it. Of course he was late by now, but Lance would have collected Teague from Erika – if Lance himself were home already. Merlin really should get back as soon as he could. But would the argument simply break out afresh if they spent any more time together? Or would it really matter even if it did, if they were alone and not disturbing anyone else? Merlin glanced around, and waved farewell at poor Leon waiting down there, absorbing as much of the distant sight of Arthur as he could. ‘All right,’ Merlin answered at last. ‘Thank you.’

‘You’ve no need to thank me,’ Arthur said as he unlocked the doors, and they each slid into what seemed to Merlin sinful luxury. ‘I want to meet your gypsy friend.’

Merlin guffawed. ‘You know, I think you read too many of the wrong kind of novels as a child. Lance wasn’t raised in a gaily painted caravan, he’s never sold trinkets, and I would stake my life on him never having stolen anything in his life. He has…’ The streets sped past in a blur of light and dark, and Merlin wondered what on earth he was saying. He said it anyway. ‘Lance has a noble soul. I’d trust him with anything I am. I do trust him with everything. Including my baby son. Even if Lance is a bit… unworldly.’

Arthur was actually un–prattish enough to consider all this. ‘He sounds… interesting,’ Arthur offered, though his tone made it clear he might easily get impatient with such a man. ‘So, he knows how you feel about Guy, then?’

‘Ah. No. Not yet.’

‘Why not?’

Merlin sighed, and pointed out the directions. ‘Turn right just up there, and it’s the next left. Just past the corner. Look,’ he said. ‘I know there aren’t many people who’ll understand me loving Gaius. I guess I just wanted to keep it between him and me for a while. Until it was more… secure. I haven’t told Lance, or my Mum, or – or anyone, really. You know,’ Merlin conceded, ‘even Gaius won’t quite accept it. Not yet. He thinks it’s – about other things. Recognition. Friendship. Even Gaius tries to talk me out of it.’

‘No, he’s in love with you.’

Merlin found he’d let out a moan that sounded horribly close to a blub.

‘He adores you. That much is clear.’

Arthur –’

‘And I can almost see why; I didn’t at first. But I want to be sure that you and your French gypsy friend aren’t taking advantage, that’s all.’

‘Oh, for god’s sake,’ Merlin muttered. How did anyone manage to be so generous and so infuriating all within a breath?

‘Introduce me to this Lancelot. Tell him how you feel about Guy, while I’m there. And if all goes as well as you’re claiming it will, then –’

‘Yes? What, then?’

Arthur nodded. ‘If I’m convinced that you mean Guy no harm. Then. You and I will just have to find a way to get along, won’t we?’

Merlin laughed. ‘That could be the most challenging part of all this.’

‘There you are. We’re hardly even trying yet, and that’s the second opinion we hold in common. I can’t imagine why you think this will be so difficult.’

More laughter, and Merlin slid down in the smooth leather seat, relaxed for the first time ever in the company of Arthur Pendragon.

Arthur was a still point in the whirl of Merlin and Lance and Teague… He sat at the kitchen table, considering his companions carefully, but apparently not snobbish or uncomfortable about the obvious chaos. Lance was cooking – and singing some kind of off–key off–colour folksong, having acknowledged Arthur’s arrival without missing a note. Merlin had greeted his son, boiled the kettle and brewed a pot of tea for the three adults while warming Teague’s formula in the remaining hot water; he now settled to feeding Teague, sitting round the corner of the table from Arthur.

Lance finally finished his song with a flourish of a stew–covered ladle. To his credit, the ever expensively–suited Arthur didn’t even flinch when drops of rich sauce spattered across the tabletop. ‘Supper is almost ready!’ Lance declared. ‘Will you be joining us, Arthur…?’

‘Well,’ Arthur prevaricated, glancing at Merlin – who nodded to second the invitation. ‘I need to talk with Merlin.’

‘Then you had better stay! And we can’t eat if you’re not.’

‘Then I should be glad to. If there is enough…?’

‘He always makes plenty,’ Merlin said.

‘I always make enough,’ Lance corrected him. ‘One day there will be five of us, and not three. Today there are four. One day my lover will join us, and one day maybe yours…’ He looked at Merlin, raising an enquiring eyebrow towards Arthur.

Arthur scoffed, and said, ‘Tell him your news, Merlin Emrys.’

‘What, you can’t give me five minutes? You can’t let me lead into it gently?’

‘Why should I, if everything is as you claim it is?’

Merlin sighed, snuggled Teague closer for a moment, and then looked up at Lance. ‘I’m in love,’ he announced. ‘Not just that. I love.’

‘Ah…’ Lance sighed in satisfaction, and slid into a chair to face Merlin. ‘I thought you were happier! And I am happy for you.’ After a moment, he added doubtfully, ‘But not with Arthur…?’

‘No, I’m in love with Gaius.’

‘Your friend at the care home?’

‘Exactly.’

‘Ah…’ Lance was frowning a little as he took this in.

‘This comes as a surprise to you,’ Arthur observed.

‘Yes, but… Merlin has often spoken of Gaius. I knew they had become very good friends. He is one of the inmates, yes?’

‘Residents,’ the other two chorused.

‘But only because he broke his leg so badly,’ Lance added.

‘Yes, he’s not living there due to illness or a lack of competence. However, the age difference,’ Arthur implacably continued, ‘is appalling. Guy is my godparent – but he’s old enough to be my grandfather.’

‘Ah.’

‘Arthur –’

‘Doesn’t that surprise you?’ Arthur asked Lance. ‘That Merlin could fall in love with a man over three times his own age?’

‘It is unusual,’ Lance slowly offered, considering this. Then he looked up, and said more briskly, ‘But Merlin is an unusual person. Very unusual. It is something one loves about him, with a passion, if one loves him at all. He has fallen for unexpected people before now.’

‘Really?’

‘No one like Gaius, perhaps – but I think it will always come as a surprise, who Merlin loves. And therefore it will never really be a surprise at all.’

‘Huh,’ said Arthur, staring at Lance with narrowed eyes.

Merlin was amused. ‘Did you hear what you needed to hear?’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Lance. ‘Merlin?’

‘He didn’t believe my intentions towards Gaius were honourable.’

‘Ah, I see. You both love Gaius,’ Lance observed with a nod. ‘You both want to protect him.’

‘Exactly,’ said Merlin. ‘Here,’ he added, reaching down to haul his small sketchpad out of his backpack, and then riffling through it before handing it over to Lance. ‘This is Gaius. I drew this back in the first week I met him.’

‘Mmm, yes…’ Lance responded, studying it closely. ‘He is a handsome devil, isn’t he! And such a… such a strong life force still.’ Lance gestured around himself as if indicating his soul or his aura, and then finished by gently thumping his own chest. ‘What an interesting man… I can see why you found him appealing, Merlin.’

Arthur had started rolling his eyes at life force, but seemed more amused than exasperated.

‘Oh, and Guinevere…’ Lance sighed as he found her portrait on the next page. ‘Oh, you have captured her inner light so perfectly, Merlin… better than I ever could with my camera. The artist’s eye sees more than the camera’s lens.’

‘Thank you,’ Merlin said with a happy laugh. Then he asked, ‘So, Arthur…? Do I pass?’

Arthur considered him balefully for a long moment. And when he spoke, he answered only obliquely. ‘Lancelot? When’s dinner ready?’ Arthur asked.

‘Now! It is ready now.’ Lance pressed a kiss to his fingertips, and touched them to the edges of the paper bearing Gwen’s likeness, then jumped up to fetch a third bowl for the stew, and began dishing it out.

Merlin grinned, and lifted Teague up against his shoulder to burp him. Everything really was going rather astonishingly well…

Hunith drove down early on the Saturday morning in order to look after Teague, which was wonderful – though Merlin knew he wouldn’t be able to rely on Erika, Lance and Hunith taking turns to give up their Saturdays for very long. Perhaps the arrangement wouldn’t even last through to the end of his employment and the beginning of the new academic year. In the meantime, however, it was good to have such a great reason to spend time with his Mum.

‘Come into work for lunch,’ Merlin suggested as he gathered up his jacket and keys. ‘There’s someone I want you to meet.’

‘Well, if Teague lets me…’

‘He’s the best–behaved baby in the world,’ Merlin declared as he bent down to press a kiss to his son’s forehead; ‘Freya was so right about that. Anyway, he’s already terrific friends with Gaius. You just tell him he’s going to visit Gaius, and he’ll want to come.’

Hunith smiled up at Merlin, and cupped his face for a moment. ‘I’ll try.’

‘Good,’ he said, figuring that he could rely on it.

And indeed, Hunith arrived just before midday, and Leon showed her to Gaius’s room, where Merlin had just wheeled in a trolley bearing three lunches from the cafeteria. Leon offered to go warm up Teague’s bottle – while Merlin performed the introductions, which consisted of little more than, ‘Mum, this is my friend, Gaius. Gaius, this is my Mum, Hunith.’

‘How do you do,’ said Gaius, shaking Hunith’s hand. To which Hunith responded, ‘I’m well, thank you.’ And they each sat in the armchairs, Gaius covering his unease with urbanity, and Hunith betraying only the mildest surprise.

Merlin didn’t explain anything further, but bestowed Teague on Gaius, and sat himself on Gaius’s bed. Luckily lunch was chicken korma with rice, so they could each eat singlehandedly, with Gaius’s plate on the table which Merlin had wheeled into place just to his right. Gaius and Hunith were soon exchanging details and stories; getting to know each other in the ways that friendly reasonable adults did, in the ways that Merlin himself didn’t yet have the knack of. When Merlin was done eating, he indulged himself by stretching out on the bed, curling up on his side facing the others, and letting his eyes close. He hadn’t had an unbroken night’s sleep for so long now, and he was doing fine, but really, a day didn’t go by in which he didn’t yearn for an afternoon nap…

He drifted awake for a few moments as Hunith reclaimed Teague, and Gaius asked in a low voice, ‘I was hoping you might have brought Merlin some good news about Teague’s mother…’

And Hunith replied, just as low, ‘No. No, I’m afraid not. It’s the saddest thing,’ she added after a moment. ‘When Freya is herself, no one could be sweeter or more lucid. But when she has an episode, she becomes really dangerous – to herself, to those she cares most about. I was worried for Merlin, let alone for Teague. And she has become… Well, it’s broken her heart, her spirit. She’s the same age as Merlin, almost exactly, but you wouldn’t know that meeting her now. It is the saddest thing.’

And Merlin fled back into sleep, not wanting to hear more, not wanting to grieve more for the dearest friend he’d ever had…

Until Gaius’s hand was firm on his shoulder, and his lovely voice was just as firmly saying, ‘It’s time to get up again, Merlin. Sister Thomson will be looking for you soon, if you don’t start your rounds.’

Merlin didn’t open his eyes, but strayed in his dreams a while longer, indulged his fancies… ‘The pillow smells of you,’ he murmured, to which Gaius responded, ‘Oh dear!’ and Hunith laughed – which brought Merlin properly awake again, grinning. ‘It smells lovely.’

‘Get on with you, you mischievous scamp,’ Gaius scolded him fondly.

‘Mum –’

‘I’ll be fine here, if Gaius will permit me to stay a while longer. I suspect Teague needs changing before I go, in any case.’

‘Of course you must stay. And if anyone questions you being here outside visiting hours, I’ll tell them I’m considering moving to your own fine establishment.’

Hunith laughed, and said, ‘Oh, I don’t think you’re ready for that yet.’

They seemed to be getting along just fine. Merlin’s grin grew wider. He ran a hand through his own sleep–ruffled hair, kissed Teague farewell, and headed off, leaving them to it. And if either of them wanted to explain Merlin to the other in his absence, he didn’t think he’d come too badly out of the encounter.

He called Gaius that night, of course. Hunith was sleeping in Merlin’s room with Teague, so Merlin was stretched out on the old sofa – which luckily was long enough and almost soft enough for a good night’s sleep. Merlin wondered if he’d regret turning down Lance’s offer of sharing his bed, though he supposed he could always sneak in there during the night if necessary.

Anyway, it was becoming a sweet habit, calling Gaius last thing at night, even if it was to do no more than wish each other well. Tonight, however, Gaius seemed pensive. ‘I was thinking about your father,’ Gaius announced without much preamble.

‘Oh! Were you talking to Mum about him?’

‘Not as such…’ was the evasive reply. The grown–ups must have their secrets.

‘What, then?’ Merlin prompted.

After a moment, Gaius asked, ‘What would you do, if he returned?’

‘I don’t know… I hardly think about it anymore. I mean, I do wonder what he’d make of me – but when you get right down to it, if he didn’t like how I turned out, then he could just sod off again, couldn’t he?’

Gaius laughed. ‘That sounds like a very healthy attitude.’

‘You’ve got me curious about the magic now, though. I mean, whether I inherited it from him. Did either of your parents have magic?’

‘Oh no… Definitely not, bless them, they were rather ordinary folk. But… I had to learn it, Merlin. I’m not like you. I wasn’t born with magic – or, at most, only the propensity for it. And a very small one at that!’ With barely a breath, though, Gaius returned to his first subject. ‘Your father, if he returned –’

‘It’s been twenty years, Gaius. Why would he suddenly come back?’

‘Men take stock… every now and then.’ After a moment, he asked, ‘What has Hunith told you of him?’

Merlin restrained himself from asking again what Gaius and Hunith had been talking of that afternoon, and instead answered directly. ‘Not much. That he was a good man. She says it as if… as if there were people who wouldn’t agree. He was Irish, but I don’t even know if that’s the north or the south. And she says I’m very like him.’ He smiled, unable to prevent himself. ‘I’m very like him. She never says in what way – looks or character. But I always knew that’s a compliment. I think she liked him – very much.’

‘Though he didn’t stay.’

‘Apparently he couldn’t.’ Merlin shrugged. It was an old mystery, and one he’d accepted long ago. ‘I care more for Mum’s sake than my own. I mean, I never knew him, and I don’t wish my own life any different. But she’s been missing him for twenty years. That’s the sad bit.’

‘That is sad, yes,’ Gaius quietly agreed.

‘Gaius –’

‘I know, my dear. I know.’

‘Well, goodnight, then. Dream about me!’

‘Always.’

five

Of course Merlin still dropped by Gaius’s room first thing every morning, even now Gaius no longer needed help getting out of bed and into the armchair. ‘Hey,’ Merlin greeted his friend that Tuesday morning. ‘I missed you this weekend!’

‘And I you,’ Gaius quietly replied.

‘But, you know – it was great to see Mum again. And she was amazing with Teague. And – well, I got caught up on some sleep, thanks to her. Which really was very kind of her, cos she works hard, you know. She works really hard, and I should have been letting her catch up on sleep, but –’

‘Merlin –’

‘What’s wrong?’ Merlin babbled. ‘Something’s wrong, isn’t it. You look like – Well, you’re never this quiet. Or not like this, anyway.’ He crouched by the chair, taking one of Gaius’s hands gently into both of his. ‘Gaius? Tell me what’s wrong.’

‘I must go home today. I must move back home.’

‘What? No…’

‘I’m fine now, Merlin. I’m quite agile, with my walking stick. In many ways I’m even better than I was: Alice and her physiotherapy have done me a great deal of good. And there will be someone else soon enough who needs this room. Really, I should have gone home days ago.’

‘No, I…’

‘They did me a favour, letting me stay until today. If they realised why I asked, if they let me play on my connection to Uther and Arthur, I can’t say that I mind very much. I’ve been quite shameless.’

‘Gaius, I know you want to go home –’

‘This is a lovely place,’ Gaius murmured. ‘I was very lucky to be given a room.’

Merlin grinned bleakly. ‘You weren’t saying that when I first got here.’

‘No, but I changed my tune within a few minutes of meeting you, my dear, didn’t I?’

Merlin’s heart felt as if someone were wringing it dry. ‘Gaius –’ he gasped.

‘I know,’ Gaius said, bringing his free hand over to pat reassuringly at Merlin’s clasped hands. ‘And I know that – you have your work, and your studies, your art, and of course dear little Teague. You mustn’t – I know there’s no room in your life for anyone more, and no time to speak of.’

It was so damned unfair! ‘If there was a Merlin–sized hole in your life –’

‘Oh, but there is!’

‘– and space for Teague, as well, even when he starts growing –’

‘Merlin, you can’t doubt such a thing. That is hardly the issue.’

But they wouldn’t fit into Gaius’s home, it wasn’t a good fit at all, and anyway it would be such a wrench to leave Lance behind, and Erika, too, she and her kids were so great for Teague. Merlin had to stay put, that was all there was to it. He let out a horrible dry sob. ‘If I could come and see you on Sundays, maybe – No, that’s probably when you see Arthur. Mondays, do you think? For a few hours?’

‘Oh my darling, you mustn’t – you mustn’t – You have enough in your life already.’

‘If I come in the afternoon, then Teague will have his nap, and we can talk. We can be together. Because I love you. You have to know that I love you!’

Gaius’s hands clutched strongly at his. ‘Please. Let me go, then. What we’ve had has been wonderful, Merlin. The most charming interlude. Let’s not spoil it by trying to make it more than it can be.’

‘Oh, Gaius…’ Merlin bent over their joined hands, rested his forehead heavy there, let his tears fall lightly. ‘Gaius…’

‘Come on, my dear. You must go to work now. You’ll see me again. This isn’t goodbye, not yet.’

‘All right,’ Merlin miserably agreed, slowly uncurling and hauling himself up to his feet. ‘This isn’t goodbye.’

‘Not yet, my darling.’

Except that it was.

By the time Merlin got back to Gaius’s room late that morning, it was empty. The bed was stripped cold and bare, all of Gaius’s possessions were gone, and the furniture had been moved away from the walls ready for cleaning. Another horrible gulping sob shook him, and Merlin threw himself down on the bed, huddled into himself, quietly gave himself over to the grief.

Purposeful footsteps only moments later, which wasn’t fair cos he was nowhere near done yet, and anyway he hadn’t been making enough noise to disturb anyone, surely. If only he’d closed the door… Merlin curled up a little further and lifted his head just far enough to glimpse –

Arthur Pendragon, damn him. Well, Merlin hadn’t been fool enough to hope it was Gaius, but Arthur was a long way down his list of acceptable substitutes. ‘Go away!’ Merlin demanded. ‘Leave me alone! I’m on my lunch break.’

But Arthur had closed the door behind him, and now came to sit beside Merlin on the bed, even expecting him to shift back out of the way. ‘I trust this touching display isn’t for my benefit.’

‘Oh fuck off, you prat. Like I even care what you think!’

‘Well, I know you only care for Guy’s sake…’

‘He’s gone,’ Merlin moaned, turning his face away, ‘he’s gone… The pillow doesn’t even smell of him anymore.’

‘I would think not! We do have some fairly rigorous standards of hygiene to adhere to, you know.’

‘Will you please go away and leave me alone! I don’t want to be talking about hygiene!’

‘Talk to me about Guy, then. Go on. I’m assuming that’s your favourite topic of conversation these days.’

Merlin groaned. ‘Why d’you call him that? He must hate it! God, and why didn’t you –’ Merlin blinked, and pushed himself up on an elbow the better to confront the man. ‘Why didn’t you look after him better? You’re his godson! The closest thing to a son he’ll ever have. And you just left him here to fend for himself!’

‘No, I didn’t,’ Arthur argued surprisingly reasonably. ‘I made sure he was given the room here, as close as possible to his own home. I made sure he’d be taken care of.’

‘If he were mine, I’d have taken care of him myself. I’d have had him to stay at my place, or gone to stay with him at his. But I suppose that wouldn’t suit your prattish lifestyle, to have an old man hanging around. To have someone real in your life, who needed you.’

Infuriatingly, Arthur responded by patting Merlin on the shoulder, all but murmuring, There, there.

Merlin pushed up further, getting in the man’s face. ‘Someone who’d ruin your schedule. You didn’t even run errands for him, or anything! When he wanted something fetched from his house, he asked me to go! You just dumped him here!’

‘Oh, Merlin, for heaven’s sake…’

And he defends you!

Arthur cast him a dry glance – but then, oddly, seemed to smile, though he turned away to try to hide it. ‘Look. I should think there was a reason why Guy wanted you to see his house.’

‘What?!’ Merlin retorted in disbelief.

‘I should think there was a reason he sent you rather than me… don’t you?’

Merlin just stared at the man.

‘And I think it’s pretty rich, you telling me off for arranging to have Gaius stay here – when you might never have even met him otherwise.’

Merlin was gaping by now. Arthur looked back at him, easy and amused. Finally Merlin managed faintly, ‘You say it like that would have been a bad thing.’

‘Well, wouldn’t it?’

‘Yes.’

‘There you are, then. You should be grateful.’

Merlin lay back on the bed, and curled up a little. Strangely, he was curling up around where Arthur Pendragon sat. Such a thing had not even been on his To Do List until then. ‘You’re taking all this astonishingly well.’

As if to underline Merlin’s point, Arthur lifted a hand to wrap around Merlin’s shoulder, and gave him a little shake. ‘Why shouldn’t I?’

You’re asking me that? After the interrogation you put me through not so long ago?’

Arthur huffed a laugh, and turned in towards Merlin, bending a leg to rest his thigh on the bed, his hand falling quite naturally on Merlin’s hip at his side. ‘I had to be sure.’ He rubbed his hand against Merlin, managing to be both reassuring and inappropriate at the same time. It crossed Merlin’s mind to wonder if Arthur wasn’t used to physical contact that wasn’t sex. But Merlin wasn’t going to pursue that notion, cos there were more interesting things happening just then. ‘Oh, and you’re right, you know,’ Arthur was saying. ‘I’m sure Guy would hate being called that by anyone else. But I called him that as a child, when I couldn’t say Gaius, I simply couldn’t form the name. And it stuck. Now it’s a mark of fondness between us. A sign that I’m something to him that no one else is.’ Arthur grinned, and leaned in a little: ‘Not even you.’

‘I’m gonna see him so much less,’ Merlin complained in a quiet wail. ‘Even if it all worked out in the best possible way, I wouldn’t be seeing him almost every day, like when he was here.’

‘I’m sure you can sort something out.’

‘Don’t say that,’ Merlin pleaded. ‘Don’t say that if you don’t mean it. I don’t want comfort!’

‘Merlin, for heaven’s sake – I am the last person to offer meaningless comfort. You’ll understand why I was wary at first, but once I’ve made up my mind then I stay the course. I’m told,’ Arthur confided, dipping in closer again, ‘that it’s a fault I share with Mr Darcy. I take it that’s not a bad thing.’

Arthur –’

‘If you can each convince me, then I’m sure you can finally convince yourselves as well. You’ll be cooing and cuddling and calling each other butternut pumpkin in no time.’

‘Oh!’ Words wouldn’t do any more. Merlin pushed himself up – well, flung himself up to grab Arthur in a hug – and Arthur cried, ‘Oh!’ in surprise, and gathered Merlin up, leaning over him, bending him back, one hand slipping up to cup his nape – and Merlin thought he’d been right, Arthur usually only related to people physically when sex was involved, and Merlin knew that Arthur didn’t want him, but how could they not respond to each other when the pattern they formed made it inevitable – ‘Let me go, you great prat,’ Merlin insisted, but fondly cos he couldn’t bear to start hating Gaius’s godson again, he just wouldn’t do that – ‘You could let me go, you idiot,’ Arthur responded in exactly the same warm tones –

And it was already too late, because Merlin suddenly caught sight of Gaius and Leon in the doorway, staring back at him stunned – Merlin froze, and Arthur finally began pulling away, though not realising yet they had witnesses – but Gaius was already looking resigned in a bittersweet kind of way, while Leon’s shock crumbled into grief. Gaius was in a wheelchair, in his outdoor clothes – obviously he’d been trying to find Merlin with Leon’s assistance, before finally leaving – ‘Leon, please…’ Gaius prompted – and Leon carefully tugged at the chair, stepped back and swung it around out of the room, but not without flashing a look of envy, resentment, anger at Merlin.

‘Oh fuck…’ Merlin mumbled, sprawling back on the bed. ‘Oh fuck, that’s ruined everything…’

‘Don’t be so ridiculous,’ Arthur tartly replied, bouncing up off the bed and onto his feet, adjusting his cuffs and miraculously transforming back into his usual impeccable self.

‘But don’t you see…? He always had this weird idea that you and I should hook up, and now he’ll be back onto that again, just when I thought he might finally have really declared himself…’ Merlin dragged himself miserably off the bed, and pushed a hand through his hair. ‘This is just the worst possible timing.’

‘The thing is,’ Arthur said, ‘you’re both adults – even you, Merlin – so there’s no longer any need to get melodramatic about matters that could be cleared up within two minutes of rational conversation.’

‘You’re right. I have to go talk to him, I have to tell him – I have to –’

‘For god’s sake, let me comb your hair first. In fact, tidy yourself up so you’re not looking quite so tumbled. It’s not like they’ll get far, after all.’

‘Yes, Arthur. Thank you, Arthur.’ He stood still while Arthur took a comb from his pocket and with a surprising show of patience tried to tame Merlin’s hair. ‘But it’s hopeless…’ Merlin murmured.

‘If you got a decent cut every now and then, you might turn out quite presentable. I’d be prepared to recommend you to my barber.’

Despite himself, Merlin guffawed, and flashed a grin at this man who seemed to be almost becoming a friend. This man who stepped back to admire the effects of his work, and then let his comb drop in the waste bin. Merlin rolled his eyes, and pulled his scrubs straight. Luckily he was in the blue, which were the only ones that suited him.

‘Here,’ Arthur said, as he offered Merlin a set of keys. ‘I was going to drive Guy home, his suitcase is already in the boot. You do the honours.’

Merlin gaped at him. ‘You’d let me… drive your car.’

‘Apparently. Go on, then. Though you still look a sight!’

‘Nothing to be done about that. Thanks, Arthur.’ His heart was thudding; he was already halfway to the door. ‘Gaius told me you were a decent man.’

‘All right, all right. No need for a eulogy yet.’

Merlin grinned and headed off.

Leon was carefully handing Gaius into Arthur’s low–slung pale–gold car, and he managed to restrain himself from turning around at Merlin’s approach, even though he must have been expecting Arthur.

‘It’s only me,’ Merlin announced – and both heads swung towards him in surprise. Merlin held up the keys as evidence. ‘Arthur said I should drive you home, Gaius.’ Both of them were stunned again, but in a rather different way. ‘If that’s all right with you.’

‘Yes,’ Gaius said, low and husky and prompt. ‘Of course.’

‘That wasn’t what it looked like, you know,’ Merlin continued conversationally. ‘We weren’t – well, you know. It just –’

‘No, we worked that out –’ Leon and Gaius started babbling.

‘We didn’t think you’d –’

‘When we thought about it –’

‘We talked it through, and –’

‘– and we decided. It wasn’t what it looked like.’

‘No.’

Merlin laughed, and one burden at least lifted from his heart and dissolved into the warm afternoon air. ‘Leon, Arthur’s probably still in Gaius’s room.’

‘Right,’ said Leon – and he headed off, pushing the empty wheelchair ahead of him as fast as it would go.

Merlin took a breath, and as the quiet afternoon settled around them, he crouched by the open door, beside Gaius. ‘D’you have your belt on, old man? It’s going to be quite a ride.’

There was no chance for conversation; the car took all Merlin’s attention. Not only was he madly focussed on not causing any harm to the car itself or its precious passenger, but he found the smoothness and silence of the thing completely unnerving – with Lance’s old bucket of a Citroen or his mother’s perfectly serviceable but modest Ford Focus, he always had a sense of where he was and where he was going and how long it was going to take to get there. He felt connected with the road. In Arthur’s Aston Martin, he felt completely isolated, and it accelerated so easily and so quickly that he’d be breaking the speed limit without realising until suddenly another car ahead was approaching too fast too fast, and he jammed on the brakes – which luckily were also smooth and silent…

They made it to the house without mishap, though, and as Merlin carefully parked he decided he’d loved that. The car drove beautifully, and he may never have the chance to get used to such a thing – but, after the fact, he decided he’d loved it.

And Gaius… oh, Gaius… Merlin escorted Gaius up those steps, and through the front door, into the dim cool quiet reaches inside the house. They were quite alone now, for the first time since they’d met, and everything was hushed and – and waiting for them. ‘Your bedroom,’ Merlin murmured.

‘Yes,’ came the equally quiet reply. ‘First floor.’

Merlin helped him up those stairs as well, and they were both breathless, but not due to the exertion. Gaius lifted a hand in a diffident gentle gesture towards a closed door, and then they were through it, and Merlin was sitting Gaius down on the side of the bed. Blue covers, just as Merlin had imagined, a lovely soft cerulean.

Gaius’s hands rested palm–down on his own thighs, as if he hardly dared reach. A tear rolled down Gaius’s cheek, as if he hardly dared hope. Merlin bent to kiss away the drop of salt water. He hovered. One of them had to dare.

After an eternity Merlin pressed a kiss closer to Gaius’s mouth – and then on Gaius’s mouth, though still almost chaste – and then – and then at last Gaius reached for him, and they were kissing, Merlin ducking in under, and Gaius lifting up, then arching back, his hands strong on Merlin’s arms as if he’d never let go now, his mouth just as eager – ‘Please,’ Merlin begged in a whisper between kisses. ‘Please.’

Yes,’ Gaius’s whisper resounded, and Merlin somehow managed to heel off his shoes, before leaning in to scoop up Gaius’s legs – the right still in its bandage–wrapped plaster cast, of course – and swing him around to lie back on the bed. Merlin scrambled up onto the bed, began that kiss again, and without breaking it for more than a moment or two Merlin crawled across and up, bringing Gaius with him, and it didn’t matter where they lay, the fact they didn’t quite get as far as the pillows, what mattered was that they were there together, holding each other fiercely and kissing, and soon they were making love, just easy things, just a hand on each other, both still clothed, and shifting against each other’s warmth and need and yearning, it was the simplest thing and the profoundest thing Merlin had ever felt. ‘Oh, my dear,’ Gaius murmured as he spilled over, hands holding Merlin in place, somehow communicating that Merlin should keep doing that, exactly that, forever. ‘Oh, my sweet young man,’ Gaius said with his eyes a–twinkle when he’d finally had enough. ‘Thank you.’

‘No, thank you.’

Gaius laughed, looking so utterly happy. ‘I trust you’ll still be saying that in a few moments time…’

Merlin laughed, too, and shifted closer, felt Gaius’s hand wrap firm around him, and they found a rhythm between them, Gaius tugging and Merlin rolling his hips in and out. They were still mostly dressed, but for Merlin’s scrubs pushed down to the top of his thighs and Gaius’s track pants loosened. But they were kissing again, kissing, and Merlin was happily thrusting into Gaius’s strong hand, and they were both gasping in delight and grinning and kissing and breathing, and it was the most intimate gorgeous thing… Merlin cried out as he came, pushing over onto Gaius and letting instinct take him beyond care.

As soon as he was done, though, he pulled away, and ran a gentle enquiring hand down Gaius’s back. ‘Are you all right? I didn’t –’

‘I’m fine, my dear. I’m fine. Was that –’

‘Perfect, it was perfect. Oh, Gaius!’ Merlin laughed, giddy with the joy of it. ‘What shall I call you? I’m not used to endearments. Well, except for Teague, obviously, but that’s different. I don’t know what to say.’

‘You don’t have to say anything, my dear. Such things had better come naturally, or not at all.’

‘Arthur seemed to think we’d be calling each other butternut pumpkin.’

‘Did he now…?’

‘But that’s not right.’

‘No,’ Gaius agreed, before adding thoughtfully, ‘I don’t think I have any vegetable–related endearments in my repertoire. Although… perhaps we could try sweet potato…’

‘Next time Arthur’s around. Just to freak him out.’

Gaius chuckled, and lifted a hand to shape it to Merlin’s cheek, to caress him with gentle awe. ‘How very beautiful you are, my –’

‘– my little sweet potato.’

‘Oh, you mustn’t,’ Gaius chided, though with an irrepressible grin.

‘It totally works!’

‘My darling, please. Indulge me in being serious now.’ The old man sighed. ‘Merlin, what we’ve had –’

Merlin wasn’t having any of that. He pushed in and silenced the words with a kiss, a hungry kiss – and after a moment Gaius groaned into it, and began returning the kiss with great interest. Merlin paused only briefly to start undressing himself, to pull his top off over his head, to lean in for another kiss, while curling up and shoving his pants and briefs down and off – his socks, too – and tossing the lot down past the foot of the bed.

Then he got to his knees, cock bobbing stiffly before him, and reached to gently start unbuttoning Gaius – and of course Gaius was staring at him avidly, but when he belatedly realised what Merlin was doing, he tried batting his hands away.

‘Don’t be shy,’ Merlin murmured, sitting back on his heels. ‘Don’t go getting shy now. I’m the one who’s being seen for the first time.’

‘But you are so very beautiful, my darling, and I’m so very old.’

‘I know what you look like. I’ve seen it all, and I still want you, don’t I? It doesn’t matter to me, Gaius.’

‘How can that even be?’

‘Don’t you think I’ve seen enough in this life to know what matters and what doesn’t? None of us are perfect. A few white hairs and wrinkles don’t matter to me.’

‘You are – Well, I always knew you’re one of a kind, Merlin.’

‘Got nothing to do with it,’ he insisted, shuffling closer to Gaius again, and slowly starting to unbutton his shirt. ‘Any reasonable person might think the same.’

‘No, you’re wrong…’ Gaius protested. But he didn’t argue any more, and he didn’t again prevent Merlin from slowly revealing him.

‘I want to go down on you,’ Merlin said, hushed, when Gaius finally lay naked before him, the cast encasing his right thigh and calf, but the rest of him utterly unprotected. ‘I want to get my mouth on you.’ He huffed a laugh as Gaius’s cock kicked thickly in interest. ‘You’ll let me? I know you’re safe.’

‘Ah…’

Merlin shrugged. ‘Sorry, but it was my job to know your medical records inside out. I’d understand if you don’t appreciate me paying a little extra attention.’

‘No. Well.’ Gaius sighed, and he reached for the nearest item, which happened to be his track pants, and he held them bunched up over himself as if needing protection after all. He looked down at where Merlin knelt at the foot of the bed. ‘Will you blame Arthur for paying an inappropriate amount of attention?’

He didn’t understand at first, but then it clicked a moment later. ‘My employment records.’

‘Just so. He didn’t have the right –’

Merlin shrugged. ‘He’s my employer.’

‘But he didn’t have a legitimate reason to look for such information, and certainly not to convey it to anyone else.’

‘Gave him a lecture about medical ethics, did you?’

Gaius barked out a laugh. ‘Yes, and it stung rather. Arthur is a profoundly ethical man. But he is a deeply loyal man, as well.’

‘Exactly. He was looking out for you, Gaius. D’you think I’m gonna get mad at him for that? Loving you is about all we have in common. But it’s enough. It’s enough. I think Arthur and I ’re gonna be friends, like you wanted.’

‘Merlin –’

‘So, you and me. We’re both safe. That’s good to know.’ Merlin sighed, and slowly leaned forward until at last he dropped down on all fours over Gaius’s hips. ‘Will you let me go down on you now…?’

The track pants were discarded, and fell to the floor. ‘Dear god, yes.’

Afterwards they lay wrapped up together, comfortable even if still a little shy. Merlin brought one side of the covers up over them to keep them warm, and they dozed for a while, before each getting up to use the bathroom. And then they came back to bed, settled into each other’s arms, their bodies resting close together as if they were formed for this. The soft shadows shifted around them, and the curtained room became dimmer, but it wasn’t too late yet. Gaius murmured, ‘It feels so nice to hold someone again.’

‘I know,’ Merlin agreed in the same quiet tones. ‘I like that, too.’ He added, happily, ‘That was so good!’

‘More than good.’ Gaius lifted a hand to run over Merlin’s hair, to slip down to his nape, and then further, and further still, to spread strong in the small of his back. ‘And so… I had wondered. But this wasn’t only your second time.’

Merlin grinned at the notion. ‘I know it took me a while to get started. But since then I’ve been living in London. Going to art school. I made up for any missed opportunities.’

‘I see.’

‘Don’t mind, do you? I mean, would you rather I was… innocent?’

‘Oh heavens, of course I don’t mind. I would hardly expect – And in any case, it would be horribly hypocritical of me. It’s been a while, but I’ve had my share over the years.’

Merlin’s grin quirked in appreciation, and his cock quickened. ‘I’m sure you have.’

‘No one like you,’ Gaius said quietly, seriously. ‘I’ve never even known anyone like you.’

‘I’ve never known anyone like you either, Gaius.’

‘I’m not so special.’

‘Gaius –’

‘I won’t be your last love, my dear. Even I wouldn’t wish that on you.’

‘Gaius…’ He stroked those long locks of white hair, and then pressed a wistful kiss to his friend’s mouth. ‘Gaius, I hope I’ll always have love in my life. Like I do now. Lots of different kinds of love. But no matter what happens, no one’s ever going to take your place.’ Merlin was already shifting against Gaius, as if his body was acting purely – filthily – on instinct. ‘God… Can we…?’

An impassioned kiss pressed to Merlin’s throat, and his body curved to fit against Merlin’s more snugly still, even while Gaius confessed, ‘I don’t think I can, my darling… Forgive an old man, if I don’t –’

Merlin forced himself to become still again. ‘Sorry. I shouldn’t, then. That’s not fair.’

Gaius lifted his head to look at him impatiently. ‘It’s both fair and reasonable. Your pleasure is my pleasure, Merlin. Do what you will.’

So he did.

‘I had an idea,’ Merlin said. He was sitting up against the bed head, with Gaius curled beside him, head heavy against Merlin’s chest, and arms around Merlin’s waist as if the circle they made would never again be broken.

‘What’s that, my dear?’ Gaius asked with a sleepy yawn.

‘Do any of your books down there… Do any of them have, like, spells that help you heal? Don’t know why I didn’t think of it before, but you’re a doctor, who can do magic…’

‘Anything of that sort has always been beyond my poor powers, unfortunately. Ah,’ he muttered sorrowfully, ‘the people I might have helped –’

Merlin held him tighter for a moment. ‘But maybe not beyond mine. I mean, if there’s a spell or something, that could help me heal your leg…’

Gaius shifted his head a little to look up at him. ‘I’ll have to have a look. I don’t know, I might be able to find something… But you might be surprised, Merlin, by how very few of those books actually have even a whiff of real magic about them.’

‘Oh,’ he said, disappointed. ‘I thought – I thought I could learn so much from them all…’

‘And so you may. But you have abilities most of those authors wouldn’t even guess at.’

Merlin suddenly grinned. ‘Hey, you have abilities. You should write a book. A real book.’

Gaius smiled, pleased though humble. ‘The idea had occurred to me, I do admit… Perhaps if you contributed? If you illustrated it…?’

‘Perfect!’

‘Well.’ Gaius seemed to want to skitter away again, as if he couldn’t trust such perfect notions. ‘In any case, my dear, I appreciate the thought. About my leg.’

Merlin pressed a kiss to Gaius’s forehead, and glanced again at the dim evening light showing around the edges of the curtains. Gaius was sleepily resettling against him, but Merlin stroked his hair, and regretfully murmured, ‘I’ll have to go soon. Take Arthur’s car back to him. Collect Teague.’

‘I know, my darling, I know. I won’t take it amiss if I wake and you’re gone.’

‘You are the sweetest, kindest man –’

Gaius laughed ruefully. ‘Well, that’s something.’

‘– and the loveliest. Gaius –’

‘Thank you, my dear. Thank you for this afternoon. It has been – I’ll never forget it.’

‘You won’t, no, cos I’ll be reminding you as often as possible. Giving you more afternoons – and evenings, and mornings – to never forget.’

Please don’t feel obliged –’

‘Do you feel obliged?’

‘I love you, you must know that. I suppose I foolishly thought there would be no harm if I simply let myself feel… all there was to feel. I suppose I never thought I’d be blessed enough to act upon it.’

‘It’s the same for me. The love, I mean. Won’t you believe that?’

Gaius sighed. ‘But what can I give you? If only I’d met you earlier. Well, what I mean is, if only I were younger or you were somewhat older…’

‘You’ll still be you for twenty years or more. That’s a lifetime, to me! If we were together all that time, that’s still longer than a lot of people have.’

‘I suppose…’

Merlin kissed him. ‘Go to sleep, old man. I’ll call you tonight. All right?’

‘That’s very all right indeed.’

Merlin got the car back safely to the care home, and went looking for Arthur. He knew he was close when he found Leon loitering disconsolately in Gwen’s office, shuffling through a pile of papers. ‘Where is he, then?’ Merlin asked cheerfully. ‘Been banished from the prattish presence, have you?’

Leon looked as if he were torn between grief and outrage. ‘He insisted – Arthur insisted that Gwen accompany him today. Just when I thought he’d accepted that I’m the one to be with him on his inspections. Just when I thought it was becoming a regular –’

‘Date?’ Merlin guessed. He was grinning, he knew, which was obnoxious of him, but he’d finally made love with his love, and he defied Leon not to be grinning just as irrepressibly when that eventually happened for him.

Leon glared down at the papers in his hands, which may or may not have provided cover for his reaction to the notion of a regular date with Arthur. ‘He said – He said I should catch up on Gwen’s filing for her –’ A concerned glance at Merlin as Leon added, ‘She didn’t like that any more than I did.’

Merlin chuckled under his breath, knowing that Gwen would have been mortified by Arthur assuming that her filing wasn’t completely in order. The fact that he was right would have made it even worse. ‘I’m sure the prat won’t mind about any of that.’

‘Are you?’ Leon asked dazedly.

‘Yeah. Look, where is he, though? D’you know? I’ll go give him his car keys, tell him Gaius is settled…’ Merlin blushed furiously, sure that he was broadcasting I got lucky on all channels. Leon seemed to be oblivious, though.

‘They’d be in the storerooms by now.’ Leon sighed, and reshuffled the papers yet again. If they’d ever been in any kind of order, they were completely randomised now.

‘Won’t he be impressed,’ Merlin said as he headed back out the door, ‘when he comes back and that’s all squared away?’

Leon looked up at him with a wild kind of hope. ‘You’re right.’

‘Gwen ’ll love you, too. Make it look like there was hardly anything to do.’

‘Too?’ Leon echoed. And then after a moment he transformed into a flurry of efficiency.

Merlin laughed, and headed for the ward’s stores.

When he got there, Merlin found Gwen being quizzed so thoroughly by Arthur that she was biting her lip in confused vexation. Apparently the topic currently under discussion was how to balance the need for a constant supply of various items while maintaining a lean budget and not ending up with a whole heap of stuff beyond its use by date. Merlin knew Gwen ran a tight ship in that regard, but Arthur was pushing so hard she was frowning; she hadn’t even noticed Merlin hovering by the door.

Obviously Arthur still needed taking down a peg or two every now and then. Merlin was just about to interrupt and suggest he back off, when he caught a surreptitious hand gesture from Arthur, which seemed to mean, Not now, you idiot. Well, either that or, I require a tug.

‘But I can show you,’ Gwen was insisting. ‘Sir,’ she added in a chagrined murmur as she pulled out her PDA. ‘I can show you, sir.’ And then it was five minutes of spreadsheets and statistics, grimaces and threats to convert the figures to charts. ‘And if you take the secondary usage and recycling into consideration, then the wastage is less than five percent. Sir.’

Gwen took a breath.

Arthur leaned in a little closer to squint at the PDA screen. ‘Two point three percent is considerably less than five, Ms Thomson.’

‘Well, yes. Yes, it is.’

‘Good. Walk with me.’ Arthur led the way out past Merlin. Gwen looked startled to realise they’d had a witness, but Arthur just said, ‘Merlin, you come, too. I need to talk with you.’

So Merlin shrugged and followed along in their wake, while Gwen went back to looking fretful and perplexed. They ended up heading into the small meeting room that Arthur sometimes used as a base when he was at the home. Well, Arthur headed into it –

While Gwen baulked at the doorway, and gasped, ‘Morgana!’

‘Good evening, Ms Thomson,’ Morgana smoothly replied. Merlin only just pulled up in time to avoid running into Gwen. He peered over Gwen’s small form to see a smugly amused look in full force on a fiercesomely beautiful woman. Morgana was ultra–professional, dressed in a suit even more expensive–looking than Arthur’s, with her long dark hair pulled back tightly into a bun, and yet not even the large dark–framed glasses could hide the tides of emotion in her sea–grey eyes. Not from Merlin, anyway.

‘Ms Gorlois…’ Gwen corrected herself. Then her hands fisted at her sides, and she turned to Arthur, though she addressed herself to his feet. Or maybe the carpet. ‘Arthur, you can’t fire me for less than five percent wastage.’

‘Two point three percent,’ Arthur reminded her.

‘We can promote you, though,’ Morgana announced. And she slid a letter across the polished wood of the table. ‘Congratulations.’

Gwen stood there staring at the piece of paper – brilliant white, and stamped with the gold Pendragon Care crest. It was as if she didn’t get it, even now. Merlin got it, though, and he was grinning like a loon. ‘What?’ Gwen eventually asked.

‘That wasn’t an inspection tour,’ Merlin supplied.

‘It was your interview for the senior ward manager position,’ Arthur informed her.

‘I will require an application,’ Morgana added, ‘albeit rather belated.’

Gwen’s hands were at her mouth now. ‘But I wasn’t going to apply – I decided not to.’

‘Nevertheless,’ Arthur continued, ‘you were the obvious candidate.’

‘I’m a nobody. From nowhere.’

‘Well, Ms Nobody, now you’re a senior ward manager. I did wait to see what the other applicants were like, but they simply didn’t stack up.’

‘But –’

‘It’s always been obvious you have a good heart. I wanted to be sure you have a good head as well. I should have already known that you do; I’d decided within about a minute of saying Good afternoon.’

‘Oh!’ Gwen still didn’t move.

‘Go on,’ Merlin said with quiet encouragement. ‘Take it.’

‘Do you really not want it?’ Arthur asked with quiet concern. ‘Of course you mustn’t let us –’

But at last Gwen had stepped briskly to the table, and she let her fingertips settle lightly on the letter. ‘No, I want it. I mean, thank you. Yes. Thank you.’ And she smiled at Merlin and Arthur and even Morgana, though it was a fairly watery expression. ‘Thank you very much. I’ll try to repay your faith –’

‘Good,’ said Morgana, handing her a pen. ‘Then sign here.’

While Gwen was doing so – and only afterwards sitting down to actually read through the letter – Arthur took the opportunity to say, ‘Morgana, this is Guy’s new friend, Merlin Emrys. Merlin, this is my sister, Morgana Gorlois.’

‘Pleased to –’

‘Hah!’ Morgana narrowed her eyes at Merlin – and he froze where he was, leaning towards her, hand lamely extended to shake hers. ‘So, you’re the troublemaker!’

He spluttered a bit. ‘Well, I never actually –’

‘No,’ she agreed forbiddingly, as if after all he weren’t quite man enough to cause any real problems, ‘I’m sure you didn’t.’ But then she stood, and came over to shake his hand, and she warmed considerably. ‘Be sure to treat Gaius well, won’t you?’

‘Just as well as he’ll let me,’ Merlin concurred, heartfelt.

‘Ah, good point.’ She thought for a moment. ‘I’ll be sure to tell him he deserves you treating him well.’

Arthur laughed. ‘Yeah, that’ll work.’

‘Gaius totally respects my opinion!’

‘He’s just too much the gentleman to tell you otherwise.’

‘What would you know about gentlemanly behaviour, Arthur Pendragon?’

‘Mmm,’ he murmured with a wink, ‘quite a lot, actually.’

Morgana laughed, genuinely amused – and genuinely fond when she cried, ‘Slut!’

‘Hag!’ Arthur retorted with equal affection.

Merlin had never been so glad to be an only child.

‘Thanks,’ Merlin said quietly when he was finally alone with Arthur. He dropped the car keys into Arthur’s palm. ‘Thank you for Gwen. Thanks for the car. Thanks for –’

‘Gaius?’ Arthur supplied, his wandering gaze suddenly spearing Merlin’s truth.

‘Yes.’ The joy crashed though him, and he beamed helplessly. ‘Yes. He’s fine. We’re fine.’

Arthur nodded. ‘Good.’

Merlin waited a moment, then prompted, ‘You’re not gonna threaten to destroy me if I hurt him?’

‘Oh, I think you know what kind of enemy I’d make. Not to mention my father.’

Merlin grinned at Arthur, despite knowing the answer: ‘Implacable.’

‘Just so. And it seems rather redundant to threaten you with Morgana.’

‘It won’t ever come to that,’ Merlin reached to shake his hand. ‘Gaius and me ’re gonna be fine – and you and me ’re gonna be friends, Arthur.’

‘Good,’ the man said again, in his most decisive manner. ‘My regards to Master Emrys and your French gypsy friend,’ Arthur called back as he walked away.

Merlin laughed.

‘What we have had has been lovely, Merlin. Truly lovely. I can’t regret it.’

‘I’ll never regret it, never,’ he fiercely replied, curling up around the phone just as he’d curled around Gaius that afternoon. ‘And it’s not over, Gaius – I promise you that.’

‘I mustn’t take up any more of your life.’

‘Quit arguing!’ Merlin couldn’t yell because he didn’t want to wake up Teague, slumbering in his cot barely an arm’s length away – but he certainly felt like it. ‘I’m yours, Gaius, if you want me.’

‘Dear god, of course I want you.’

‘You know,’ Merlin continued conversationally, ‘for a while there, I think Arthur actually believed in us more than we did. But I’m on board now. I’m totally on board. It’s time you got on board, too.’

‘My darling –’

‘Marry me. Marry me, Gaius, and then you’ll never have to doubt me again.’

‘Oh!’

‘Is there a spell that would help you see the truth of how I feel?’

A moment passed, and then Gaius said quietly, ‘I think you just incanted it.’

‘Well, then –?’

Another moment passed. ‘You know the answer I wish I were brave enough to give.’

‘You are brave enough, Gaius. Oh god, I know this won’t be easy. I mean, I have Teague to think of as well –’

‘I love Teague.’

‘I know you do. I know, and that’s wonderful. But I also know we couldn’t live there with you –’

‘Why not?’ Gaius protested. Then he quietened, and diffidently offered, ‘Of course, if you don’t like the house –’

‘I love your home, Gaius, it’s wonderful. But I couldn’t inflict a toddler on you there, could I? All your gorgeous things – Once he’s mobile, he’d just start destroying everything in reach. Not cos he’s bad – Only cos he wouldn’t know any better –’

‘Oh my darling! Do you really think all of my little knickknacks mean more to me than you and Teague? I’d throw the lot out in a heartbeat. I’ll sell the house and we’ll find somewhere else, if this doesn’t suit.’

Merlin laughed in surprise, relief, delight. ‘You don’t have to do any of that.’

‘I’ve already planned – in an idle moment – I never thought that you’d want to move in – well, I’d hoped, but even if you and Teague only visited, I thought I’d move things up out of the way, pack a lot of it away into the attic, put doors on the lower shelves, that sort of thing. Nothing matters more to me than you and Teague, Merlin. Nothing.’

His breath was coming in giddy gasps of joy, triumph. ‘Marry me. Gaius. Marry me!’

‘Yes, my darling. Merlin, of course. Of course I’ll marry you.’

‘Oh…’ He had tears running down his cheeks, and from what he could make out he thought Gaius did, too. They were silent for a long while, sharing the moment. And at some stage Merlin slipped away into a deep untroubled sleep. Even Teague slept peacefully the whole night through.

Merlin woke at last to find his phone beside him on the mattress, still connected to Gaius. Though it he could hear Gaius’s quietly snuffling slumber. He smiled, and after a while he drifted off again, his breathing keeping perfect time with his love’s, and Teague’s followed them both.

six

Sunday morning. Having fed and bathed Teague, Merlin placed him still naked on a towel on the floor, facedown to encourage him to use his arms to push himself up, and to maybe start thinking about the possibility of crawling. Merlin lay stretched out beside him, talking to him, and idly sketching Teague’s bright eyes, his curiosity, his sweet chubby little body.

‘You’re the most incredible thing in the whole world, you know that, right?’ Merlin asked as he started yet another sketch, quickly trying to capture the most fleeting expressions that chased each other across his son’s face. ‘And we’re gonna be so happy with Gaius, I know we are. You already love him, too, don’t you? You always know who to trust. You even trusted Arthur before I did.’

Teague grabbed at Merlin’s left hand as he shifted the sketchbook around, so Merlin let him do what he would while he anchored the book against his left elbow. ‘You and me and Gaius; it’s gonna be grand. You won’t mind having two daddies, will you? Daddy Merlin and Daddy Gaius. Perfect! If they…’ Merlin frowned for a moment, and Teague echoed him, brow suddenly turbulent.

‘No, hey, it’s all right, little man,’ Merlin reassured him in easy tones, deliberately smoothing his own expression into something happier. ‘I’m just – Well, I have to prove to people that I’m good enough for you, that’s all. They’re looking out for you, my sweet baby boy, which is how it should be. And of course I’m not good enough – not really. But I love you so much! So much! If I do anything wrong, I’ll make up for it with love, and – and you’ll forgive me, maybe, but – I don’t know…’

Rather than spoil the contented mood, Merlin bent his head and started sketching again. The home care worker was due to visit the next day, so Merlin knew he’d have to start tidying things away and cleaning later, but Lance was going to help of course, and Erika had promised to come around during the visit with her two – hopefully it was the same nurse who’d visited her, and they’d take her word about Merlin’s capabilities as a parent, or at least his potential as a quick learner. He couldn’t help but worry, though. He couldn’t bear to lose Teague, not again – and he had almost made up his mind that under the circumstances, Teague was in the best place possible. In fact, Merlin wondered whether he wouldn’t get quite fierce about that, if challenged… which might end up doing more harm than good.

He sighed, and turned a page to start all over again.

At some point when Merlin was on his third page of sketches, Teague began cooing and looking off towards the hallway. Merlin left him to it, wondering if whatever had caught his attention would be motivation enough for Teague to shift himself around in that direction. Merlin turned another page, and began a larger sketch, trying to capture Teague’s focus, and the twist of movement that would almost tumble him over onto his back if he kept going.

Then Merlin heard something at the door – just a rustle – but someone was out there, and apparently Teague already knew that. ‘Who’s there, then, little man?’ he asked as he stood up. ‘Shall I go and see?’

Merlin opened the door and at first didn’t see anyone. Then a huddled shape caught his eye. Someone cowering fearfully in the darkest corner of the hallway. Someone with torn clothes, pale legs, and a headful of long thick dark hair –

‘Freya!’

She risked a glance up through her netted fingers, and for a moment she wasn’t herself, she was wild, at bay –

But then it was as if they connected, the wildness fell away, and it was Freya, his own dear Freya, she was standing before him, her feet bare and her dress worn and travel–stained, but that was nothing, what mattered was that she was herself, upright and true.

‘Freya…’

‘Hello, Merlin.’

‘Come in. God, come in! I’m so glad you found us. Oh, I’m so glad you’re here. Look, little man, it’s your Mummy.’

Freya stepped fearfully towards Teague, but her face was brimful of love and concern.

‘Go on, pick him up. He’s been cooing, he’s so happy that you’re here.’ And then Teague was in his mother’s arms, held close against her chest, and the two of them were cooing and crooning nonsense at each other. Which did Merlin’s heart so much good to see; it was as wonderful as magic. But even then he was wary enough not to leave them alone together. ‘Come through to the kitchen. I’ll make us tea. Come through with me.’

She didn’t seem to think twice about it, but followed him in, and settled at the table, rocking Teague, and pressing kisses to his dark lick of hair.

Merlin prised Teague away for a moment to wrap his nethers in a nappy. ‘Just our luck if he welcomed you with a random pee…’ Merlin handed his son back, and sighed, considering the two of them. ‘It is so good to see you,’ he murmured to Freya, meaning it. And yet he knew she shouldn’t be there at all.

‘Mum?’ he whispered when she finally picked up the phone. Teague was dressed now, and safely bound across Merlin’s chest in the sling. Freya had needed very little persuasion to go take a bath, and change into some of Merlin’s clean clothes. And as soon as he’d heard the water running, he’d crept over to the most distant corner of the hallway, and pulled out his mobile. ‘Mum…?’

‘Merlin! How did you know? I –’

‘Mum… Oh Mum, I –’

‘I’ve had an unexpected visitor this morning.’

‘Oh god, so have I.’

‘In fact, he’s still here. Merlin –’

‘I don’t want to tell you, but –’

‘It’s your father, Merlin. John Balinor. I found him – He was on my doorstep this morning. It was dawn, and I couldn’t sleep. I –’

‘Mum!’ he gasped.

‘I know, I – He said a mutual friend had written to him –’

Merlin was reeling. ‘Oh god…’ It was too much to take in.

‘Say you don’t mind, Merlin.’

‘Mind?’

‘We’ve been talking – oh, for hours already. I never – expected – I’ve always been happy,’ she whispered fiercely. ‘I’ve loved it being just the two of us.’

‘I’ve loved it, too, Mum.’ But it occurred to him that beneath the anxiety for Merlin and the lingering confusion, Hunith was on the verge of being happier still.

‘But what were you saying? You called because –’

‘Don’t worry about it, Mum. You enjoy the day.’

‘I’ll bring him to meet you. Is that all right? I think – I think he has to. He didn’t know, he feels very strongly – If you don’t mind. We agreed. It’s your decision.’

‘No, that’s fine, Mum. Of course that’s fine. But take your time. Get to know him again. I’m – I can wait. I can wait.’

‘It’s as if twenty years vanished away with the dawn mists…’

Merlin smiled. ‘Have a good day, Mum. You go enjoy yourself.’

‘I love you, Merlin.’

‘Love you, too, Mum.’ He ended the call with a wobbly smile. John Balinor. He didn’t know. And Merlin hardly knew what to do with that, when – when what he really had to worry about was –

‘Merlin,’ Lance gravely announced as Merlin walked back into the kitchen, ‘there is a beautiful girl in our bath. Alas, she is not with me.’

‘That’s Freya.’

‘Ah.’ Lance looked from him to Teague, considering. Troubled. ‘I see, yes. I see what has happened. But, Merlin, what will happen? What is going on?’

And Merlin knew. He really did know what he had to do. But he couldn’t bear it. He just – couldn’t. ‘Please. Lance. Give us twenty–four hours. She may never see Teague again. Give us a day. I promise she won’t harm – anything.’

‘Anyone?’

‘I promise.’

‘All right, my friend. But I am staying here with you. We must clean, in any case, yes? For the home care meddler.’

‘Worker.’

‘I will stay here with you and Teague. You must trust me, yes?’

Yes,’ said Merlin, heartfelt.

He lay awake that night, holding onto Freya while she slept. He couldn’t banish her to the living room sofa, but neither could he leave her alone with Teague. So they shared his bed – and she slept innocently if restlessly, muttering and occasionally wriggling against the restraint of the medicine, of his arms – while Teague slept, too, and Merlin lay awake keeping watch over them both.

He must have slept eventually, though, because he woke up and it was morning – and he sprang out of bed, picked up Teague and ran anxious hands and gaze over him until Merlin was absolutely sure that his son was all right. Startled awake, Teague gasped and then wailed for a moment, but he soon hushed again. He was fine.

When Merlin went to look for her, Freya was gone again. There were phone calls at last – from Freya’s mother, from the institution, from the police – but Merlin could tell them all quite honestly he’d seen her the previous day, and she’d left. He was brisk, not wanting to confess to a creeping sense of dread, an instinct that told him she was still near, watching him. Watching Teague.

So Merlin spent the day feeling horribly fretful, and luckily the home care worker attributed that to his nerves over keeping custody of Teague, and it was luckier still that Merlin’s constant worrying over Freya meant he dealt with everything else with perfect absentminded efficiency. The home care worker cautiously indicated her approval, though obviously there were forms to be completed, reports to be written, signatures to be sought… ‘Thank you,’ he said to her, with Teague cradled in one arm, Lance and Erika at his shoulders, and Erika’s two kids playing happily over in the sunlight pouring in from the windows. ‘Thank you so much.’

‘You’re welcome. Good luck, Mr Emrys,’ she added on her way out.

‘Thank you,’ he murmured again, silently reflecting, I’ll need it.

On the Tuesday morning, Merlin went through the usual morning routine – if routine it could be called – but then at the last moment, rather than taking Teague down to Erika’s, he dashed out to Lance’s car, plugged Teague’s carrier into place in the back seat, and drove off as quickly as he felt he could.

Fifteen minutes later he was on Gaius’s doorstep, ringing the bell and looking around nervously. But of course she couldn’t have followed them. Not with him driving, even through the snarls of London traffic. Not in daylight. Teague was gazing up at him trustingly. ‘Ignorance is bliss,’ Merlin commented to his son. But then he shrugged as well as he was able, being slung about with bags, and the carrier weighing down one arm. There was always something knowing in Teague’s eyes, as if he were perfectly aware of what was going on around him.

At last Gaius was at the door, leaning on his walking stick, and smiling in delight. ‘Here’s a pleasant surprise!’

‘I had an unexpected visitor,’ Merlin tersely informed him.

After a moment to take this in, Gaius suddenly beamed. ‘Already? Oh, how marvellous!’

Merlin frowned. ‘Freya. It was Freya. It’s not marvellous at all. Can we come in? Gaius, please. I don’t want her to know where Teague is today.’

‘Of course, of course.’ Gaius’s face had fallen, and now he shuffled back out of the way, gestured Merlin down to the kitchen. ‘I have a pot of tea made…’

‘I can’t stay, Gaius, I have to get to work.’ Merlin deposited the bags and Teague’s carrier by the table. Tried not to get caught up in noticing the garden outside, idyllic in the cool morning sunlight, and the remains of a quiet breakfast served on good china, a thread of fragrant steam curling from the spout of an elegant blue teapot. ‘Can you have Teague with you today? Please, Gaius. I know it’s a lot to ask –’

‘Of course I can, my dear.’

‘Did you have plans?’

‘Nothing that can’t be postponed. You know I’m only too flattered that you rely on me in this way.’

‘Thank you. Thank you.’ Merlin rubbed Teague’s tummy in a fond farewell, and looked about him distractedly. Wandered through into the front room and cast a glance around the walls all lined with books. ‘Do you have one about curses?’

Gaius was standing in the doorway, considering him.

‘She’s cursed. Maybe we can undo it. Um… lift it.’

‘Cursed? Merlin, it’s a medical condition. I’ve looked into it. There are treatments these days – still inadequate, I know, and not cures, but –’

‘It’s not about medicine; it’s about magic. It’s a curse.’

Gaius seemed rather nonplussed. ‘Merlin, I’ve never really – You may have got the wrong idea about –’

‘It’s real, Gaius.’

‘Well, then,’ he eventually said. ‘Tell me more.’

Merlin sighed. ‘She transforms at night, she’s no longer herself, she becomes… dangerous.’

Gaius looked at him for a long moment, but then headed for one of the bookshelves, searched, and pulled down a volume. Merlin took it, and started leafing through it. There was nothing. Nothing like Freya or the curse. And he had to get to work, he was going to be late as it was. Merlin growled impatiently, put the book down on a table, and took a step back. Then he held his hand towards it, and willed his way through it, his magic riffling through the pages, searching… He was aware that Gaius gasped.

‘There!’ Merlin cried – and the book fell open at a particular page. On it was a drawing of a winged black panther, rearing under a stormy sky.

Gaius stared down at it, dazed and grief–stricken. But he didn’t argue or protest any further. Instead, after a moment, he murmured, ‘I’ll read what I can. I’ll research further. I fear I won’t be very much help.’

‘I have faith in you.’ Merlin pressed a kiss to Gaius’s cheek, and then headed towards the door. ‘I’ve got to go. I’m sorry, but I’m going to be so late –’

‘Of course.’

‘Bye, Teague! Behave yourself…’

‘Oh, he needn’t do that.’ Gaius had followed him, striding out with the help of his stick. ‘Take care, Merlin.’

Merlin paused, and took Gaius’s face in both hands, pressed a kiss to his mouth. ‘I promise our life together won’t always be like this. There’ll be quiet times…’

‘Do you think I mind the excitement?’

‘We’ll have peace, Gaius.’

And Gaius silently responded, We’ll have love.

It was a horribly chaotic day, with two unrelated medical crises, only one of which resolved well; the other resident died despite everyone’s best efforts. Such outcomes could hardly be unexpected at a care home, but that didn’t make it easier to handle. Gwen’s brow seemed permanently knotted in concern, but Merlin was pleased – in an exhausted kind of way – to see the knot unravel slightly when Arthur turned up. And he was even more pleased – or at least would defer being pleased for a more appropriate moment – to discover that Arthur wasn’t there to take over, but to support Gwen, and to bear the burden of liaising with the anxious and grieving families. Which he did with a surprisingly self–effacing grace.

They all worked hard; even if they weren’t directly involved in the crises, it was essential to ensure that the rest of the ward’s routine continued with reassuring regularity. The residents’ peace of mind was a vital thing in its own right.

Late in the morning, Merlin’s phone chimed, and he slipped it out of his scrubs pocket to find that Gaius had sent him a photo – a delightful close-up of Teague beaming up into the camera lens as if he knew exactly who the image was for, one of his chubby little hands wrapped around one of Gaius’s strong fingers. I hope you’re not worrying, ran the text message. We are doing very well together.

I never doubted it, he responded. Thank you, Gaius. Love you both.

He received a surprisingly garbled voicemail from Hunith as well, something about Freya’s father being badly hurt. Merlin couldn’t return the call right away, but at last he gloomily acknowledged to himself that he’d have to phone Hunith that evening, and start the process of finding Freya, having her recommitted.

There wasn’t time for lunch, but Merlin and Leon ended up pushing each other into the staff kitchen at about three. ‘It’s for your own good,’ they chorused – and were too tired to laugh.

‘Gentlemen,’ Arthur greeted them, with one of his brusque assessing looks taking them in. ‘Sit down before you fall down. I’m making tea.’

Even Leon barely brightened in Arthur’s presence. ‘Mug of tea, and I’m yours,’ he offered dispiritedly, collapsing into the chair nearest where Arthur worked.

Merlin obligingly huffed a laugh at this repartee, though he reflected that Leon must have given up his quest; he never would have dared be so forward back in the days when he actually had hopes.

But Arthur brought over two mugs of milky sweet tea, put them down in front of Leon and Merlin – and reached to ruffle Leon’s tumble of nut–brown hair. ‘I know,’ he said. And Arthur had never seemed anything other than oblivious to Leon’s quest until then.

Leon stared up at the man, bewildered, and then dropped his gaze in confusion.

Arthur collected two more mugs of tea, and began walking out of the kitchen. ‘Your efforts today are appreciated, gentlemen!’ he called back over his shoulder as he reached the doorway. And then he was gone.

Leon frowned, and looked across at Merlin. ‘Did he just…?’

‘Yeah, I think he did.’

‘Huh.’ Leon shook his head. ‘God, what a day…’

It was dark before Merlin could leave work; dark and cold. He wasn’t wearing quite enough to protect him from the gusting wind, so he pulled up the hood of his sweater, and crammed his fists into his pockets. Set off at a brisk stride, aiming for the shortest route across the vast car park to the bus stop.

Other than the wind in the surrounding trees, the place seemed strangely quiet and empty. Even though other people had been leaving at the same time, Merlin was all alone now; the distant clunk of a car door closing was the only indication anyone else was around, and even that in retrospect made Merlin wonder if he’d been imagining things, as there was no sound of an engine starting afterwards.

He glanced over at the parking space where he’d left Lance’s car – but Lance had obviously managed to come pick it up, as he’d hoped to, for the space was empty. Something dark shifted just beyond – The shadows shifted as the trees sighed, and the odd bits of light here and there only served to add to the confusion rather than illuminate anything. One or more of the streetlights must be out, Merlin figured, as he turned away and kept walking, each footfall echoing softly behind him.

Merlin tried to listen for the bus, which must be due – he might have to run for it – but even with his magic pushing his senses out and further out, he couldn’t hear any traffic noise. Which was strange, as the care home was on a main road, and usually there was a constant buzz. Tonight the only constant was the buffeting wind, the branches soughing and creaking, loose leaves skittering along in his wake like footsteps…

Merlin shivered, shoved his hands deeper in his pockets, and strode on. The car park seemed never–ending.

But then at last there was the purr of a car somewhere ahead of him, the sudden stab of headlights only finding wildness – Merlin felt relieved for a giddy moment as the car turned in his direction – Until he heard a heavy padded footfall behind him, a roar –

The brief squeal of brakes and then a warning shout –

He started running, not looking back –

The car gunning, flickering towards him in and out of shadows –

A scowling angry roar behind, and the thudding loping cadence of –

‘Arthur!’ Merlin cried, thinking only of the safety of the passenger seat in that pale gold car –

‘Merlin!’ Arthur shouted out, as if he could see that Merlin was in real danger –

Another roar, and then the effort of a powerful launch, the snap of wings –

And –

It was already too late –

Freya…’ he whispered, his heart already breaking. Arthur already past him, the car spinning in behind. The ghastly thudding impact of metal against flesh. And then – he’d never heard anything as awful as that enraged yelp of pain, that solid crumple of flesh landing so heavily it would never again rise. ‘God, Freya…’

He ran for where he’d heard her fall, and of course by the time he got there she was herself again, she was pale and broken and strangely peaceful, the only wild thing about her now was her fall of dark hair and her torn clothes – his torn clothes. Merlin knelt beside her, took her into his arms. ‘Oh Freya love…’

Arthur standing there pale and horrified. Horrified. At last fumbling for his phone. ‘Leon. Car park. Now. With an emergency kit. Now, Leon.’ He ended the call, dialled again. ‘Ambulance, please, to Pendragon Care, Chiswick. Immediately.’

‘It’s too late,’ Merlin said, weeping. Raining. He was raining with grief. And yet even in the midst of it, a tiny part of him wondered how it could ever have worked out much better, in any other way. And he grieved for that, too, for the whole impossibility of it all.

‘But – I thought –’ Arthur glanced away to see Leon emerging from the main building, bag in hand, urgently looking around for them. Arthur strode towards him for a moment, imperious hand lifted high, demanding attention. As soon as he’d gained it, he turned back. ‘Merlin, I could have sworn I saw – following you –’ Arthur was incredibly unsure, of course, but also too brave a man to shirk the truth.

‘You did,’ Merlin told him. ‘It’s all right. You saw what you saw. You did what you had to do.’

‘But –’

Leon was there, kneeling at Freya’s other side, checking for a pulse, for breath, reaching into the bag one–handed for adrenaline. ‘Merlin. Lay her down.’

‘It’s too late,’ he said –

And was echoed by Freya’s whisper: ‘… too late.’

Oh Freya love…

‘Merlin, you have to let me work –’

Arthur’s palms on Merlin’s shoulders, his hands shaking but trying to draw Merlin away. ‘If you can’t help, Merlin –’

‘Let me go,’ Freya murmured – to all of them, but gazing up at Merlin.

And it really was too late, that was obvious, there was already so much blood glinting across the asphalt smooth and dark in the moonlight, and why should her last moments be nothing but useless confusion and a stranger’s hands? ‘Please, Leon. Arthur. It’s all right. Just let her be. Leave us be.’

After a long horrible moment, Arthur was brave enough to nod, and Leon sighed, apparently knowing that there was nothing to be done now, accepting that he wasn’t even to try – nothing to be done for Freya, but Arthur looked ghastly, beyond pale, so Leon went to take him by the elbow as if to hold him up, and Arthur turned to him – still watching Freya, still horror–struck – and Arthur Pendragon clung to Leon Wilde as if for life itself.

‘Love Teague,’ Freya said, as the world reduced to essentials.

‘I know you do, dearheart, and he knows it, too.’

‘Love Teague.’

‘I do, and I will – enough for both of us. For always. I promise.’

Love –’ And she said, with startling clarity, ‘I’m not sorry about any of it.’

Then she was gone.

Merlin sat there rocking her as if she could be comforted to sleep, in these her first truly peaceful moments since she was a child – until at last the ambulance arrived, and Merlin finally let Arthur pry him away so that they could take her to rest.

‘Merlin?’ It was Gaius on the phone, sounding anxious – with Teague’s piercing wails in the background. ‘Merlin, I’m sorry to trouble you, but –’

‘Gaius. I’m sorry it’s late. I’ll be home soon.’

‘It’s Teague. I can’t think what’s wrong. But he’s crying. He won’t stop crying.’

‘I know.’

‘I’ve been trying to find something – anything – in your books and mine, I’ve tried everything, but –’

‘I’ll be home soon, Gaius. I think he’ll be quiet again once I’m there.’

‘I’m sorry. It’s the strangest thing, I’ve never heard anything like it. Not from a baby. It’s – it’s as if he’s keening.’

Merlin sighed. ‘I know. Freya’s dead, Gaius. There was an accident. Freya died. And Teague is grieving.’

‘Oh, my darling.’ A brief pause, and then Gaius sounded both gentle and firm. ‘I’m so very sorry. Don’t worry about us, Merlin. You must do whatever you need to.’

‘No, it’s all right. I’m done. I’ll be home just as soon as I can.’

seven

Gaius seemed to both desire and dread the ceremony with equal fervour, but Merlin only let him delay it until he could walk comfortably without the aid of a stick. ‘That’s for your vanity, old man, so you don’t shudder every time you look at the photos. But then you’re marrying me,’ he insisted.

‘Oh well…’ Gaius responded with light whimsy, ‘if I must.’

And so one fine spring morning, Merlin took his mug of tea over to watch through the glass doors as the garden – abundantly full of its own flowers and fresh green leaves – was further transformed by a pavilion tent, and colourful flags and ribbons strung between the trees, fluttering in the gentle breeze. ‘It’s magic, Teague,’ he murmured to his son, wrapped across his chest. ‘It’s magic,’ despite it being evidently the work of the quietly efficient all–too–human caterers.

’S masch–ih,’ Teague agreed, ‘Mer–lun.

‘Absolutely, little man. Magic.’ He sighed wistfully. ‘I’m marrying Daddy Gaius today, you know. I wish you were old enough to remember all this. To enjoy it.’

Dada Guy!

Merlin laughed. ‘That’s right. Well done, my darling! You might be only the second person ever who’s allowed to call him that.’

Mag–ih,’ Teague managed, lifting a hand as if reaching for the flags, bright even against the lovely blue sky. For a moment, the flags seemed to flutter against the breeze. Which might have been Merlin’s imagination, but then again might not.

‘Magic, yeah… Well, maybe you will enjoy it, eh?’ The doorbell rang, and Merlin went to respond. He was hardly even dismayed to discover it was Morgana on the front steps, with her half–sister Morgause at her shoulder. ‘Morning!’ he greeted them, holding the door wide to let them in. ‘You’re a bit early, aren’t you?’ Merlin followed them into the front room, which disoriented him a little – all of their little circle of friends and family tended to head straight for the more casual area by the kitchen when they arrived.

‘I have a legal document for you.’

‘Oh. Don’t we sign all that after the ceremony? You’re both looking lovely,’ he added a bit lamely, though it was undeniably true.

‘Isn’t she gorgeous?’ Morgana agreed, lifting Morgause’s hand and twirling her about with Morgause’s red silk dress shimmering, before Morgana twirled about under the arch of Morgause’s arm, her velvet dress swirling in jewel–like blues and purples. They both wore their hair loose, tumbling in long lovely waves of black and fine gold, and they seemed about to gracefully segue into a dance, set to music only they could hear…

Merlin watched them, grinning happily, though Morgana and Morgause were forever a mystery to him. Morgause was Morgana’s mother’s daughter by another man, but her blonde hair and handsome features reminded Merlin so much of Arthur that it made him dizzy. And though the women had been raised together and even addressed each other as sister, there was always something a little too intimate about their manner. Still. He knew all about never quite fitting in where he was supposed to, and he could only be glad that Morgana had someone in her life who unstintingly and unconditionally liked her. That was rare enough in the world, and Merlin was deeply aware of how difficult life could be without such a boon.

‘Sit down, Merlin,’ Morgana eventually said.

‘Oh god, is it that bad?’

‘It’s not bad, you silly creature.’

When Merlin finally sat on the sofa, Morgana sat in the chair at right angles to him, and placed a folded document on the low table between them. ‘What’s this?’ Merlin asked, picking it up and unfolding it without reading the words; it was about three pages long, printed on thick creamy paper. Morgause drifted off into the kitchen, and Merlin heard the kettle being filled and put on to boil. He appreciated her tact, though neither he nor Gaius had been in the habit of keeping secrets from these two; he’d received the impression at first that Gaius sometimes camouflaged himself as a harmless affable old man in Morgana’s presence, though it wasn’t long before Merlin decided he must have been mistaken. She wasn’t that scary, after all. ‘If it’s a pre–nup,’ Merlin continued, settling one hand on Teague’s warm belly, ‘of course I’ll sign it. I’m not interested in taking anything from Gaius. Or from what he’ll leave Arthur.’

Morgana snorted. ‘Arthur doesn’t need anything, believe me. It’s not a pre–nuptial agreement.’

Merlin finally focussed on the initial words – and discovered that it was Gaius’s will. ‘Oh.’ This is the last Will and Testament of me Gaius Bonham born on the ninth of July 1936 of 23 Taliesin Terrace, Richmond made this fourteenth day of May 2009. I hereby revoke all former Wills and Codicils made by me and declare this to be my last Will. I appoint my godson Arthur Caradoc Pendragon to be the Executor of this Will. I devise and bequeath the residue of my real and personal estate whatsoever and wheresoever to my dearest friend Merlin Emrys and his son Teague Kavanagh Emrys in equal share …

‘He wants to leave you everything,’ Morgana said with due solemnity, as if it weren’t perfectly obvious even to the most non–legal of minds. ‘Teague’s share will be held in trust for him until he turns eighteen.’

Merlin stared at her. ‘Gaius will be dancing at Teague’s twenty–first birthday party. And anyway. This isn’t necessary.’

‘Gaius feels it is.’

‘I’m not a… a gold–digger.’

‘In this case, the wording is exact. This is Gaius’s last will and testament, and he intends it to stand no matter what happens today. So you can walk away now, if you want to.’

‘For god’s sake! Of course I don’t want that. I mean – all I want is Gaius. Teague comes first, of course, but then I want to be with Gaius. How can you –’ And he appealed to her, ‘Does he really still not get that?’

Morgana at last smiled again – and Morgause walked in with a tray bearing a fresh pot of tea and cups for the three of them. ‘Oh,’ said Morgana, ‘I think he does get that, but he wanted everything to be above board, and be seen to be above board. All right. No, that’s your copy. Thank you, sister.’ Morgana sat back with a look of great satisfaction. ‘Now, Merlin, the only other business of the day is to see about getting you hitched.’

The doorbell rang, and Merlin heard Gaius coming down the stairs from their bedroom, where he’d been getting ready. And hiding, obviously. There was a happy little skip in his step, but then Gaius cast an anxious look into the front room – which soon relaxed into a delighted smile when his gaze settled upon Merlin – who declared, ‘You wonderful, absurd, gorgeous old man.’

‘Ah, well,’ was all Gaius ventured in reply. He was looking perfect in ivory, sage greens, and dark blues. It really was time for Merlin to head back up and get himself properly dressed as well. For now, however, he was content to stay exactly where he was, with his son gurgling contentedly in his embrace.

‘I hope that’s the food,’ Morgana commented as Gaius at last answered the door. ‘I am so hungry.’

‘Mmm… honey on toast…’ Morgause murmured. And she drifted back into the kitchen with that hypnotic hip–swaying walk of hers.

Morgana laughed, and hurried to catch up with her, her every step a gorgeous dance on improbable purple heels. ‘Sister, you are singing my song.’

The other guests began arriving: Hunith with John Balinor; Arthur and Leon; Lance and Gwen; Erika and Paul and their children; and then Uther and his new friend Catrina. They gathered together in the garden, this disparate group of people all greeting each other and talking and laughing with affection and goodwill. And when the time was right, Morgana took her place beneath the old oak tree at the bottom of the lawn, a leather–bound folder in her hands containing the service and their vows and the certificate.

Uther came to Gaius, and accompanied him to his place, where Arthur stood beside his godparent as witness.

Then Hunith accompanied Merlin, who carried Teague in his arms, while John watched proudly. ‘Hunith has the right,’ he’d said when asked, ‘and I couldn’t bear to give you away again when I’ve only just found you.’ Merlin stepped into place, with Lance as witness at his side, and he gave Teague to Hunith to care for during the ceremony.

And then Morgana began. ‘We are gathered here on this truly beautiful day to celebrate the loving union of our dear friends, Merlin and Gaius…’

When Morgana had placed their hands each in the other’s, magic had coalesced through the air, wrapping seven gold–glinting ribbons about them and binding them forever. Merlin woke up late that night, and reached for his sketchpad, determined to capture the essence of the moment, to add to the book they were slowly working on together, a book about real magic.

Gaius eventually woke, too, despite Merlin being as quiet as possible, and he lay there for a while, smiling up at him. They were in their own bed, of course, under the cerulean blue covers. Uther’s present had been a month’s honeymoon at any destination they wished, but all they had wanted was to be at home together, and enjoy being a couple and a family, in a place where they’d discovered they fit perfectly. ‘All right,’ Uther had said, ‘that will be your first anniversary present, then. A belated honeymoon. I have something else in mind for your wedding gift.’ They were yet to find out what it was.

‘Hey there, old man,’ Merlin murmured when it became clear that Gaius wasn’t going back to sleep. ‘How ’re you feeling?’

‘Impossibly content,’ was the quiet reply.

Merlin grinned. ‘Me, too.’

‘What are you drawing?’

‘The magic, when it bound us. It wants us together, Gaius. You feel that, too, don’t you?’

‘Yes.’ Gaius shifted a little towards him, tugging away the duvet and the covers. ‘I think we should give it what it wants… If that can wait?’

Merlin dropped the pad and pencils to the floor, and turned to his love. ‘It can wait. For years yet!’ He let Gaius pull him into a close embrace, and stretched catlike against the other man’s skin. He felt delicious. ‘I want it to show Teague, later on. So he knows what you and I are to each other.’

‘I think he knows already,’ said Gaius, before capturing Merlin’s mouth in a kiss.

As they began making love, the ribbons of gold spun languidly around them, caressing them, pushing and teasing them, occasionally tickling against their skin like champagne bubbles. Perhaps those ribbons would never again fade while either man lived.

Uther only ever glimpsed them that once, at the ceremony. Afterwards he swore it had been a trick of the sunlight catching the happy well of tears in his eyes as he watched his old friend pledge himself to his long–awaited love. But Teague always knew better – and when all was said and done, this was not and never had been Uther’s world. It was and is and always will be Teague’s.

Posted in: Merlin, Slash fic

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