"Move in with me."
Merlin looked up from the crib marked "Emrys" slowly, not entirely certain he had heard correctly. "What?" If he could see anything other than his wife's blood on the usually pristine white of the hospital floor, hear anything but the sound of the doctor saying a defeated, "Time of death: 3:12am," feel anything but the life leaving her body, he might have laughed at the absurdity of his best friend's request. As it was, he sounded every bit as washed out and lost as he felt, and more than likely looked.
Arthur placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "Move in with me and Percy. That flat is no place for a little girl. You and I could take care of the kids together; you could continue working, you would have someone to share in your misery. It's the perfect solution." Merlin knew what Arthur was trying to do, and he did appreciate it but… moving into Arthur's mansion would not help him to forget little Mithian's mother.
But more than that… "You want to help me raise my daughter? Arthur, you freeze up every single time you're around any kid but Percy. How are you going to handle taking care of mine? It's too much, Arthur. I could never ask that of you."
"Well, you're not asking. I'm offering – or, really, I suppose you could say, I'm insisting." Arthur's mouth was set in that stubborn not-frown that he got whenever he was feeling particularly ornery, and his nostrils were flared, and Merlin just knew this was going to be a bad idea.
"This isn't like when we were little and we tried to adopt that stray puppy you and I found in the woods, Arthur."
Arthur huffed a laugh and said teasingly, "I should hope not. I have a feeling CPS would not appreciate us feeding a baby grubs and worms because 'that's how Timone and Pumba fed Simba in the Lion King' any more than your mother did."
In spite of himself, Merlin smiled a little at the memory of two little boys getting one of the few scoldings they ever received from his mother. "We were so clueless. And my poor mother, having to call the vet to find out if the dog was going to get sick…"
"We were clueless? As I recall, feeding the dog bugs was your brilliant idea," Arthur retorted in playful irritation.
Merlin squawked in mock outrage, feeling livelier than he had in weeks, "I was four, you were seven – so which one of us was more stupid, do you think? The four year old who came up with the plan, or the seven year old who went along with it?"
Arthur cuffed him about the head and then drew him into a headlock, rubbing his fist through Merlin's hair. "I'll have you know I was very intelligent for a seven year old. It's not my fault that you were graced with an uncanny wisdom for a child your age, and that the one time you came up with an idiotic plan, we both got into trouble for it."
Squirming out of his best friend's hold, Merlin grinned for a moment before reality set in once more, and he sobered. "Really though, Arthur – you've helped me so much over the last few weeks. Don't you think you've done enough?"
Piercing blue eyes bored into him and saw everything he could not bring himself to say. "Merlin, you've been there for me through all the big things in my life. When Sophia decided she simply wasn't willing to sacrifice her future to be a mother. When my father died… And I don't even want to think what I would have done without you when Guinevere… left. It's time I returned the favor." That Arthur even felt capable of talking about Gwen and Lancelot's betrayal told Merlin that his best friend was deadly serious. They never spoke of his ex-fiancé and their other erstwhile best friend.
He looked once more at the tiny pink bundle in the see-through NICU cradle and thought about it – because he knew Arthur wouldn't. Once he decided on a course of action, Arthur Pendragon stuck with it to the bitter end.
Without Freya – and at the fresh reminder of his wife's loss, he felt as though he was falling into an abyss of loss and loneliness; his precious, loving, sweet Freya, gone – how was he supposed to provide for their little girl and give her the kind of love and attention she would need? He knew there were plenty of single parents; his own mother was living proof. However, he needed some sort of anchor, some way to keep him grounded, and Freya had been that for him ever since she came into his life. Perhaps, as insane as it sounded, Arthur's idea was not quite so awful. In fact, it was actually starting to sound sort of wonderful.
Swallowing, he looked up and said, "I hope you know what you're getting us into."
Arthur just smiled.
Wide eyes in a young face peered into the car seat in fascination. "What's that? Is that a baby? Did you bring me a baby, Merlin?" Percival Pendragon was an endlessly curious boy with an enormous heart – which may or may not have anything to do with his excessive height.
At seven years old, Percy stood at the same height as most nine and ten year-olds, a fact which often led to much head scratching on his father's part. Neither he nor Sophia had been especially tall in childhood, and the last he had heard of his high school sweetheart, she was still average sized for a woman. Nevertheless, their son, who she had kindly dumped in his arms one day during his first year at Uni, prior to disappearing off the face of the earth, was what many would call a gentle giant. He loved small children, and had begged and pleaded while Arthur was engaged to Guinevere for a little brother or sister, claiming he would do all the work and defend the baby from all harm. He was crushed when Guinevere left his father standing at the altar, though not for quite the same reasons as Arthur.
Now, he watched with hope shining in his eyes as Arthur ushered Merlin into the Pendragon home with a purple car seat in one hand, and a diaper bag slung across his back, looking like death warmed over.
Arthur tried to find some way to explain to his son that Mithian was not actually meant for him, but apparently Merlin had already decided that was not a battle worth fighting. Arthur could understand, he supposed. When one felt as emotionally and physically drained as Merlin must – because anyone who could survive three weeks in the NICU with his little girl, in the midst of mourning his wife, and not feel ready to crawl into a hole somewhere and hide away from the rest of the world was simply not human - it was only logical to avoid going into pointless explanations about the ownership of human beings and the unethical nature of entrusting a sickly newborn to a young child. "Percy, this is Mithian. She and I are going to be staying here with you and your dad for – "
"-Ever. They're going to be staying with us forever." He received an exhausted glare for this interruption, but chose to ignore it. In time, his best friend would realize that this solution was best for everyone involved. Percy could have a pseud- little sister, Merlin could stop worrying about finding the means to support Mithain while he struggled with a severe case of writer's block – worsened immeasurably by the recent loss of Freya – and Arthur could have someone around the mansion who actually knew what to do with children. George's ability to entertain Percy only went so far, and Arthur really should stop begging Gaius, the physician who had been looking after his family's health since before Arthur was born, for advice and babysitting services whenever he had to stay late for board meetings and the like.
He was rescued from the evil eye Merlin continued sending his way by the timely arrival of George, the best butler in all of England. "Mr. Emrys. A pleasure to see you again sir, as well as the little Miss. I have set up a room for you down the hall from Master Pendragon with all the necessary accoutrements. If you would please follow me." George had begun serving the Pendragons a few years prior to Uther's death, replacing Edwin, who had decided one day to take up botany and handed in his resignation without so much as a by-your-leave.
Merlin, who had long since given up on convincing the traditional man to call him by his given name, simply responded with a tired, "Thank you, George, " and gratefully passed off the diaper bag before plodding doggedly along, up a flight of stairs, with Arthur and Percival in tow, ducklings following faithfully after their mother.
The room that George opened on the second floor was enormous – easily twice the size of the guest room which Merlin had occupied on his visits in their earlier years – with a luxurious king-sized four-poster and a lavish bassinette, along with a changing table and various other necessities for infants and daddies alike, all in tasteful shades of purple. Merlin looked around at the opulent room and considered for about five seconds protesting that it was far, far too much, and then recalled who exactly he was dealing with, and contented himself with gently setting the car seat on the bed, precious burden and all, and turning to express his gratitude. Arthur, of course, merely waved it off, uncomfortable with having his generosity called to everyone's attention – not that either of the other adults in this room would ever tease him or give him grief about it. Meanwhile, Percy crept up to the car seat to get a closer look at his little baby, and said a quiet vow to no one in particular to guard the tiny life inside of it with his own, and care for it always.
After which he whispered, "Hi, Mithian. I'm your big brother," and then went silently back to stand at his father's side, taking his hand and causing the man to look down at him and smile softly.
"Well, I think it's time to feed this one some dinner and get him ready for bed. Let me or George know if you need something, Merlin." He waited for Merlin to nod his understanding before departing with butler and son.
Merlin heard George asking, "What would you like tonight, young Master Percival?" and a little voice saying, "Can I have grilled cheese and applesauce, George?" The familiar sounds of life in the Pendragon mansion brought a small upward tilt to his lips before he turned back to the car seat on the bed. He gently released the fastenings and withdrew his little one, his heart clenching in adoration and a little regret at the way she barely stirred, little mouth opening in a mew and then closing again, her face still peaceful, so much like her late mother, who had always slept like the dead. After holding her for several minutes and simply marveling at her perfection, and placed her in the bassinette and set about getting ready for bed, ignoring the rumbling in his stomach in favor of some much-needed sleep. He offered up a mental prayer for George upon seeing the new toothbrush and toothpaste the man had set out in the bathroom which connected to his room and then stopped thinking altogether, simply preparing for slumber on auto-pilot.
As he crawled under the lavender scented – and colored – sheets, he glanced over at his daughter, checking to make sure she was still breathing, and then settled down in the bed, letting sleep take him.
As dawn's first rays drifted languidly into the room, the occupant of the large bed moved slowly, before coming alive, turning to look once more at the bassinette, and sighing in relief at the realization that Mithian was still asleep. After the first time she had woken in the middle of the night, prompting Merlin to venture downstairs to heat enough water to mix with her formula, she had woken twice more. He considered himself lucky; Arthur had shared plenty of horror stories about being a student in Uni with a baby who could not sleep for more than an hour at a time, constantly hungry and ready to gurgle at his father. Mithian seemed far less inclined to disturb his sleep, a blessing to be sure. He had not been able to rest much in the NICU; hospitals made him jumpy at the best of times, and knowing what had happened to his wife, along with the fact that his little one had come two months early, had kept him constantly on edge while they were there.
Rubbing a hand over his face, he dragged himself out of bed and padded over to the bathroom, stripping and stepping into the shower. Normally a shower this nice would leave him feeling embarrassed – and had on the occasions where he used the one down the hall from his old room in the mansion, but in that moment he merely reveled in the feeling of finally being clean after so long of enduring the sensation which always plagued him in hospital; that feeling of having something invisible crawling on his skin, impossible to remove and to ignore. He imagined that some of the pain from losing Freya flowed down the drain along with the dust and the grime and the germs, leaning his forehead against the cobalt tiles lining the shower. He hadn't even had time to organize a funeral, too worried over the daughter she left behind. Come to think of it, he had not even told his mother that he was moving here. Hopefully she would not panic too much in the time it would take him to get dressed and have breakfast before making a rather belated phone-call.
Life with Arthur had always been like that. Ever since a two-year-old Merlin met the imperious five-year-old boy when his mother became the nanny to him and his half-sister Morgana, he had been caught up in the young Pendragon heir's plans and hopes and dreams, getting into one scrape after another because he couldn't fight that compulsion to follow the older boy anywhere and everywhere, forgetting the rest of the world even existed.
He remembered what a shock it was for Arthur when Freya became a part of his life, taking away some of his once-myopic attention and adoration. That had been in Merlin's second year of Uni, when he had quite literally run into the poor thing on his way to Creative Writing, causing her to drop her portfolio and spread her art across the campus grounds. He had known he was falling hard even as he helped her to gather up the nearly ill-fated photographs and she had handled the entire situation with such grace and good humor, never once making him feel like a klutz or an idiot about the whole thing.
Two weeks later, he had been forced to have a long discussion with Arthur, who was struggling to take care of Percival and finish up his final semester of Uni, that things were going to be a little different from then on, because he had a girl in his life. He still wondered at times what the odd stricken expression on his best friend's face had stemmed from. Surely it wasn't that hard to believe that someone wanted to be with him? In time, Arthur managed to move past whatever had made him behave so awkwardly around Merlin for the first few months after he and Freya started dating, and he hadn't been a bit surprised when, a year later, Merlin had asked him to be his best man at a small ceremony of their closest friends, including Gwen and Lancelot, whom Arthur had met and introduced to Merlin during his time at Uni. In fact, that was the day that Arthur finally asked Gwen out – he had been pussy-footing around the idea for a few months before manning up and taking the plunge.
That must have been the happiest time of their lives; Merlin was newly married and totally in love, Arthur proposed to Gwen only a short while after Merlin and Freya graduated, and Lancelot was the best friend either of them could ever have asked for, loyal and supportive, and exactly what they both needed to keep them walking on solid ground. And then, on the day that Arthur and Gwen were set to be married, Hunith had come to the room in the hotel where Arthur, Percival, Lancelot, and Merlin were getting ready, and handed Lancelot a letter. Upon reading it, his eyes had filled with wonder and something strangely like guilt, and then he had made his excuses and departed. That was the last time either Arthur or Merlin had ever seen Gwen and Lancelot.
Things had been dark for a while – Uther had a stroke that landed him in the hospital, Morgana decided that she was tired of trying to be a part of the Pendragon family, and Merlin had asked Freya if he could stay with Arthur for a little while to try and help him take care of Percy and figure out how to move on with is life. Freya had immediately said yes, with an odd look of understanding in her eyes, and dutifully helped him to pack, knowing that he would forget something important if left to his own devices; he was fine when it came to taking care of everyone else, but not always so great at seeing to his own needs.
Merlin had helped his best friend take care of Percy, especially in those first days when Arthur barely felt like getting out of bed, and had brought the man mostly back to himself. Eventually, Arthur got through it all, mainly for the sake of his son, and Merlin went back home to Freya.
That had been about eight months ago, and their happy reunion had resulted in the creation of their little girl. Things had been wonderful throughout the entire pregnancy, until Freya had gone into labor two months before her due date, and though Mithian had come into the world with relatively few complications, Merlin had watched in horror as his wife's placenta inverted and she bled out onto the floor. The hospital staff had gone to retrieve a patiently waiting Hunith, and she convinced her distraught son to leave the room, taking him to look at his tiny miracle and hold her frail little hand. Arthur came up to the hospital a few hours later, straight from the office, and he had sent a reluctant Hunith home with promises to look after her son, saying that George could handle watching Percy for a little while and putting him to bed.
For the past three weeks, Arthur had been Merlin's rock, making sure he remembered to eat even when he did not want to, letting him cry on his broad shoulder and never saying a single word about the wet stains his grief left behind.
Finished rinsing off the last of the soap and shampoo, Merlin shut off the shower head and stepped out, grabbing the towel George had thoughtfully set out on the rack sometime prior to his arrival, drying off and leaving thoughts of the past behind him, where they belonged.
Upon reentering his new bedroom, Merlin remembered that he hadn't thought to bring any clothes with him and paused. Then, on a hunch, he strode over to the bureau which lined the wall opposite Mithian's bassinette, and when he opened the top drawer, he found neatly folded socks and boxers, obviously moved from the bureau in his former guest room in another excellent display of George's wonderful service. He may be the only member of the Pendragon staff, but he made his presence count, always anticipating the needs of the others living in the mansion. Merlin was certain that, had he chosen to take a look in the walk-in closet, his few sets of formal clothing which he kept here would be hanging, perfectly pressed and starched, along with his shoes. For now, he simply pulled out a worn-out and faded Henley and a rather thread-bare pair of jeans, along with his underwear and socks. Arthur could sniff at his deplorable fashion sense all he wanted; Merlin just wanted to feel comfortable, especially among people he considered his family.
After pulling on the clothes which felt like old friends, Merlin walked over to the bassinette and carefully scooped up his little girl, cradling her to his chest as he departed their room and made his way downstairs, following the path he had taken a few times last night for bottles, this time in search of breakfast.
Upon reaching the bottom of the stairwell, the scents of a hearty breakfast wafted toward him from the kitchen, along with the sound of a young voice in an intense discussion with a much deeper voice, warm with affection. He walked into the kitchen and found Arthur seated at the informal dining table with his son, and George bustling about the kitchen. The butler looked up from where he had been flipping bacon over and hastened to bring him a blue sling, which he produced seemingly out of the ether, helping Merlin to situate he and his little charge comfortably before placing a cup of English Breakfast, made just the way he liked it, on the table in front of him.
"Good morning, Mr. Emrys. I trust you found your new accommodations adequate?" As he spoke, George took up his breakfast preparations once more, though with an air of one who is more than capable of working and listening attentively at the same time.
"The room is wonderful, thank you, George. I didn't bother anyone last night, did I?"
"Of course not, Mr. Emrys. You are not the first young father to find himself preparing bottles in the middle of the night in this house. However, now that I am aware of the brand of formula she takes, next time I shall have the bottles made prior to the little Miss's feeding times, that way all you must do is heat them. How many ounces does she take?"
"Oh – I tend to make her three, but she normally never drinks more than two and a half at a time." He watched George nod as he went about his business, and then turned to look at the other two occupants of the kitchen, who had finished their discussion in order to observe the interactions between Merlin and their butler. "How are you two this morning? Did you sleep well?"
"I slept great, Merlin! How's my baby?" Merlin's lips twitched at Percival's inquiry, and met Arthur's equally amused eyes across the table.
"Mithian is doing just fine at the moment, Percy. See? She's sleeping." Percival took in the sight of the lightly snoring babe and grinned from ear to ear, before he frowned in concern.
"Why's she sleeping? Didn't she get enough sleep last night?"
"That's just what babies do, Percy – when they're little like that, they tend to eat and sleep more than anything, because that's what their bodies need to grow. When you were little, you tended to take a lot of naps during the day, too. Granted, you also kept me up at odd hours of the night because you were a night owl, but eventually you grew out of it." Arthur added that last part ruefully, remembering the early days of life as a single parent with a child who never seemed to stop.
"What's a night owl?" And there was Percy's insatiable curiosity, present and accounted for even in the early hours of the morning.
"A night owl is someone who likes to be up at night, but sleeps more during the day."
"Are you a night owl, father?"
"I was, when I was younger. But people get older and then they don't want to stay up so late anymore."
"Because they have to go to work and stuff?"
"Yes, exactly. Because we have to go to work, 'and stuff.'" Merlin watched Arthur explaining all of this to his son and smiled, feeling a tender warmth growing in his chest. His best friend may not have clue one how to handle other people's children, but he was wonderful with Percy, always patient and understanding, and just a little bit amused. He hoped that Arthur would have a similar relationship with Mithian, especially considering the revelation he had dropped last night about wanting to make their residence at the Pendragon mansion permanent. His friend turned to him and asked, "Do you have anything you need to do today?" sounding as though he already had some idea of what Merlin had on the agenda, which he confirmed when he said, "I took the liberty of calling your mother to let her know that you were moving here. I'm sure she'll want to hear from you soon."
Merlin let out a relieved breath, grateful to have someone around to remember the finer details, even if that someone could no longer be Freya. "Thanks. I was going to call her right after breakfast, unless Mithian woke up hungry."
"Even if she does, I can take care of her. I don't plan on going into work until tomorrow; it's not as if my boss can slap me on the wrist if I take another day off." This was true. It certainly paid to be the CEO of a large company like Pendragon Publishing. However, it felt a little like taking advantage, no matter that Arthur was the one suggesting it.
"Arthur, you're doing so much for us already, and you haven't gone into work since… since Mithian was born," he was not going to make the anniversary of her arrival in this world about Freya's death; he had seen firsthand what that kind of grieving did to a child, and he would not put his daughter through what Arthur had dealt with his entire childhood, not if he could help it, "don't you think it's time for you to go back?"
Arthur shook his head and replied earnestly, "Merlin, you've done everything for me, and never asked for anything in return. Let me be the one to look after you, this time."
Merlin deflated in the face of Arthur's determination, and nodded, saying, "Thank you," and then gladly accepting the heaping plate that George set before him, tucking into his breakfast along with the others and letting the subject drop.
"No, mum, I really don't want you to come over. You need to look after Gwaine and Elana's rascals – don't deny it, you know they are. We'll be fine. Yes, I'm sure Arthur, George, and I can handle things here. Alright, sure. I love you, too. I will let them know. Alright, bye." Merlin hit the "End" button on his mobile and sighed, running an exasperated hand through his hair. He loved his mother, and he always wanted to hear from her, but he wondered sometimes if Hunith would ever stop being so protective. He knew a great deal of her worrying stemmed from allegedly losing her husband to an auto accident before he was born, but sometimes he wondered if she realized he was a man now, capable of making his own way in the world.
He turned to face Arthur, who was sitting on the overstuffed couch in the family room and feeding Mithian her first bottle of the morning while Percy drew a picture in his coloring book, and told them both that, "My mother says she loves both of you and misses seeing you. She also said to give you each a hug and a kiss from her, but you know what, I don't think I'll be kissing you anytime soon," this prompted a raised eyebrow from Arthur, as he watched Merlin stroll over to place a gentle buss on his son's cheek. Percival stood up from where he had been sprawling on the floor with his crayons and wrapped his arms around Merlin's middle, always ready to give and receive affection, a fact which he knew came from Merlin's influence, rather than Arthur's, who had grown up with the stand-offish Uther. Although he had improved under the warmth and attention bestowed upon him by Hunith, Arthur would never be overly physically demonstrative when it came to showing how much he cared, though he tended to try a great deal more with Percival, with positive results.
Running gentle fingers through Percy's hair, which was beginning to curl at the ends – he would need a trim soon – Merlin hugged the little boy back and met the soft gaze of his best friend. He wondered what had put it there. Over the years, he had seen Arthur sending him that look every once in a while, never receiving an explanation. Eventually, he had simply given up trying to understand the reasons for it, and taken the affection in stride. Arthur so rarely allowed himself to appear vulnerable to others, so Merlin decided to take the look here and there as a special gift, and remembered them whenever the man behaved particularly spoiled or stubborn.
At last, Percy withdrew, returning to his drawing – which upon closer inspection looked like three large stick figures, two of which seemed to be holding hands, another which was wearing an apron, a smaller stick figure who was holding the hand of one member of the stick couple, and a pink bundle with a circle for a face, from which extended three curly lines – hair, Merlin surmised – and added yellow to the head of one of the members of the stick couple, and black to the other, who was holding the hand of the smaller stick figure, to which he added orange. Merlin blinked upon realizing that the apron-wearing figure must be George. So far as he knew, the butler had never worn an apron in his life. He shook his head, chalking it up to the media. The things children picked up from cartoons these days.
As he continued to watch Percy draw, adding a stick figure in a green dress and giving 'her' dark, wavy hair, he heard the soft sound of Arthur's strong hand, typically firm, though in this instance he knew it would be infinitely gentle, meeting Mithian's tiny back as he sought out first one, then two dainty little burps. "Here, you'll want to hand her to me before she falls asleep," Merlin said, picking up a fresh burp rag and draping it over his shoulder before receiving his daughter and watching Arthur stand up from his spot on the couch, stretching after being in one position for so long.
Arthur sighed and then spoke, allowing his voice to carry just a little. "Come on, Percival. It's time to go to school." Arthur always tried to be the one to drive his son to his school, in spite of George's frequent offers to carry out the task. He said he wanted to take every opportunity to be a part of his son's life, and Merlin agreed. This would be the first time since the night Arthur had joined Merlin in the NICU that he would be able to take Percy to Escetia Prep. "Do you have that… what is his name… Mr. Snuggles that your teacher let you bring home on Friday in your bag, or do you need to go look for him in your room?"
"I have him father," Percy replied dutifully as he stood up from the floor once again, going over to retrieve his schoolbag from its place by the family room's door.
"Then let's be off. Merlin, I'll be back in a little while. You know how to contact George if you need anything, but make sure you let me know if anything happens while I'm gone." Arthur crossed over to the door and put his hand on his son's shoulder, pausing to let him wave at Merlin before they departed.
The boy reappeared a few seconds later and dashed over to Merlin and Mithian, asking, "Can I give Mithian a kiss goodbye? I won't see her for hours and hours, Merlin."
Merlin bit his lip before holding his little girl in a way that would allow Percy access before cautioning him, "Not on the lips please, Percy. We don't want her to get sick." Percy dropped a soft kiss on his baby's forehead and then hurried back out of the room once more, leaving Merlin behind to shake his head at the little boy's antics. At least they wouldn't need to worry about Percy feeling displaced.
Arthur strolled into the family room and was met by the sight of Merlin, his gangly body stretched out over the sofa, holding Mithian to his chest. Both were deeply asleep, and far too adorable to be forgotten, and so he took out his mobile and snapped a photo, and then went to flip the light off. Before he left the room, he unknowingly mimicked his son when he leaned down and placed a kiss on first Mithian's, and then Merlin's forehead. Merlin stirred a little, but Arthur simply whispered, "Shh, it's alright. Go back to sleep," and watched in silence until the new parent settled back into slumber.
Finally, he forced himself to walk away. He may as well get some work done in his office – it used to be his father's, but he had taken it as his own when the older man died, mostly as a way to stay connected with him.
The day passed slowly, with Merlin and Mithian waking every few hours. At one point, Arthur convinced Merlin to eat lunch, completely ignoring his protestations that he wasn't at all hungry. Finally, around 2:15, he headed out to pick up Percival, leaving Merlin on the couch once more, though this time he was watching an old Robin Hood rerun while Mithian drank another bottle.
Of course the first thing Percy wanted to do when they got home was check on his baby. After being reminded that good boys walked up the stairs instead of running, he slowly and deliberately made his way into the family room and then dropped his schoolbag by the door before he went over to Merlin and whispered, "Is she sleeping?" At Merlin's careful nod, Percy backed away, reassured that everything was right in his baby's world, and then headed off to the kitchen to ask for a snack from George.
Life settled into a new routine in the Pendragon household. Arthur went back to the office during the week, though not before dropping off his son, and Merlin continued to become accustomed to life without Freya, relying on Mithian and the others in their odd little family to keep him going. There was one day where Arthur came home to a sleeping Mithian and a frantic Merlin, sitting in front of his laptop sobbing and far too distraught to explain what was wrong. Later, after managing to get him away from the offending electronic device, Arthur had finally coaxed his friend into giving him some answers. Apparently, for the moment, Merlin simply could not write. He had not suffered writer's block this intense since he was fifteen and he found out that his father had abandoned him and his mother before Merlin was born, making it look like an accident, because he had been working on something top-secret for the government. The only reason the government decided to call Hunith's flat and explain everything was to inform them of Balinor's actual death two days previously while doing something dangerous for his country. Merlin had broken down the next day after school and told his best friend everything. He and Arthur had ultimately agreed to keep the truth from Hunith, not wanting to upset her. Arthur recognized that lost, helpless look in his best friend's eyes and felt his heart breaking for him all over again.
He sat down and drew Merlin into his arms, bringing the other man's head down to rest against his chest and told him, "It doesn't matter if you never write another word, Merlin. Not to me, not to Percy, and certainly not to Mitian. If it isn't there anymore, then that's alright. You know I'll take care of you two, no matter what you decide. On the other hand, it may just not be the right time for you to write. Just… stop pushing yourself to get back into things before you're ready. There's no rush – none of us expect you to bounce back from this immediately. I'll have a talk with Annis, let her know that the next book in the Strength, Courage, Magic trilogy will have to wait a while – I'm sure she'll understand."
Merlin sniffled into Arthur's shirt and said, "Some people might consider that nepotism."
Arthur only scoffed softly, replying, "No one I'd be inclined to listen to," and began carding his fingers through Merlin's hair.
"Arthur – Arthur come here, quick!"
The sound of pounding feet heralded Arthur's swift compliance with Merlin's frantic demand. "What? Is something wrong with the baby? She was fine not five minutes ago – wait. Is she rolling over? She is! Look at that!"
"I see it, I see it!" There was an effusive round of applause from both men, surprising Mithian, who thankfully chose not to worry about it and merely cooed in response to the enthusiastic praise, continuing to wiggle around on her play mat. Merlin crossed over to his bureau and pulled a large cream book out of the top right drawer, along with a pen. Sitting down on his bed, he asked "What's today's date?"
Still transfixed by the little one on the mat, Arthur replied, "It's the fourteenth."
Merlin nodded, writing everything down in Mithian's baby book, only realizing the implications behind the date after he finished. "You mean it's only ten days until Christmas Eve? How did that happen?"
"Well, we have been a bit busy."
"I haven't done a thing about Christmas presents." Merlin's distressed tone finally penetrated Arthur's proud papa moment, and he looked over at his best friend.
"Don't worry about it – I took care of everything weeks ago." The off-hand way that Arthur informed Merlin of this was either really endearing or incredibly annoying - it was difficult for Merlin to decide.
"When was this?" he asked, closing Mithian's baby book and looking at his friend expectantly.
"Oh, you know – when I told you I had to stay at work late? You remember, I asked you to –"
"- To pick up Percy, right. So, you were Christmas shopping, instead?" Arthur finally recognized the slightly dangerous quality which had crept into Merlin's voice and his expression turned slightly wary.
"Is that alright? I figured with how busy you've been taking care of Mithian, you wouldn't mind."
"So, you didn't think that I might have wanted to do that with you? That I might want to shop for Mithian's first Christmas myself?" The longer Merlin spoke, the tenser Arthur became, sensing he had crossed some sort of unwritten line.
"Yes, well. What about the tree?"
Arthur cringed at Merlin's would-be calm tone, saying, "Well, you see… Percy and I took care of that, too."
Rubbing the hand not holding the baby book still on his lap over his face, Merlin asked, "Let me guess – that was the day I had to take Mithian in because of the cough she had last week."
"…Yes? Percy was bored, and neither of us wanted to be in the house, so we just decided to get it done."
Taking in a deep breath and then releasing it, Merlin decided to let it go. "Alright, fine. I still need to take care of gifts for you, George, and… you didn't buy those too, did you?"
Arthur bit his lip and then said, "You bought me a very tasteful tie and some cologne that you had me try one day at the mall. And some new leather gloves for George, along with a shawl for your mother."
There was silence before Merlin replied, "Well. I guess you thought of everything, didn't you? When exactly were you planning on telling me about this?"
"Well, probably when it came time to wrap everything." Arthur still sounded as though he expected Merlin to let loose and tell him how he really felt – which was funny, but probably not something that Merlin should continue to encourage.
"Fine, where have you hidden it all?" he asked, sounding thoroughly exhausted by Arthur's antics.
"In my office." Merlin paused in the act of rising from his perch on the bed and raised his eyebrow at this admission.
"No wonder you haven't wanted me to go in there recently. 'Oh, no, Merlin, it's a mess,' 'We can't have you breaking your neck on a pile of paperwork, now can we, Merlin?' 'Wouldn't you rather play with the baby in the family room, Merlin?' When really, you didn't want to have to tell me what you'd done. Prat." He finished standing as his rant came to a close and then strode purposely toward the door.
Arthur looked over at him and asked, "Where are you going?" glancing at Mithian and then back at Merlin.
"It seems I have some wrapping to do. So while I take care of that, you can watch Mithian. She's due for a bottle in fifteen minutes, so I'm sure she'll start fussing soon." With that, Merlin walked out.
After staring after his best friend for a few moments, Arthur knelt down by the baby and said confidingly, "I don't think your mummy is very happy with me right now."
Mithian cooed back at him in what he chose to take as agreement, and then soiled her nappy. Wrinkling his nose, Arthur decided that this was Merlin's revenge; the man had a sort of preternatural ability to sense when his little girl was due for a change, and had taken to leaving Arthur alone with her right at those critical moments whenever Arthur did something to tick him off.
Arthur sat at his desk the next evening, going over a missive from Oden, who worked in the HR department of Pendragon Publishing. He had come home early because of a persistent migraine, and Merlin had volunteered to pick Percy up from school today. Thankfully, after a few hours of sleeping in his room, which he typically kept as dark as a bear's cave in winter, he felt significantly better.
Apparently his miraculous recovery had come to the attention of the other denizens of the mansion.
"You'll never guess what your son told his class during circle time this morning." Merlin walked into Arthur's office, now blessedly devoid of packages and wrapping paper, swaying a bit from side to side to keep the baby from squalling.
"No, I probably won't. What did he say?" Arthur inquired, glancing up from the borderline disrespectful note.
"Well, they were talking about family, and how there are different kinds. When it got to Percy, he told the whole class that you had found him a mummy and a baby sister." Merlin said all of this while pinning him with a pointed stare, and Arthur thought guiltily of the book sitting on Percival's beside table. "You wouldn't have anything to do with that, would you?"
"I might have," Arthur admitted, dragging his fingers through his already sleep-mussed hair.
Raising an eyebrow, Merlin said, "Well, that clears things up nicely. What exactly did you do?"
"You know how I read to him every night before he goes to sleep?" At Merlin's nod, Arthur continued, "Well, right now we're reading Peter Pan."
"… And so Percy has decided to relate his life to the events in the book?"
"You have to admit, it's kind of smart."
Merlin grimaced at this and replied, "Oh, definitely. Except for the part where I'm apparently no longer a boy and you are the boy who never grew up."
Blinking, Arthur tilted his head and said, "You know, I hadn't thought of that. Does this mean I get to call you Wendy?"
Merlin gave him a Look. "Only if you want something to go seriously wrong the next time I wash your laundry."
That got his attention. "Why have you been washing my laundry?" That was supposed to be George's job, and the man took such things quite seriously. The fact that Merlin had even found access to the washing machine was some sort of miracle.
"Mithian's been spitting up a lot recently, and so we've had more laundry than normal. I just figured while I was at it, I'd wash your clothes, too. I think George was out buying groceries at the time." Arthur took note of the burp rag Merlin had draped over the shoulder where his little girl's head rested.
Concerned, he asked, "You don't think we need to get her in to see her pediatrician again, do you? Or we could always call Gaius."
Merlin shook his head. "I doubt it's anything serious. If it keeps up, though, I'll go ahead and make an appointment."
Getting back to the original topic of their discussion, Arthur smiled wryly and told Merlin, "If you want me to have a talk with Percy about what he tells other people about our family, I can do that."
Giving a half laugh, half sigh, and managing to ignore the swell of joy he felt at hearing Arthur say things like, 'our family,' Merlin replied, "I don't suppose it really matters, as long as no one gives him any grief about it at school. If thinking about things that way helps him to make sense of his life, then I say let him. But if you call me your 'little wife', or 'Wendy-Bird', or anything like that, expect all of your white shirts to magically turn pink." His eyes dared Arthur to laugh or try to defend himself, and the other man simply raised his hands in peaceable acquiescence.
"I think I see her car coming up the driveway." Percival Pendragon hopped down from the window seat he had been kneeling on and scampered over to his father, who straightened his son's jumper.
"Well then, why don't we all go downstairs to greet her?" As Percy took off at a fast clip toward the stairwell, Arthur called, "No running, Percival," and watched his son struggle to restrain himself.
"She's going to be shocked at how much he's grown." Merlin said, patting Mithian's back and walking at Arthur's side.
Arthur glanced at his friend and his little charge and replied, "Not nearly as shocked as she'll be about how much her granddaughter has grown. It's amazing. Looking at her now, you'd never know she came two months early."
Merlin huffed a fond laugh and said, "Not with the way she eats. It's a wonder she isn't rounder than a beach ball at this point."
"Yes, well. She definitely gets that ridiculous metabolism from you."
As they reached the bottom of the stairs, the sound of the doorbell brought George out from where he had been waiting in the parlor.
Opening the door, he greeted Hunith and took her bag and the brightly wrapped packages which she had previously struggled to hold onto, stepping aside to allow her entrance. "Good morning, Mrs. Emrys, and a Happy Christmas to you."
"A Happy Christmas to you, too, George." Hunith bestowed a kind smile upon the formal little man and then turned to where Merlin and Arthur were approaching, before looking down and meeting the eyes of an eager Percy. "Hello there, Percy." The little boy grinned and pelted himself at her, wrapping his arms around her waist. "My, how strong you are. Will you help an old lady up the stairs?"
Percy pulled back and objected stoutly, "You're not old, Nanny Hunith! You're like Tinkerbell from Peter Pan – you'll never get old. You'll live forever and ever and keep looking after my father, 'cause he's like Peter, and he needs you." As though that settled the matter, he turned toward the stairs and took her hand, leading her on toward his ultimate destination: the family room, where they had put up the tree on the first day of Winter Break, and which was now surrounded by beautifully wrapped presents.
The adults in the room all exchanged amused looks above Percy's head, even as they followed him up the stairs, greeting each other as they went.
When at last they reached the room, Hunith rounded on her son and said, "Now, I haven't had the chance to hold my granddaughter in more than two months, Merlin."
Merlin grinned sheepishly and handed his precious cargo over. "She has a lot more hair than she did the last time you saw her."
Sitting on the overlarge sofa, she took a good, long look at her granddaughter for the first time in far too long. "Her eyes have settled, too," his mother replied, and then she laughed. "Merlin, sweetheart, I hate to say it, but she doesn't look a thing like you."
Arthur chimed in, "Oh, I don't know, Hunith. She might have Merlin's ears."
Merlin resisted the urge to snatch his daughter back and hide her away from them, knowing that they were only teasing. "If you must know, she has my nose."
Biting her lip, his mother said simply, "If you say so, dear."
"Don't feel bad, Merlin. Percy doesn't look like me or Sophia, either. For a while I thought about having a paternity test done, and then I decided it didn't really matter." Arthur shared this with his friend in a low voice, not wanting his son to hear him and get curious, as was so often the case.
Startled, Merlin asked, "What, really? I always thought the two of you had similar jawlines, and your lips are pretty similar. And sometimes you both get this really intense look on your faces – I can always tell when you or Percy are struggling with something or putting something together, because it's the exact same look of focused determination, like you're willing it all to make sense or resolve itself." That last part prompted a sharp look from his mother.
Pretending to be fully absorbed in her granddaughter – or not really pretending, since she very much was fascinated with the sweet little thing, but she was a mother and now also a grandmother; multitasking was one of her superpowers – she heard Arthur say casually, "You seem to have given this a lot of thought."
She saw Merlin shrug out of the corner of her eye. "Well, I've known you almost my entire life, and I do live with you. It's kind of hard not to be aware of the way you express yourself after knowing you so well and for so long. As for Percy – well. We all know who taught you how to change a nappy, so it's no surprise that I know him as well as I do."
Arthur protested this gross misrepresentation of the facts. "Hey – there was a time when you didn't know a thing about children. Just because you worked at a daycare part-time while you were in high school – it's like you had an unfair advantage."
Rolling his eyes, Merlin replied, "I worked hard for that 'unfair advantage', jerkface. You would never have survived working in a daycare."
Brow scrunching, Arthur responded, "Did you just call me 'jerkface'? I don't think I've heard that insult since I was about ten. What does that even mean, anyway?"
Just then, a little voice piped up, "Can we open presents now?" pulling the two males in the room who were meant to be adults, though apparently still struggled with the concept, from their rather spirited discussion. They looked at Percy, so innocent and excited, and then they looked at each other, awkward and sort of embarrassed at being caught in such juvenile behavior in the present company.
Merlin was the first one to reply, breaking eye-contact with his partner in crime. "Sure, baby. We can open presents now."
From her place on the sofa, Hunith smiled. Maybe things were finally going their way.
Standing in the kitchen with a cup of cider, Hunith looked at her son, who had his eyes on Arthur sitting at the table, his arms full of squirming child and now luke-warm bottle.
"You and Arthur seem to be doing well. Percy is happier than I've ever seen him, and I don't think it's just because of the set of paints I gave him for Christmas." She watched him, enjoying the soft look in Merlin's eyes.
"At first I didn't think it was a good idea but somehow, it just… works. I needed Arthur after Freya died, but sometimes I think he and Percy might have needed me, too." Though she could see evidence of lingering grief from the loss of his wife – which would always be there in some way; she, of all people, could understand that – he seemed to have made peace with it in the time since she had seen him last.
Running a hand over her boy's cheek, she asked softly, "Are you ever going to tell him how you feel?"
Merlin looked away from Arthur and Mithian at that. "What?"
"Oh, Merlin. You honestly think I don't know? I knew when the two of you were just boys, still trying to figure out who you were and what you wanted out of life." Merlin ducked his head at this, rubbing the hand not clutching a mug of cocoa down the back of his neck.
Instead of denying it – her son knew when something was pointless – Merlin shook his head and told her, "I wouldn't know what to say, and I don't want to risk what we have now. We've been friends since we were little kids. How do I know this wouldn't ruin everything? Aside from that… it hasn't even been three months since I lost my wife. How would Freya feel, knowing that I barely waited until she was cold in the grave before moving on?"
Sighing, Hunith wondered at how her boys could be so oblivious. "He needs you; you said it yourself. I highly doubt that anything could destroy what the two of you have with each other. It's… more than friendship. It's almost as if the two of you were made for each other. If you could see the two of you the way I do… well. There would be no question of what you both want. And as for moving on from Freya – Merlin, darling, you know that I loved your wife, so believe me when I tell you that she would want you to be happy, and that whether that happens five minutes of five years from now, is entirely up to the two of you."
"I know you think that, mum, but… it's just too soon." He dropped a kiss on his mother's cheek and went over to join his best friend and his daughter.
Arthur looked up as Merlin sat down and took in his expression, and grew concerned. "Everything alright with your mother?"
Merlin mustered up a smile and told him, "Yeah, it's fine. We just had some things we needed to talk about."
"So mysterious, Merlin. Is this your attempt at being cool? You were terrible at it in high school and you're even worse now. Please don't tell me you're considering acting as a new career path. No one would pay to see your B-grade dramas, not even your most loyal friends. Isn't that right, Mithian?" Taking in the little girl's intent eyes, Arthur continued, "We've got it all figured out, haven't we, sweetheart? Mummy can't fool us, oh no, he can't."
Merlin gasped at this blatant betrayal. "Excuse me? No wonder Percy's been telling everyone I'm his mother! If you keep this up, I really will turn all your clothes pink. Honestly, blaming it on J. M. Barry. Peter Pan had nothing to do with that."
Arthur looked up from the very serious discussion he had been having with Mithian and attempted to look contrite. "Sorry – one day when I was talking to her, it just sort of slipped out, and she made this face, and kind of giggled at me, so it stuck."
Completely unimpressed, Merlin raised a sardonic eyebrow and inquired, "So, you let an eleven-week-old baby make all of your decisions for you now? Clearly, I need to make a call to Leon – you can't run the company like this."
"I'll have you know she makes some very sound financial decisions. She's going to be a businesswoman to be reckoned with in twenty years, just you wait and see." It was ridiculous that this sort of absurdity should be so adorable, but that was just the way Arthur was; completely endearing, even when he made an enormous prat of himself and dragged everyone else along for the ride.
Shaking his head, Merlin smiled helplessly and allowed himself to be pulled along.
Merlin clutched Mithian close, using her as a shield against a creeping melancholia, as he watched George finish putting her things in the boot of her faded red car, the same one she had been driving since before he could remember, and the one she would continue to drive until it finally gave up the ghost, or so she said. It had been so peaceful and comforting having all of his loved ones here for Christmas and New Year's, his first without Freya since that fateful year at Uni.
He noticed Arthur giving him a sideways glance from where he stood with Percy resting against him, a wistful look on his young face. He tried to rearrange his expression into something that would reassure his friend, but didn't think he quite succeeded.
Hunith turned to face all of her boys and placed her hands on her hips, intimating an unusual combination of chiding warmth that only the best mothers could produce. "None of that. I'll be back in no time – after all, it's Percy's birthday in February, and you know I wouldn't miss being here for that for the world."
"You promise?" In response to Percy's query, Hunith opened her arms and held him close, and after leaning down a little, whispered her promise into his ear.
When Percy pulled away, Hunith stepped toward Arthur and treated him to much the same affection, and then she stood on her toes to tell him, in a voice only for his understanding, "Thank you for taking care of my son," and pressed a kiss on his cheek when he squeezed her in the way he had done since he was a small child, desperately in need of a mother's love.
"You know you never have to ask." At this, she pulled away slightly and gave him a soft smile.
"I do." She then gently withdrew and reached for her granddaughter one last time before she had to say goodbye. Looking down at the beautiful little creature, she said, "Oh, I will miss you, my darling." She then pressed her lips to the tiny forehead and passed Mithian back to Merlin, who leaned down slightly to bestow a kiss on Hunith's temple.
"It was good to have you here, mother." And if Merlin sounded a little sad, that was alright; he had plenty of loved ones here to help him when she was gone. "Be safe on the drive home, and call me when you get to Ealdor, alright?"
She laughed a little at her son's anxiety. "It wasn't that long ago that I was saying the same thing to you." She watched the tips of his ears turn slightly red and felt her lips stretch wider. "Of course I'll call you, sweetheart. You don't have to worry so much, and certainly not about me. You have two little ones to worry for, instead, and I promise that will be more than enough." Placing her hand on his arm, she gave it a light squeeze and then pulled away, walking to her car and bidding George goodbye even as he held the rusty old door open for her, ever the solicitous butler.
She called out a farewell to everyone standing in the driveway and then allowed George to shut the door. Giving a vigorous wave, she started the engine and then set off for home, safe in the knowledge that her family was doing as well as possible in their new circumstances, and confident that eventually her boys would figure everything out.
She had taught the well; now they had to put her lessons to good use.
Things settled back into their routine after Merlin's mother left, the days flying by.
Mithian continued to learn new things, and grew steadily in both height and beauty. Merlin and Arthur began to anticipate and dread the day when she would eat her first baby food, and George could be seen reading books on the care and feeding of infants in his spare time, many of them detailing the way to keep a child's diet free of preservatives and additives and a whole host of other 'ives' that he apparently deemed unsuitable for a child eating food from 'his' kitchen, and others discussing ways to replace harsh cleaning chemicals with natural substances that would be less harmful to little bodies. When Merlin asked whether the butler had been like this with Percy, Arthur had shaken his head and told him he wasn't altogether sure what had come over the little man. He had always taken excellent care of both the estate and its inhabitants, but he had never before been quite so militant about it.
Percy proudly insisted that he had a mum and a baby sister to his friends at school, and though it earned a few raised eyebrows from the actual mothers whenever Merlin wound up being the one to drop him off or pick him up, with Mithian riding in the back in her purple car seat, imperiously surveying her kingdom, not one of them uttered an unkind word, and so he and Arthur chose to let the matter lie.
Of course, Hunith kept true to her word, returning to celebrate Percy's eighth birthday and finally managing what none of the men in the mansion could; she convinced the now-eight-year-old to tell her what he wanted to do after school in the fall. Though the idea of his son taking ballet and jazz had been a little odd for Arthur at first, he had rapidly grown accustomed to the concept when Percy explained that in dance, he would never have to worry about hurting any of the other boys and girls because of his significant stature.
Merlin finally felt inspired to write again by the time the first new leaves had begun peering tentatively out into the world. Arthur had walked into Merlin's room one afternoon to find the man typing furiously away at his laptop, the glasses he wore for his astigmatism sliding gradually down his nose, and his hair in total disarray from the occasional frustrated swipe with his long fingers to remove the increasingly overlong hair from his line of sight. Rather than interrupt brilliance in progress, Arthur had set the mug of cocoa George had directed him toward, while holding a plastic spoon full of homemade pureed organic carrots and tomatoes in one hand and a tiny washcloth in the other, on Merlin's bedside table. The author had not even realized his best friend was there at the time, but a minute later, while searching for the right word, he had spied the delicious drink still sending inviting curls of steam into the air. After savoring the sweet molten goodness of the hot cocoa, Merlin at last found the perfect word to describe his hero's current predicament, and the writing frenzy continued.
By mid-May, Merlin had handed the new manuscript off to Annis Queens, who had phoned back the next day to let him know she had not been able to set the sequel to "Discovering Destiny" down, and that she was already talking to the man who would be illustrating the cover for "Finding Faith", an intense little man called Gilli, who had actually made his name when he did the artwork for "Discovering Destiny" two years ago.
Before any of them had quite realized it, summer was upon them, and the heat made everyone in the mansion, save George, rather languorous. Merlin took Percy and Mithian outside to the large pool whenever the finicky English weather allowed, introducing his daughter to the joys of the water for the first time. She proved to be a natural, splashing Percy at every given opportunity (of which there were many, because the ever-protective boy tended to hover around her, regardless of the secure hold Merlin maintained at all times, and the protective suit she wore), and giggling and babbling all the while.
On the first day of the new school year, Arthur walked into the family room on his lunch break, planning to surprise Merlin and Mithian. The sight that greeted him was at once utterly bizarre and completely adorable.
Merlin sat next to Mithian on the couch, watching Play With Me, Sesame, and every now and then reaching into a bowl to gather a small handful of Earth's Best Baby snacks, giving one to his daughter, and popping the rest into his mouth. "You know, Ernie and Elmo should have more skits together. They really are the best of friends. I don't know what they were thinking when they started using Zoe in so many of Elmo's plot lines. How could they ever allow some female Muppet to come between that epic friendship? Do you get it, Princess? Because I really don't."
Arthur covered his mouth with a hand which shook with mirth. He was going to have to make coming home unannounced a more frequent occurrence if this was what he had to look forward to. He reached into his pocket and grabbed his mobile, snapping a quick candid and then putting it away before clearing his throat and stepping further into the room. "I'm not sure that's really what those snacks were meant for, Merlin."
The accused looked up from his little girl, caught in the act of snack-stealing. "Arthur! What are you doing home so early – is something wrong?"
Arthur held his hands out wide in front of him, saying "Can't I simply come visit two of my favorite people in the world?"
In response to Arthur's query, Mithian clapped her hands and squealed, "Daddy!" a trick she had learned a few weeks ago, much to Merlin's chagrin. Percival had very sweetly and innocently taught her to call Merlin 'mummy' and it had stuck, but Arthur would forever be 'daddy', and it was starting to look as though she would be a true 'daddy's girl.' Merlin would feel more put out about it if Arthur wasn't completely in love with her as well, and entirely shameless about the whole affair.
"Hi, Princess. Are you watching Elmo with mummy?" And completely incorrigible, to boot.
"Our kids are going to be so confused when they grow up." Arthur only waved Merlin's deadpanned observation off, manifestly unconcerned.
"We have to leave our mark on them somehow, don't we? Might as well be this scarring them for life, instead of some other traumatic experience ." Wrinkling his nose at such a bald display of nonchalance in the face of the very real possibility that their children would one day have some sort of identity crisis, Merlin decided that it was simply not worth the effort. Arthur's parenting had always been this unconventional, so why would he even consider suggesting that the man's philosophy might change now?
"Fine, but you're the one who gets to pay for therapy when they're older." This got a rich laugh from Arthur, his head thrown back, his eyes crinkled, and his grin wider than the Thames.
At last when he calmed, he informed Merlin that, "Should either of them actually need it, I would be happy to pay for whatever therapy they might need." Then he clapped his hands together and said, "Now, what would I have to do in order to entice the two of you away from your wonderful Sesame Street marathon for some lunch?"
Mithian promptly stuck her little fingers in the bowl sitting between her and Merlin and held out a sweet potato snack. "Eat."
Arthur assumed a solemn air and told the little toddler, "Oh, no, Princess. I could never take away you and your mummy's snacks. What do you say we go down to the kitchen and convince George to make us something good to eat? How does that sound?"
She thought hard about it for a moment, taking this eating business very seriously. At last she looked up and said, "Applesauce?"
Arthur nodded gravely, "Oh, yes, sweetheart. Applesauce sounds like just the thing." He held out a hand and watched her slowly and deliberately lower herself from the couch, taking strong yet still halting steps in his direction. "How about I carry you down the stairs, Princess? I don't think we'll tackle walking down by ourselves just yet." In answer, she held up her arms and generously allowed herself to be carried from the room, peeking over Arthur's shoulder at Merlin, who had started to follow them after gathering up their snack and the juice cup she had been sipping from. Catching his eye, Mithian waved and watched him smile back, hands too full to respond any other way.
As he walked after Arthur and the precocious little girl in his arms, Merlin wondered how it was that Arthur always seemed to know what he needed. He had been feeling a bit bereft after sending Percy off with his father that morning after having the little boy around to spend time with him and Mithian all summer long, and only a few hours later, Arthur had shown up.
As the days and weeks and months passed, Merlin felt the loss of Freya less and less, though he would always hold a special place for his late wife in his heart. He owed a great deal of his current happiness to the two people preceding him down the stairs, one chatting on cheerfully and the other babbling back, both indelibly devoted to each other.
Merlin stared at Arthur, trying to parse through the rather garbled proposal and decide if he really had heard what he thought he heard. "So, you want to go have a night out with Gwaine and Elana, to a fancy restaurant, on a not-double date, and leave all of our kids here with George and my mum?"
He watched Arthur mentally go over his summary of the proposed night out and then nod decisively. "Yes, exactly. What do you think?"
Merlin fiddled with the extra bit of fabric on his jumper and tried not to be too disappointed at the insistence that this was not a date – it was still too soon, at any rate, but it would be nice to see Gwaine and Elana again. Hunith had introduced them to the couple she now nannied for not long before Merlin and Freya had met. At the time, their twins, Owaine and Elaine, had been barely a year old, and they both took an instant liking to Percy, then just about three years old himself. Percy of course, was smitten.
Watching Mithian zoom around the large room in her walker, which he had placed her in with the hope that it might prevent her from hitting her head on something and splitting it open, he mulled the idea over some more. It could be good for them to do something together that didn't involve their kids, right? How long had it been since they had simply spent a night out together? Since Merlin's early days at Uni? "Yeah, alright. Do you want to call them, or should I?"
Arthur clapped a hand on Merlin's shoulder and said, "Oh, don't worry about it – Gwaine was the one who called me." As he started making his way out of the family room, he turned back and told him, "Make sure you wear a tie, alright? You know, those things that go around your neck?"
Instead of trying to come up with a fitting comeback, Merlin contemplated the growing suspicion that this was all his mother's idea. If so, her plan had backfired. "Not a date," he muttered under his breath. "Right, of course it's not. That would be absurd."
Sitting stiffly in the high-backed wooden chair and listening to the softly somnolent sounds of classical piano music in the background, Merlin strove valiantly against the urge to run all the way back home to watch the kids with George and his mother. This was one of the reasons he had never been interested in the corporate world, or the thought of taking part in the actual high-society life his writing success made him entitled to. It was all fine and well for Elana, Gwaine, and Arthur; they had been born into this world, though none of them acted like it in their daily lives. But Merlin? Merlin had always been the one peeking in from the kitchen on the formal parties and get-togethers Uther had held so often when he and Arthur were younger, admiring the beautiful gowns and the elegant gentlemen, and scrunching up his face at the thought of eating some of the 'delicacies' which were always a must at the fancy affairs.
Arthur finished telling Gwaine about something or other to do with Pendragon Publishing, and looked over at Merlin, who had shifted in his seat yet again. He made a wry face at his friend's obvious discomfort and asked softly, "Do you want to get out of here, maybe go somewhere less stuffy? I know you – you'll sit there all night and pretend to be comfortable, barely eating a thing and thinking about your fluffy bunny slippers and sweats."
Elana glanced up from where she had been shamelessly making a funny face with the remainder of her salad, well-versed in the ways of entertaining herself while still giving the impression of being invested in the conversation around her, and said, "Oh, let's. Gwaine and I never go to places like this most of the time. There's this great pub not ten minutes from here."
At that, Gwaine and Arthur gratefully looked around for their waiter and the man came swiftly over. "Is there something that you require, gentlemen, lady?"
Gwaine smiled charmingly and asked for their checks. If the waiter was a little disappointed at having to send them off after only their first course, he knew not to commit such a breech in propriety by saying so, and dutifully took the credit cards Gwaine and Arthur handed him. Merlin briefly thought of protesting and paying for his part of their bill, since this was, in fact, not a date, but then took in the slightly stubborn set to Arthur's jaw and remained silent.
They made a show of walking slowly and sedately out of the pretentious restaurant and then Gwaine gave a great 'whoop' once they were close to their vehicles, which Elana gamely echoed. "Why one earth did we ever think that was a good idea?" Gwaine directed the question at Arthur, though it was largely rhetorical, and the other man shook his head, mystified.
"Your guess is as good as mine."
The rest of the evening passed in a far more pleasant manner, each of them genial from good, hearty food and drink. The little party received some odd looks for their formal attire, but other than that, people largely left them to their own devices.
When at last they decided to head back to the mansion, Arthur offered to drive everyone there and let the rather tipsy couple sleep in one of his spare rooms for the night, which Gwaine and Elana gladly accepted. They strode noisily into the foyer and Gwaine called out, "Honey, we're home!"
The sound that answered them was muffled, as though someone had peanut butter sticking to the roof of his mouth.
Furrowing his brow, Merlin followed the continued noise and entered the kitchen, only to see his mother and George tied up in two of the chairs which normally sat at the kitchen table, their mouths covered with duct tape, both looking rather roughed up, as though they had struggled hard and had their efforts rewarded by painful bruises. He ran forward, fear and adrenaline coursing through his veins and helping enormously with the sobering process, and heard the others following close behind.
Kneeling by his mother, he carefully peeled off the offending impediment to her speech as Arthur set about freeing her from her bonds, Gwaine and Elana working to liberate poor George. The first words out of Hunith's mouth set Merlin's blood on fire. "They took the children!"
Sitting around the kitchen table, Hunith and George taking slow sips of the brandy that the butler insisted on keeping around 'for medicinal purposes', the four anxious parents listened with horror and outrage as the two victims described the men who had come to the door with what looked like camera equipment, claiming to want an interview with Merlin for his new novel. When George had politely explained that Mister Emrys was out with Master Pendragon for the evening, the man who seemed to be the leader had smiled and said, "Perfect," before giving some sort of signal which caused an explosion of activity, the others in the group hunting down the occupants of the mansion, who had been finishing their dinner with Hunith, and gathering up the children while Hunith and George tried to fight them off, only admitting defeat when they saw the guns the brutes held to each of the children's heads.
After that, they were trussed up in the manner which they had been found, forced to watch as the men took off with their precious charges and incapable of alerting anyone of what had happened.
When they concluded their recounting of events, Merlin took his mother's hand in one of his own, and tried to tell both of them that it wasn't their fault – they'd obviously done the best they could.
"How exactly are we going to get our children back?" Gwaine demanded, dragging a furious hand through his long locks and holding a sick-looking, but determined, Elana close with his other arm.
A figure who had not entered the Pendragon mansion's kitcen in over five years stepped inside, drawing everyone's attention, and they heard her say, "I can help you there."
"So, let me get this straight: you left during our first year at Uni to work for some man named Alator, who wanted to help you with these weird dreams you started having when you hit puberty about a man who looked like Merlin, but wasn't? Why is this the first time we're hearing about all this? You couldn't have explained everything before basically disappearing off the face of the planet?" Arthur sounded exhausted, furious, and completely incredulous as he fought to understand his sister's account of the last few years of her life, and how it all related to the kidnapping of his children.
Morgana nodded at her half-brother warily, and then told him, "Arthur, that isn't all. I'm not the only one you know that left to work with the Catha."
Arthur slumped back in his chair at this. From the way his errant sibling was looking at him with her sad green eyes, he had a feeling he knew exactly who she was talking about. "Guinevere and Lancelot? That's why they left? Please don't try to tell me they have magical powers they never told me about, too." He felt, rather than saw, Merlin startle in the chair next to him.
"No, Arthur, that's not why they joined me. Before I left, I told Gwen where I was going, and asked her to keep an eye on you. Well, she and Lance started looking into the dreams I'd told her about and accidentally stumbled upon some rather sensitive information. Gwen contacted me with the emergency number I had given her and told me she and Lance wanted to help. That's why they left." It seemed impossible that everything they thought they knew about their lives over the last few years could suddenly be so far off the mark. Reeling with the barrage of new information, Arthur gladly threaded his fingers through the ones that slipped through his under the table, resting their entwined hands on his right thigh.
"What was this information? What was so dangerous that they felt like they couldn't tell us where they were going? None of this makes any sense, Morgana, surely you must see that." In spite of his words, Merlin sounded as though he was starting to believe his childhood friend.
Morgana responded eagerly to Merlin's guarded acceptance, leaning forward in the way she always had whenever she prepared to share some sort of revelation, "I found out what really happened to your father, Merlin."
The stunned silence that followed was thick with tension and the sharp feeling of betrayal.
Hunith was the first one to speak up, asking faintly, "What are you talking about, Morgana? Balinor died in an auto accident, there's nothing to 'find out' about it."
Morgana shook her head, black waves swishing in time with her denial. "That's what everyone wanted you to believe, Hunith. But that isn't what actually took place twenty-three years ago."
Hunith closed her eyes for a moment, fighting exhaustion and fear and anger and grief renewed, and then said, "Tell me everything."
"Balinor was a member of a scientific division of the government – that's general knowledge, it's even written on his records. What no one knew was that he wasn't doing your typical government research – he wasn't trying to develop a better, smarter explosive device, or a new way to convey top-secret intel to our allies, or anything like that. He was trying to find a way for people of certain bloodlines to access a trait found in their DNA. Something that's lain dormant for over a thousand years." Morgana spoke quickly, as if by rote, but her conviction was clear. If what she spoke was anything less than the truth, than it was through no artifice of her making.
"What was that trait, and why was my father looking into it?" Green eyes flickered over to deep blue, finding the knowledge already there; somehow, Merlin had always known, though he had never fully realized what he knew.
"Magic. My mother's line had it; your father's had it; the Catha has it. He was trying to find some way to activate the gene, to make our magic accessible."
"Why did he have to disappear? Why all the lies, all the secrecy? And what does this have to do with my babies, Morgana?" Merlin had apparently given up on maintaining an illusion of skepticism. He could feel the truth in his veins, even though he could not currently do anything with it.
"There were different factions in the government – not everyone wanted the magic to be brought back, claimed that those who could use it had stopped practicing and developing their skills for a reason. The people who wanted the magic to come back didn't exactly have the purest intentions for it, either. They wanted to bend the magic users to their will, have them do their bidding. Your father made a run for it, joined the Catha and the people who work for him, all members of the magical bloodlines, and he kept trying. Well, fifteen years ago, Balinor finally made a breakthrough. He managed to access his magic, and he helped everyone he could to access their powers. But somehow, the government found out where he was, and they threatened to harm you and your mother. So he used every last bit of his magic to cast protective spells on you and your mother and then fled. By the time they caught up to him, he was so drained from the magic he had cast that he had no way to fight back, and they killed him. That's why the government called you that day, Merlin. To throw you off of their trail, and make sure that you never tried to find out what they had done. You come from the most powerful magical bloodline, the line of Emrys, the first true warlock, and they didn't want you to come after them knowing the truth, because they knew that if you wanted revenge, they would never be able to stop you." Everyone around the table had mixed reactions to what Morgana was sharing with them, not wanting to accept this strange new reality.
Merlin had no such compunctions. "And our children?"
"Balinor couldn't place the spell on any children you might have, and the government has been watching your family ever since that day, hoping and waiting. They wanted to have someone under their control, who could one day use her abilities to keep you in check." Morgana tossed her hair over one shoulder and frowned, considering. "I'm not sure why they took the other children – they don't need them, except, perhaps, to try and ensure your cooperation."
Gwaine decided he'd had enough of being silent. "So, basically what you're saying is they took our children as an afterthought? They don't matter? The lives of Percival, Owaine, and Elaine are in the hands of people who think they're expendable?"
Hunith grew even paler at this, the thought utterly repugnant to her; in her mind, all children were precious, and the idea that there were people in the world who believed otherwise sickened her to the core.
"Their lives may not mean anything to them, but they mean a hell of a lot to me. I don't know what you all are planning on doing, but I'm going to get my children back. Does that sound good to you?" Arthur felt something harden within him, and he knew in that moment that he would do whatever it took to get all of their children back safely, regardless of the cost.
"Count me in, Arthur." There was no hesitation on Gwaine's part, in spite of the insurmountable odds.
Arthur turned to Merlin, still holding his hand, and said, "I know violence isn't really something you agree with, but –"
"Arthur, they took my babies. So far as I'm concerned? They just signed their death warrants." Mere hours ago, the cold certainty in Merlin's voice would have been utterly shocking to everyone in the room, but they all knew how much he cared for his family.
"Well, alright then. What's the plan?"
"Hello, Arthur." He stiffened at the sound of the voice he had not heard in almost three years now, watching through the window as his half-sister and some bird named Morgause, who was apparently also Morgana's half-sibling, walked his best friend through the motions of accessing his magical abilities – a concept which continued to throw him for a loop. He had been expecting this ever since Morgana offered to take them to meet the mysterious Alator and figure out how they were going to get their kids back, but even in the midst of all his worry and anger over the kidnapping, he knew there was no way he could have prepared himself for seeing her again.
"Guinevere. Is Lancelot with you?" If he could just keep his eyes on Merlin, who looked like he was going into some sort of trance…
"Maybe if you looked up, you would find out." Of course. She had always called him out on his – what had she called it during one of their rows? Stubborn determination to always have everything go his way?
"If you want him to keep his perfect smile intact, Guinevere, it's probably best that I don't." So he sounded a little more petulant than he would like; it wasn't like he had anybody to impress.
"Arthur, like it or not, you're going to have to work with us in order to get those kids back. I'm sorry that we hurt you, but for now you need to put it behind you, or there is no way that we will be able to pull this off. From what I understand, Merlin is perfectly capable of bringing the entire facility where your kids are being held to the ground, but it's going to take more than that if you want to actually keep everyone safe." That finally caused Arthur to turn away from the window and look at the couple who stood behind him in the hallway.
They looked good – both perfectly healthy twenty-six-year olds, somehow managing to give off this aura of being sickeningly in love.
Arthur stared them both down, silently cursing the fact that they had always been more than equal to the task of withstanding his irascibility. For just this once, he wanted them to react in some way that was less than perfect, to justify the anger he still felt at their abandonment.
Finally, he heaved a sigh and looked away – it wasn't worth it. Or, well. It was. But this was definitely not the time or the place.
"So what can I do, Guinevere? How am I supposed to help get my children back?" The hand that came to rest on his shoulder met with a body rigid as stone, and after a moment retreated.
"Come with me." He looked up at the sound of Lancelot's directive and after thinking about it for a moment, decided it couldn't actually make anything any worse.
Ten minutes later, as they went over their plans for getting in and out of the government facility, Arthur felt far more sanguine with the situation, largely due to the gun his erstwhile best man had just put in his hand.
He walked into what looked like a yoga studio with Morgana at his side, where a blond woman was waiting for them. She came forward and took Morgana's hands into her own, and Merlin registered only a dull surprise when the woman said softly, "Sister. I trust your journey was unimpeded?"
"Yes, of course." Looking over at him, Morgana explained, "Merlin, this is my sister Morgause. She's the one who helped with my dreams and brought me to the Catha. She's going to help us access your powers."
Merlin nodded at the woman and she gave him an icy smile in return. "Welcome, Emrys. We have much work to do."
"You see that energy?" He nodded, staying silent as he felt the strange crackling and pulsing at the very center of himself. "Allow it to fill you up, and let it touch every single part of you. It has been stifled for so long – do not allow anything to fetter it any longer. Let it loose." Obeying the calm instructions, he reached for the reservoir of power and felt a sort of barrier between it and the rest of his body. Bending all of his not inconsiderable will toward destroying that obstruction, Merlin pulled will everything he had and felt something snap, releasing a torrent of what could only be his magic into the air around him. The lack of red seeping through his eyelids and the sudden, sharp drop in the ambient temperature told him that the power had gone out.
A softly lilting voice, less dark than the previous one, told him, "You… might need to restrain it a little more than that. Has that ever happened before? Exactly how powerful is he?" The next part was clearly not directed at him, which was good, as he needed to focus on reeling his magic back in. After being confined for so long, the magic, which was like a living thing, resisted the idea of being subdued once more, but he prevailed upon it; as Morgause had told him earlier, he was the master of his powers, not the other way around.
"He is powerful enough to move mountains without feeling the strain, sister. He is the one we have waited for." That caught his attention.
"What are you talking about? I thought I was only here to get our children back. No one said anything about anybody waiting on me." Though he usually tried to speak politely to women of all ages and creeds, he was feeling quite stressed tonight, and so he told himself sternly to suppress any guilt that speaking so sharply to the two sisters might induce.
"Oh, indeed, you are here to retrieve your young ones. However, we had hoped that you might decide, once everything has been resolved, to stay with us." Morgause sounded utterly unruffled by his snappish tone, although he rather suspected that it had more to do with her general disposition, rather than a lack of offense.
"I'm sorry. I don't really know what you were expecting from me, but I have a family. I can't just decide to stay here." He wasn't sorry at all, actually. If they thought he was going to just bend over in gratitude after getting his babies back, they had another think coming. Morgana should have told him the truth about all of this years ago. If she had, they might not be dealing with such a crisis now.
"Naturally you would be able to continue living at the Pendragon estate. And we would love it if you would bring Mithian with you every once in a while, as well." She was more monotone than a computer, and it was seriously starting to set him on edge.
Morgana decided to take this moment to step in, possibly sensing that, had she not, her sister would be a crimson stain on the rubber mat covering the studio floor. "Of course, this isn't really the best time to be discussing such things. Perhaps in a few days we can bring it up again. Why don't we work on some spells, see if we can't teach you how to control your magic?"
"Right. What do I need to do?" He felt a thrill pass through him at finally being able to do something productive to get his kids back.
And then there was that voice again. "Look at that target across the room. Now, in the early days of magic, sorcerers used to speak their spells in Old English. Today, we've found it much easier to simply use the modern tongue. You'll see why when we try to use magic to manipulate technological devices later. For now, I want you to focus on that target and tell it to burn."
Using the irritation he felt at having to follow Morgause's instructions, Merlin looked at the target, released a little of the hold he had on his powers, and said strongly, "Burn." Within seconds, the target was a pile of so much ash.
The awkwardly shocked silence emanating from the two women behind him brought a small, uncharacteristically vicious smile to his lips.
Morgana's, "I think he's going to be fine," left him feeling a hungry sort of triumph. Now that he had the ability to wield his magic, which felt like a living extension of his will, he was going to get his little ones back, and nothing was going to stand in his way.
"Is everybody ready for this?" That would be Gwaine, who was looking far too enamored of his shiny new fire-arm for Merlin's comfort. Then again, he had seen Arthur walking around with a gun strapped to his hip, as well, so he supposed he couldn't really say anything.
"No matter what happens, you will stick to the plan. Everything depends on you getting in and out as quickly and smoothly as possible. Casualties are not an option." Being in a position of command seemed to suit Lancelot, sitting on his shoulders rather like a cloak. When they had all been fresh and young and naïve, he had often allowed Arthur to take the lead, and though it had certainly saved all of them from the inevitable tension of two alpha males clashing, it was good, Merlin thought, for him to have come out of Arthur's shadow. Not that he hated the way the new-found confidence had come about any less, but especially in this situation, which seemed like a bizarre mix of elements from X-men and Harry Potter, Merlin was glad to have such a level-headed person in charge of what his still-boggling mind had taken to calling a rescue mission. How on earth was this insanity his life?
"Um, you have done something like this before, haven't you dear?" Everyone turned to look at Hunith when she voiced her uncertainty and Merlin bit his lip. He was grateful that she would not actually be involved in the whole thing, but he knew it would be hard on her to be left behind. Initially they had tried to coax Elana into staying behind as well, but she had nixed that bit of idiocy, strapping on a gun herself.
"Plenty of times. Unfortunately, your family is not the first to have this happen over the last few decades, and I've been helping to break children out of their facilities for almost three years now. Trust me, Mrs. Emrys, I know what I'm doing." Lancelot spoke in low, soothing tones, and Merlin watched as his mother allowed herself to be reassured and then wondered if the other man wasn't a bit magical himself. Hunith Emrys was a gentle woman, but Merlin had inherited his iron will from both sides of his family, or so he had been told, and the sight of her simply accepting Lancelot's attempts to calm her down was startling at best.
"Now, I do not want any of you young men trying to be heroes. If you get injured while you are gone, I expect you to tell me right away." That had been another surprise. Upon arriving at Alator's base of operations, a large bunker that must have belonged to the government at one point, but was now protected from electronic detection by layers of spells, laid by hundreds of newly empowered sorcerers and sorceresses, they had been taken to see Gaius, the Pendragon family's physician, who had looked over Hunith and George, using magic to help speed their healing process along. Gaius had given a heartfelt apology for keeping everything from them for so many years, and said that he had been a part of the Catha's resistance from the beginning, even before Balinor had actually found a way for all of them to access their magic.
Each of the young men and women – even George, who in spite of his injuries had resolutely insisted on coming along – nodded obediently back at the aged physician now, steeling themselves for the task ahead. Gwaine shot Merlin a fierce grin and kissed his wife before being the first to climb into the sleek black vehicle which would take the combination of magical and non-magical people to the site where the getaway group would wait for the ones sneaking into the government facility.
Merlin went over to embrace Hunith and promised to get the children back safe and sound, and to make sure everyone came back in one piece. After mother and son released each other, Hunith went over to the man who may as well have been her second son and pulled him in close, whispering her love and asking him to keep an eye on Merlin. The brave but solemn affirmation she received from Arthur went a long way to settling her nerves, though of course she would still worry until she could hold all her loved ones in her arms once more.
The ride to the facility was entirely devoid of conversation, though it may as well have been awash with chatter, for all that everyone seemed to know exactly how everyone else felt, their tense impatience lending a charged quality to the air. At last they pulled into a parking lot adjacent to the large government institution, which looked to have been built at some point in the 1980s, a series of boxlike buildings surrounded by metal fences and completely lacking in any sort of aesthetic appeal.
Merlin and Arthur got out of the vehicle and automatically turned to face each other. Arthur put his hands on Merlin's shoulders and told him, "Don't you dare think that the fact that you're some sort of Harry Potter-type now it means that you're somehow invincible. I expect to leave this hell-hole with you and our children completely unharmed, do you hear me?"
Merlin allowed the magic he could feel seething under the surface of his skin, desperate to get out and do something, to flow outward, and knew the moment that Arthur could see the gold in his eyes. "Harry Potter was an angsty little orphan who needed a wand to do his spells. I promise, Arthur, I am no Harry Potter." And okay, yeah, he was feeling a little high off of the adrenalin and the magic, a headier combination than any drug or alcohol, but oh, was it good.
Arthur swallowed dryly, refusing to show the awe he felt at this display of Merlin's newfound abilities. "Right, well. Good."
"If you're done getting my brother all hot and bothered, Merlin, I'd like to get this show on the road." The two men looked over at Morgana and then back at each other before stepping hastily away.
"Does everyone remember which part of the building the children will be held in?" Merlin worked hard to stop himself from visibly reacting to Morgause's monotonous voice, merely nodding in response. "Good. George, Elana, Guinevere, you will stay with me. The rest of you know what to do."
Sneaking into building AA seemed to take an age. It involved a great deal of creeping and hiding behind buildings, before Lancelot would poke his head around to make sure the coast was clear. There was a close call with a member of the night watch who almost found them crouching behind building AD, but Merlin had used his magic to burst a light bulb two buildings down, and after that the group had been able to override the locking system on the heavy metal door.
Of course, things were never that easy.
As soon as Lancelot crossed the threshold, an alarm went off, and the group had looked at each other in horror before rushing toward the room where the children were being held, one AA 1146. Throwing caution to the wind, Merlin blasted the door open and ran inside.
The tableau that greeted him was at once adorable and heartbreaking. Percy held a squirming Mithian on his lap, bravely singing, "Down By the Bay", and Owaine and Elaine were on either side of him, clinging to his arms. When Percy looked up and saw him standing there, Merlin decided he would never object to being called, "mummy" ever again, because in that moment, it was the most beautiful sound in the world.
He held his hand out and told the little boy, "I'll take Mithian now. You've been such a brave boy, Percy, and you took such good care of your little sister, but it's time to let the adults take care of everything. Come on – your daddy's outside and we need to leave, now. Owaine, Elaine, are you two alright?" He saw twin heads of curly chestnut hair nod and then led them all from the room. Lancelot and Gwaine each took one of the twins.
The group ran for the door, Morgana and Arthur taking up the rear, trying to keep the little ones and their guardians safe. Merlin fervently hoped this would be the last time he ever had to hear the sound of gunfire and offensive magic – somehow with his powers awakened, he could feel everything around him, and he knew every single time a spell stopped a heart or a bullet found a home in a man's belly or chest. He felt in his own arm when his other half was shot, and had to fight with everything he had to keep a firm grip on his baby girl and continue running; Arthur would make it back to the van, because there was no other option, even though he could practically predict the moment when they would both collapse from the loss of Arthur's blood.
Just before his vision went cloudy and the world faded away, Merlin registered the screech of tires on concrete and arms pulling him forward. He let the darkness take him, knowing that they were safe.
As though through a pool or a lake, Merlin could hear distorted voices calling him from the depths, especially one voice. A beloved voice. He should answer whoever that voice belonged to, shouldn't he? Because that was what you did when someone you loved called to you… Wasn't it?
"I don't understand. I'm the one who was injured – why is it taking him so long to wake up?" And there it was again, that beautifully compelling sound. He – for surely a voice so deep must be a he – sounded worried about something. Was he worried about him? But he was fine, if a bit confused. The voice should not sound so upset. It was wrong.
"It must be his magic, Arthur. To awaken such power and use it in such a short period of time, on top of the stress and fear for your children, as well as somehow feeling your injury – that's quite a lot of strain on a body. Give him some more time. He'll wake up when he's ready." A different voice, an older voice; he liked this voice, too. It was comforting.
And then the voices went away and he let sleep take him into its warm embrace once more.
Merlin squeezed his eyes shut against the relentless morning light and groaned, trying to roll over. His attempt was thwarted by the ivy sticking persistently and rather painfully in the crease of his elbow, and he collapsed back on the bed, defeated. He felt wrung out and disoriented, and had vague memories of people speaking to him – or maybe just around him – and he felt as though he could sense everything, but could do nothing.
It was annoying.
He knew the instant that Arthur entered the room, though he was hard pressed to understand why. Arthur came to sit in a chair by his bed and took Merlin's hand gently into his own, running his thumb over Merlin's knuckles. Merlin tried to force his own thumb to rub back, but even the brief struggle to sit up earlier seemed to have robbed him of every scrap of strength he had left, and so he gave up.
"You've been out for five days now. Mithian and Percy are beside themselves, and George just keeps baking things. Gwaine told me this morning on the phone that Owaine and Elaine are doing just fine, and Hunith is looking much better, though she has been hugging the twins more than normal. The men who took them didn't hurt the kids, but they were scared for a little while. Percy has been sleeping in your bed ever since we brought them back, says he doesn't want to leave Mithian all alone in her crib. If it keeps up much longer, I may have to start sleeping in there with him, because he keeps having nightmares and waking up his sister, and I always wind up going in there to calm everyone down anyway. But he was so, incredibly brave while they were in that place, Merlin. I've never been more proud of him in his life, and you know how proud I always am of both our children."
For what seemed an age, Arthur merely sat by his bed, running gentle fingers over his hand and his wrist, where his pulse beat sluggishly. At last he sighed and began again. "I don't know what to do, Merlin. Every morning and every night I come to see you, and nothing ever changes. Why won't you wake up? I need you. Our children need you." Arthur was silent for another short while, and then Merlin heard him sniff and felt a drop of moisture on the hand he still cradled tenderly. "You know, you're the one person I've never been able to stand the thought of losing. Of course, now there's Percy and Mithian, and they've become part of my world, too, but… it's always been you." Here he heard Arthur laugh wetly before he went on. "Do you remember when you were fourteen, and I told you I had feelings for someone, but I wasn't sure if that someone felt the same? And then you went and kissed Nimue Carol and I was absolutely crushed. Of course, I couldn't tell you why I felt that way. So I started seeing Sophia, and I thought maybe it would feel less painful after a while that you didn't want me back. Obviously I was wrong. To be honest, it was a relief when she broke things off after graduation. Everyone had thought we were this great couple and completely happy, but the truth is when we weren't being hormonal teenagers, we fought like cats and dogs, and after a while it became a little too much to handle. And then I got Percy, and you were so supportive and perfect, and I kept thinking, 'why can't things be perfect like this for us all the time?' And along came Freya, and she was sweet and she was beautiful and patient and understanding, and so I started seeing Guinevere. At first I only asked her out because she reminded me a bit of you. Kind, compassionate, completely unwilling to put up with my nonsense when I'm in a mood. But she was also a bit judgmental, and always tried to make me into something I wasn't, but you were happy, and so I wanted to be happy, even if I couldn't be happy with you." A self-depreciating chuckle was followed by, "I should have seen Lancelot coming. I knew things weren't exactly the way they should be between us, but I went ahead and proposed anyway, and then there he was, her knight in shining armor. I'm grateful to them for helping us get our kids back, and I think I've forgiven them for leaving the way they did – on the day they did – but… things are never going to be the same as they were before. Too much has happened between all of us for that. That Catha guy… he's not a bad bloke. Asked me to consider working with them in the future, which I'm sure was meant to help me convince you to work with them again, and I think it could be a good thing. You know what they said: we're not the first ones this has happened to. We could save families from being permanently torn apart. What the government is doing to the families from the magical bloodlines… it's not right. And I can't just stand by and act like I don't know what's going on, because I do. Knowing you the way I do, I don't believe for a second that you could just look away from it all, either. That's not the little boy I fell in love with when I was five, and that's not the man I'm in love with now. So just… if you can hear me, think it over? We could help people. And I want to help people, Merlin." Merlin felt rather guilty for not telling Arthur that he was awake, but he also suspected that, had he spoken up, the odd dance they had been doing around each other since they were two little boys getting carpet burn on the rugs at Pendragon mansion would have just kept on going.
Laying in that hospital bed, listening to Arthur pouring his heart out, his mind went back to the talk he'd had with his mother several months ago at Christmas. She had been right, of course. She always was. Freya was his wife and the mother of his little girl, and she was one of the best people he had ever had the privilege to know and love, but she was gone now, and she had loved him enough in life to wish for his happiness after her death. He had been clinging for months now to this need to wait, to honor Freya's memory by not allowing the feelings he had for Arthur to finally have the space they deserved, trapped as they had been for all these years, much the same as his magic had been. Just like his magic, those feelings wanted to be free to grow and change and reshape the world around him, and at last he truly believed that it would be alright – more than alright – if he let them.
He felt Arthur give his hand a slight squeeze and then let go before he said regretfully, "It's time for me to head into the office, but I'll be back with Percy and Mithian after I pick him up from school."
His other half walked away and stopped just a moment to tell him, "I love you, Merlin," and then he left.
Two sets of feet squeaked against the pristine tile of the hospital room's floor, and a warm body climbed up beside him on the bed. "Hi, mum. Mary, the nice nurse at the desk, said there was a spike in your heart rate and your brain activity today. Do you know what that means? It means it's almost time for you to wake up. There's a new painting waiting for you in your room for when you come home. It's supposed to be what you look like when you do magic. Your eyes are all gold looking. Daddy says it's really pretty – well, he said you were really pretty, and that the painting looks a lot like you, so I think that means that the painting is pretty?"
"What our son means to say, Merlin, is that I told him you were gorgeous, and that the painting did you justice. By the way, you can't see her right now, but Mithian is waving very persistently at you. I'm pretty sure if she knew how, she would be telling you in no uncertain terms what we all would like to say, which is that it's time for you to wake up now." Hearing her name, Mithian babbled at the room in general, and then said, 'mummy' for good measure. "See? She definitely agrees with me. I always told you she was smart."
The figure on the bed squirmed a bit and then said, "You know how you were reading The Magician's Nephew to me every night before bed? Well, since you can't read it to me, I thought I could read it to you while we visit." Percival's sweet voice filled the little hospital room, stumbling every now and then over unfamiliar words, until Mary Pritchard came in and informed them kindly that visiting hours were over. A slightly dry kiss on his forehead, and Percy hopped down from the bed.
Arthur stepped up close to the head of the bed and pressed a slightly longer kiss to his forehead, followed by one on his left and right cheeks, and finally one on his lips, before he told him, "Goodnight," and led their children from the room.
On day six, Merlin was up before the sun, more than ready to greet the new day.
A quiet nurse he later found out was named Morris came in to check on the fluid in his I.V. bag, and then realized that he was awake. "Mr. Emrys! I know for a fact that there are some people who will be very glad to know that you are awake. How are you feeling? Oh – don't try to talk just yet. I'll get you some water and a straw, and we'll see if we can't help you feel a bit more like yourself."
Though Morris was a rather nervous man, he proved quite good at his job, and by the time visiting hours began, Merlin felt fairly decent, all things considered.
About thirty minutes after the time they always made sure to drop Percy off at school, Arthur walked in and saw Merlin sitting up and watching an old rerun of Doctor Who. He stood still in the door for a moment, staring, taking him in, and then he rushed toward the bed, sitting in the space between his right hip and the edge of the bed. "Hi," Arthur breathed, still drinking him in.
Merlin smiled warmly and whispered, "Hi," back, deciding he would be the one to reach for Arthur's hand this time.
"How are you feeling?" It seemed that, after five days of saying everything he thought and felt, Arthur was a little at a loss for words. That was alright. It was Merlin's turn, anyway.
"I feel fine." Which was true, but he might die if he couldn't use a toothbrush sometime in the near future. "The doctor – Dr. Moffett, said I should be able to leave tomorrow, but they want to keep me overnight for observation, since they aren't entirely sure what caused me to fall into a coma in the first place."
"Gaius has a theory about that. He says that normally people have time between accessing their magic for the first time and entering a high-stress sort of situation, and with the extent of your powers, and how quickly you were forced to use them, and then this weird connection that you and I apparently have –and really, only you, Merlin. Most people have the ability to sense when the people close them are in some kind of danger or they're upset about something. But you? That's just not good enough for you. Oh, no. You have to experience everything they're feeling right along with them. If I ever find out that you've been sharing other sensations with me all these years, you are a dead man, Merlin Emrys." Oh, so when Arthur wanted to gripe at him, he could go on for ages. There was something really wrong with the world when it was easier to talk about the bad things in life than it was to talk about the beautiful things, like being in love.
"Hey Arthur?" Merlin's voice caused the other man to pause in his preparations to resume his rant.
"What is it? Do you need anything? Does anything hurt?" He would have laughed at how frantic Arthur sounded just then if it wasn't the most adorable thing he had ever heard, not to mention totally endearing.
"No, nothing like that. I wanted to tell you something." At this, Arthur heaved a sigh of relief and leaned forward, waiting expectantly.
"I'm done being an idiot." Arthur blinked, utterly bemused. Merlin decided that was as good as he was going to get until he explained himself, and so he went on. "I heard everything you said yesterday, and it really made me think about things. I realized that I've been torturing us both since we were kids, and I'm done. We can't keep playing this game where we take one step forward and two steps back, dating other people to pretend like our hearts aren't broken, and going on not-dates and… and so this is me, putting an end to it." He swallowed thickly and said, "We've never really done things the right way, and I figure there's really no point in starting now – I mean, why would we, when we already have two beautiful kids, we're both gainfully employed, my mum has loved you since before I was fully potty-trained. So. I suppose what I'm trying to say is, will you marry me?"
After the most unconventional proposal in history, Arthur sat for a moment, silently praying for the other shoe not to drop. Finally he said tentatively, "You forgot something kind of important."
Merlin thought back over the whole speech and then slapped his free hand to his forehead before looking back at Arthur and saying, "By the way, I love you."
Arthur snorted, his lips twisting into a sardonic grin and said, "Well, with a declaration like that – how could I possibly say no?"
Staring at him mock-seriously, Merlin suggested helpfully, "You could always let me sweat it out a little, hang the answer over my head for a while."
The other man shook his head solemnly and replied, "Oh, no. I couldn't possibly do such a thing."
"You mean like you're doing right now?" And, alright, they both knew where this was going, but, well – if they went about this in anything even slightly resembling a straightforward manner, it simply wouldn't be Merlin and Arthur.
"Hmm, I suppose you're right. Well, in that case, my answer is yes." They both smiled at each other like the besotted idiots they always had been, and Merlin truly began to feel that everything was the way it should be.
"So, what do we tell the kids?"
Head tilting to the side, Arthur pondered this latest query and then shrugged. "Well, I hardly think Mithian is going to have an opinion on the matter at the moment, and since according to Percy, we've been married for almost a year now… I seriously doubt that it's going to be a problem."
"Just so you know, I refuse to wear a white dress." Because if he did not put his foot down now, the odds were that Arthur would find some way to make it happen.
"Well really, Merlin,that would be stretching the boundaries of symbolism a bit too much. Besides, at this point, I really don't care what you wear, so long as you show up, sign all the necessary forms, and remember to say, 'I do' at the appropriate moments. You can even wear your fuzzy bunny slippers."
"You don't think it would be too much?"
"I'm kind of tempted to see the expression on Justice Geoffrey's face if you actually do." And there was the goading tone which had landed Merlin in heaps of trouble in his school days.
"You know what? It's my wedding. I can wear fuzzy bunny slippers if I want to."
And so, on a rainy day in late September, with little Mithian holding one hand and Arthur holding the other as Percival looked on, that is exactly what Merlin Emrys, soon-to-be-Pendragon, did.