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The Long Way (Little Lionheart Remix)

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Merlin had never been a man quick to laughter. Even as a child, he could grin until his face hurt, but rarely let out more than a snicker. And once he came to Camelot, well, laughing in Arthur’s presence would usually net him extra stable duty, if not a wallop across the head (since it was usually Arthur he was laughing at).

Now, things were different. For the first time, Arthur really knew him. They were equals, of a sort, albeit the sort on constantly shifting ground. Arthur respected Merlin’s magic, even accepted his magic, but Merlin hadn’t known whether Arthur truly embraced his magic.

But what else could it mean when Arthur made an exceedingly filthy joke about it? Wasn’t that what knights did when they wanted to bond over something? Poke fun, take the piss, usually as lewdly as possible?

Relief bubbled up in his chest, and the laughter bubbled after it before he knew it was there. Trust Arthur to make amends with the most awkward, ridiculous jest Merlin had ever heard. The last burden of separation and secrecy lifted from his shoulders, leaving him light and purely happy.

“Right, and just why would anyone do that?” His eyes had scrunched to narrow slits with the force of his laughter. When they opened again, he looked, still chortling, to meet Arthur’s smug, smirking gaze.

The last of his laughter solidified in his throat so fast he almost choked on it. Arthur was not laughing. Merlin caught a split-second glimpse of Arthur’s stricken face before the ice closed over it.

“Of course,” Arthur answered as he turned away. “Who would ever wish such a thing.”

***
The ice remained.

Confused but remorseful, Merlin tried to joke it away. He tried to prod to figure out exactly what had happened. Arthur, apparently, had been serious in his suggestion that Merlin use magic to... do things to him that Merlin would never have thought to do to someone he actually liked, let alone the man he had loved with a steady heart for half his life.

But that was all right, as he tried to tell Arthur over breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He tried gentle affection and he tried kicking Arthur’s shin.

Arthur brushed him aside as though Merlin were an overeager hound nipping at his master’s fingers.

Finally, Merlin gave up and ignored him. Arthur could nurse wounded pride like no one else Merlin had ever met, but sooner or later he would relent and they could laugh about the entire nonsense. Laugh and perhaps do something about Arthur’s sexual urges that was more in Merlin’s comfort zone.

In the meantime, there was a land to unite, monsters to slay, armies to defeat, a growing populace to feed, and magic to integrate into the kingdom. Years passed, and Arthur’s withdrawal remained a discomfort in the back of Merlin’s head—until the morning he woke up and realized exactly how long it had been since Arthur had called him by his real name.

“Bugger,” Merlin said to the wall and spent an hour trying to remember every interaction he’d had with Arthur since that single horrid moment. They spoke every day in perfect civility. A bit more respect from Arthur had not even been unwelcome. When he thought about it, Arthur had not spoken to him about anything more personal than polite inquiries about his health or his magical research. Arthur had not insulted him, hit him, or thrown so much as a grape at him.

It was like they weren’t even friends anymore.

The rest of that day, Merlin stared at him—across the Round Table, the banquet table, the practice field. It wasn’t an easy task, since Merlin, even now, was ever at Arthur’s right hand. He had a crick in his neck by noon on the second day, but Arthur had not so much as glanced at him in return. He looked anywhere but at Merlin, even during his cool requests for Merlin’s opinion.

Or rather, Emrys’s opinion. Merlin no longer seemed welcome.

***
“What’s gotten up the royal arse, then?” Gwaine muttered in Merlin’s ear when Arthur was in an exceptionally prickly mood.

“More like what hasn’t,” Merlin muttered back, though more to himself than to Gwaine. Gwaine chortled, completely misunderstanding Merlin’s meaning but still drawing a hard look from their king.

Merlin found himself in a constant state of distraction thinking about what Arthur might want in his arse and how he wanted it to get there. Merlin’s magic, he’d asked for Merlin’s magic. He’d asked Merlin to seize him and bind him and take him.

Unable to comprehend, Merlin had laughed at him.

Now he couldn’t stop thinking about it. He still wasn’t sure about the details of what Arthur had wanted from him, but as he watched his king, he was beginning to understand the shape and depth of his desires.

Arthur lived entombed in his destiny, trapped in a gilded cage of responsibility and repression. He found brief moments of freedom on the hunt or with Merlin, but sex would offer the deeper primal release he needed. But he couldn’t make it happen himself. He had only just managed to ask for it from the person he trusted most.

And Merlin had laughed at him. He hadn’t known. He still didn’t know enough. It wasn’t fair, but Arthur was too proud and stubborn to allow a second moment of vulnerability.

Merlin would have to strip him down to it—probably literally. The more he thought about it, the more he burned with the need to satisfy Arthur down to his basest desire. He just had to figure out how.

He didn’t know, but Merlin had always been good at figuring things out.

***
Whatever rift had grown between Arthur and Merlin, the old and odd relationship between them (combined with Merlin’s newer, even odder status in the court) meant that no one questioned Merlin when he shut himself up in a vacant, distant suite of rooms with nothing more than a quill and a thick sheaf of fresh, expensive parchment.

“Magical research,” he’d been sure to announce with great cheer to at least three people at breakfast time. That ensured that by lunch, no one in the keep would venture within earshot of his unconventional laboratory.

By the time he barred the door and sat down at his makeshift desk, he was already half hard in anticipation of his task. Sex. He had never thought to involve magic in it before, perhaps because none of his very few partners had known his secret.

Sex with Arthur, now that he had contemplated. He jabbed his quill into the inkpot. “If you’d just propositioned me in a comprehensible way in the first place,” he muttered. All his fantasies of Arthur laying him out across the expanse of the royal bed, of being pinned between the rough velvet and the sleek heat of Arthur’s body still aroused him, though they seemed laughably mundane compared to what Arthur actually wanted.

“But what do you want?” He tapped the quill against his lips. His heart thumped with a sense of limitless inspiration; he could, he knew now, do anything to Arthur that he wished.

Yet the blank page demanded the specifics of what and how. He had already cost himself the right to affectionate mutual fumbling, if Arthur’s pride could have tolerated that in the first place. To provide what Arthur wanted, he needed to be sure, precise, confident.

He had already ransacked the darkest depths of the library; he found little to help him. The handful of references he found gave him a technical baseline, but the descriptions sounded too much like Merlin's original assumptions about these sorts of sex acts: cruel, humiliating, painful. Nothing of love, or the trust between lovers. He would have to do his own research.

Merlin had learned (the hard way) that the creation of new magic started with the most basic elements. He considered the basic elements of making love to Arthur the way Arthur wanted to be loved. Nudity. Restraint. Penetration. Control.

Idly, he sketched the first image that rose in his mind when he thought about sex with Arthur. The posts of Arthur’s bed took shape in rough lines under his pen. He’d put Arthur into that bed every night for years. He could put Arthur into it again. He traced more lines, tendrils twisting around the posts to spread eagle a hypothetical lover. The act was still maddeningly vague from a magical perspective, but beginning to take form in his mind.

By the time the new day dawned, Merlin had ten sheets of notes, half scribbled out with addendums and ideas crammed into the margins. He’d already come three times over the hours he’d been working, but his prick once again ached with blood. He started to reach for it again, but then glanced up at the doorway leading into the bedchamber and stilled his hand. It was time see if any of his theories would work in practice.

Merlin knelt on the bed, still fully clothed and let his hands rest open on his thighs. Best to start with something he had done before, albeit with quite a different purpose. He closed his eyes and after a moment, heard the whisper of leather on fabric and felt his breeches slacken around his waist. A moment after that, his arms wrenched behind his back of their own accord and his belt whipped around his wrists to bind them together. “Ow!” Merlin complained as the leather bit into his skin.

He had to loosen and tighten the belt a few times before he felt secure, but comfortable. It was an odd feeling—he was in control of the magic, but he could also feel the lack of control that came with being bound. His prick throbbed with the excitement of it; for the first time, he truly understood why Arthur desired this.

Satisfying that excitement would take some further testing of his theories, since his hands were now out of commission. Merlin’s thoughts kept scattering, but he gathered them as best he could and set to work.

Noontide sun poured in the windows by the time Merlin shuddered into a last, massive orgasm and went limp in his bonds. Some trial and some error, but overall, as he released himself from the belt and stretched his naked body over the wet and crumpled sheets, he had to count that as a success.

Though he never did figure out where the rest of his clothes had gone.

***
He had meant to wait until he had worked out a thousand delights for Arthur, enough acts of magical passion to keep Arthur from thinking about anything else. At least until he could never think of doing without Merlin again. But he was so weary of Arthur shutting him out, pretending there was no intimacy between them when Merlin now felt closer than ever to his king.

After mastering a handful of skills, he couldn’t stop grinning at Arthur whenever he saw him. He knew he looked quite mad, but he couldn’t quell his eagerness to share everything he had discovered with Arthur. He wanted his friend back; he wanted the lover he was meant to have.

Merlin took it as a sign one morning when his manic grinning managed to surprise an answering smile from Arthur. He couldn’t wait any longer than it took to get Arthur alone. That didn’t happen as often as it once had, another thing Merlin couldn’t wait to fix. He managed patience until late one night when they sat in Arthur’s chambers reviewing the results of the fertility spells cast over half the western fields.

Arthur leaned back in his chair at last, relaxed with exhaustion. He pushed himself too hard these days, especially during the harvest, and Merlin had lost whatever power he had to fuss over his well-being. “That’s enough magic for one night, Emrys. We can discuss it further at council tomorrow.”

“Of course, sire.” Merlin bit his lip and looked over his shoulder at Arthur’s bed. He longed for it, and not for rest. “Actually, there’s one more bit of magic I’d like to mention. You might be interested.”

Arthur raised his eyebrows and folded his arms across his chest, but his expression, while not encouraging, was not forbidding enough to deter Merlin’s resolve. “Oh?”

Merlin leaned in closer, his body already tingling with Arthur’s proximity and the thought of what they’d soon be doing. “Do you remember something you asked me about, some time ago now? An intimate matter?” He lay his hand on Arthur’s bicep, rekindling the warmth of connection between their skin. “I had to think for a while, but I’ve found—“

He was on the floor, chair toppled over before he even registered Arthur moving. The breath punched out of him, from impact or shock or sheer disbelief.

“How dare you,” Arthur snarled above him. “How dare you touch your king with such liberty.”

“Arthur?” Merlin pushed himself up on his hands, shaking the shock from his head. “I only meant—“

“Get out.”

“Arthur, listen to me, I can—“

“Get out!”

He had never seen Arthur so white with fury. Merlin stumbled to his feet and fled. The door slammed behind him, and the sound of the key turning in the lock from the inside wrenched Merlin’s gut. He fell against the corridor wall and slid down it until he was sprawled on the hard floor again, utterly bereft.

The next morning, he woke to find Arthur gone on a hunting trip. It was the first time he had ever gone without Merlin, and he didn’t return for weeks after.

***
For a time, Merlin considered whether he should just give up, whether he was hurting Arthur more by trying. There had to be another way to repair what had broken between them. So many years of friendship and devotion—mostly mutual, Merlin felt confident in saying—could not just vanish because of one misunderstood proposition. He could work his way back into Arthur’s gentler affections with old-fashioned persistence and annoyance.

He might have tried it, if Arthur had given him a single indication it might ever work. But Arthur was colder and more distant than ever; the ice had finished encasing him, though only Merlin seemed able to see it. No one else questioned why their fiery king showed no more warmth than a statue—except in battle, where he threw himself into the most outrageous danger, always at a moment when his knights and his warlock could not help him.

Merlin might have wondered if Arthur had a death wish, but he dismissed the thought before it fully formed. Arthur would not shirk his duty so deliberately. And Merlin knew the truth, though it took painful months before he could admit it: Arthur had walled himself off in grief and shame at his own desires so that the ecstasy of battle was the only thing left that could lift him out of it.

That was Merlin’s fault. His heart clenched with his own grief and shame, and he returned to his chambers and his parchment.

It was clear there would be no more discussion. Merlin should have known that from the start. After all, Arthur had barely gotten the words out the first time, and Merlin had responded in the worst possible way. But in those few words he had given Merlin the blueprints of his own seduction—no gentle wooing, no words of understanding, just the gift of what Arthur could no longer admit he needed. Perhaps even what Arthur didn’t know himself.

Every moment he could spare, Merlin made himself a sexual recluse. He hunched over his papers, sketching and writing and thinking, always thinking of Arthur and everything he had learned from a lifetime serving him.

He thought about the loose-limbed way Arthur slept, the contrast of the rich bedding against his golden skin, the way Arthur used to blink when Merlin woke him as though reluctant to leave his dreams. He thought about the way Arthur leaned into the crook of a tree, fingertips tracing the patterns in the bark, the way the leaves stirred his hair. The way Arthur bathed in any body of water, running or still, submerging himself until he rose up gasping. He thought about the passion of the hunt: Arthur’s shining eyes as he raced through the woods; the brutal, tender way he finished and cleaned his kills; how he slid his knife through warm flesh and let his dogs clean the blood from his fingers.

He thought about how Arthur sat on his throne, regal and strong and trapped by the goodness of his own nature. How once in a great while, when someone else held the attention of the court, Arthur’s eyes would lose focus for a moment, taking him somewhere else away from them all.

Soon enough, Merlin would be able to bring Arthur wherever he wanted to go. Arthur had been brilliant, truly, to think of using sex for this purpose, and Merlin fell in love with every new notion that crossed his mind and made his prick swell. He was thorough. Anything Arthur ever wanted, Merlin would give to him without hesitation or doubt.

He tested every idea as best he could, refined and perfected every spell or potion on his own body with no heed for the risk. If anyone could have observed him, he would have looked like an incurable pervert addicted to ever more astounding feats of magical masturbation.

Eventually, he ran out of ideas (as well as clothing and furniture). He stared down at his stack of papers, each spell properly illustrated and copied more neatly than he had ever managed before. With a slow pass of his hand, he bound the parchment into a sturdy, non-descript book. The great Emrys’s greatest work.

He wanted to take it straight to Arthur’s bed, let Arthur wake naked and bound and aroused. But he couldn’t do it yet. He had tested every nuance of every spell a dozen times, but only on himself. He refined his technique based on his own reactions, his own threshold between pleasure and pain.

Another’s pleasure might be something quite different, and some things he simply couldn’t test without a partner. With this kind of sex, he couldn’t risk cocking things up yet again. He’d subjected Arthur to enough misjudgments as it was.

***
Mordred’s ethereal beauty turned out to be a perfect litmus for pleasure. Ever since Merlin had revealed his powers and stepped into his destined role as Emrys, Mordred had looked at him with the same adoration he had previously reserved for Arthur alone. Magic didn’t frighten him, and he would do anything Emrys asked.

They started with the basics. Mordred’s moans as he writhed on his bed in invisible bonds were highly complimentary. Merlin squinted and cast a faint shimmer over the tendrils to better observe their motion as he eased one deeper into Mordred. “Still feel good? No, don’t tell me. I’ll know.”

And he did, watching the twisting of Mordred’s face and the flex of his body as Merlin took him from pleasure to pain and back again. Mordred's boundless trust made Merlin feel more tenderly toward him than he ever had before, and it bolstered Merlin's confidence in his newfound abilities a thousand fold.

They did everything together, or nearly so. They went into the woods and rutted as a dozen different animals. Mordred spent one warm afternoon in the embrace of a flowering tree and another discovering the bliss of flowing water.

Back in Mordred’s chambers, they worked through the rest of the book over weeks of stolen hours. Mordred questioned nothing, even when they tried things he didn’t like. A new, unique trust built between them, healing the last of the damage from their early missteps.

Always, Merlin imagined Arthur in Mordred’s place and the longing nearly overwhelmed him.

“Fuck me, Emrys,” Mordred gasped one afternoon, his very blood on fire from a love potion that had lasted a great deal longer than expected. “For real, for once, please.”

Merlin chuckled and gently drew his cock out of his breeches. “No, I don’t think so,” he said, although he could use the relief. He stroked his prick, idly engorging it with magic.

Mordred sensed the spell and wailed at the denial, arse bucking up against the lattice of energy that held him tight and flat against the mattress.

“Mordred? Are you—?”

All the heat drained from Merlin’s body in a single instant. He turned, slowly, to meet Arthur’s cold, blank stare. “Arthur,” he croaked in horror. His prick was still in his hand, traitorously hard and close to Mordred’s flesh.

“I see,” Arthur murmured, as though to himself. He looked away for a moment, then looked at Merlin again with a formal bow of his head. “I beg your pardon for the intrusion, Lord Emrys.”

Then he turned and strode out the door.

“Arthur.” Merlin stayed frozen another moment before he broke out of his paralysis and ran after him. Panic seared his lungs and behind his eyes. Arthur might have been able to accept that Merlin couldn’t give him what he wanted. Merlin knew that finding him giving it to someone else would be absolutely intolerable.

He had to duck back inside, once to stuff himself back into his breeches and then again to release a dazed Mordred from his bonds, if not his arousal. Then he sprinted headlong through the castle. He knew where Arthur would retreat.

“Arthur!” To his lack of surprise, Arthur’s chamber door was locked. He pounded on it, panic fueling him past the pain of his fist crashing over and over into the wood. He could explain. Arthur had to let him explain. “Arthur, I have to talk to you.”

Relief washed over him when he heard the tumblers of the lock creak and slide. The door opened, and Merlin took a deep breath in readiness to pour out the truth before Arthur could shut him down. Everything Merlin did was for Arthur. He had to know that.

"I'm sorry, but the king does not wish to be disturbed.”

Merlin had to blink twice before George’s imperturbable face came into focus. “I need to see him. Now.”

“I’m sorry,” George said again. “But he does not wish to see anyone.”

“That doesn’t mean me.” Merlin made to push past George into the royal chambers—since when had he even needed to knock?

“Especially you, he said.” George blocked him with polite but intractable denial. “I beg your pardon, Lord Emrys. Good day.”

And then he shut the door in Merlin’s face.

***
Before that door shut, Merlin had known things were bad and their relationship strained to the breaking point. He hadn’t known that Arthur could cut Merlin out of his heart completely.

Merlin felt like a foreign dignitary in his own home. Arthur treated him with courtesy and still consulted him—only in public—about magical matters, but it was obvious to everyone that Emrys no longer enjoyed the king’s favor or his trust.

He ached for Arthur to scream at him or throw something heavy at his head. Regret became his obsession; if only he had known at the beginning. If only he had known anything.

The only thing he knew now was that he couldn’t live like this. Spending years out of sync with Arthur had been difficult enough; this was torment. He couldn’t ask Arthur to forgive him again, but he couldn’t live with this irredeemable wrongness between them.

Merlin put the book away, abandoned Camelot to its own devices, and turned his mind to the last hope he had left.

***
Time travel was a largely theoretical matter for most sorcerers and magic scholars. The amount of power it took to punch through the inflexibility of time and the control to keep from damaging it was well beyond the capability of anyone in living memory.

Emrys, or so Merlin had always been told, existed outside such limitations.

But not by much. After months of exhaustive research, he held the delicate hope of one single opportunity.

He could go back in time, but for the entirety of his life, he could only visit one small window. The window varied in its length based on its proximity to his current point. The time he wanted was only a few years in the past, but even that left him with a maximum possible space of a week.

Merlin would visit twice, he decided. On the first trip, he would give his younger self the book and the briefest possible explanation of what must be done. The balance between too much information and not enough frightened him—not for the stability of the time stream, but for the failure of his purpose. Overthinking had caused as much of this mess as his damnable ignorance.

He would return again at the end of the time window. That would give his younger self a week to examine the book and come to terms with what Merlin would tell him. After that, he could only pray he had done enough.

***
On his first visit, he was gratified to see his younger self appropriately cowed and horrified by the thought of losing Arthur. It made up for the unexpected loathing he’d felt when facing the version of himself that was mere days from destroying Merlin’s life.

He handed over the book. “You were meant to be this for him,” he told him and marveled at how young and hesitant his other self seemed. No wonder he had fucked everything up so spectacularly.

When he stumbled back into his own time, he felt even older than he was: exhausted and terrified that he hadn’t done enough. Still, some part of him must have felt hopeful, because that night he slept better than he had in years.

The next morning, he went out to watch Arthur training with his knights, ignoring their ill-concealed surprise at his presence. He had eyes only for Arthur. A feeling of great tenderness welled up inside him; he didn’t bother trying to keep it off his face.

Arthur caught it—and almost caught a blow to the head from Leon in his distraction. He backed away quickly from Leon and looked back at Merlin with a frown. Merlin looked back with a tiny smile. It won’t be long, my love, he thought fondly at Arthur. Everything will be as it should have been.

Arthur’s frown wavered into confusion. His lips took a vulnerable twist for an instant before Leon attacked again and drove Arthur around in a loop.

Merlin turned and walked away while Arthur’s back was turned.

***
On his second visit, the last of his fears were entirely relieved, as were his clothes and a tremendous erection. To his joy (emotional and physical), his younger self had not only embraced this new kind of magic, but he was excelling at it. Merlin made sure of that first hand, playing Mordred to his younger self's first experiments enchanting a partner.

He ended up bound by his own belt, trussed hand and foot on top of a red velvet coverlet identical to the one on Arthur's bed. Merlin loved this blanket, dreamt of wrapping it around his naked body, of writhing on top of it while Arthur pushed him down into it.

When the blanket came alive around him, entangling him in vines of velvet, he knew this would work. When a tendril of magic sank into the tip of his cock, he wasn't sure he would survive the experience, but he knew it didn't matter. He could make this right. He'd had it in him all along.

You see? Merlin told an invisible Arthur as he came apart under the magical touch of his younger self. You see how quickly I would have become yours, if you’d only given me the chance?

He left the book with the younger Merlin. Emrys would have no more use for it, but Merlin certainly would. He supposed it was illogical to envy himself for that.

***

Relief washed through him in a bliss almost as strong as orgasm when he returned to his own time. Seeing the passion in his own eyes had convinced him: all would be well. Soon, so soon, Arthur’s pain and his own would be erased and replaced with the years of intimacy they should have had.

It was mid-morning when he recovered enough to leave his rooms, and there was nothing important left to do now. He wandered up to Arthur’s rooms and opened the door with a wave of his hand; he no longer needed to fear what Arthur might say or do.

The chambers stood empty, which suited Merlin well. The quiet reminded him of the old days when he would putter around, waiting for Arthur to return from training or a meeting with his father. He belonged here then; soon he would belong here again.

He walked around to the far side of the bed, which was tucked together much more neatly than Merlin had ever managed when it was his job. The deep red of the coverlet called to his fingers until he dug them into the rich velvet.

It called to his cock as well. His younger self had indulged him last night and conjured a replica to use in their play. Merlin could still feel the red velvet tentacles stroking his thighs, immobilizing his arms, wrapping around his throat.

He smiled. “Oh, what the hell,” he murmured and toed off his boots. He spread himself out over the coverlet with a sigh. Maybe if he closed his eyes, he’d open them into a better world.

When he heard the door open, he didn’t bother moving.

“Emrys. What are you doing in my chambers?”

Merlin lifted his head to see Arthur standing a few yards away, already out of his armor though still sweating from training, George a step behind him. “I wanted to see you. Well, and to see if your bed is as comfortable as I always thought.”

Arthur flushed an angry red. “I don’t recall summoning you. Get off my bed.”

“Sire, shall I--?” George began, but his words choked off when Merlin lifted a lazy hand and he slid backwards and out the door into the corridor. Merlin took a moment of satisfaction in slamming the door after him.

“What exactly do you think you’re doing?” Arthur stayed where he was, watching Merlin as though trying to figure out if he’d finally gone mad and if so, what Arthur could do about a mad warlock in his bedroom.

“I’m not mad.” Merlin sat up and shifted himself to sit cross legged facing Arthur. He couldn’t help smiling. He hadn’t smiled at Arthur in so long. “Though I suppose it could be a side effect of the time travel.”

“I see.” Arthur looked startled for an instant. A ghost of old affection flitted after it; then he looked terribly sad before his face settled back into regal impassivity. “You’re not particularly helping your case there.”

It was a pale shadow of their old banter, but even just the flicker of emotion and connection made Merlin’s heart jump. Soon, they would have everything back. “You won’t need to worry about it. I’ve fixed it, Arthur. That’s why I went back.”

Arthur crossed his arms over his chest. “Fix what, exactly?”

Merlin waved his hand between them, then at the bed. “This. This ugly thing between us. I’m sorry, Arthur, but I can’t live with it anymore and this was the only hope left to change it.”

The anger had faded and given way to perplexity, but now it resurged, bright and hot in Arthur’s livid gaze. “Really. So how exactly did you fix me, Lord Emrys? Did you go back to my birth and fix whatever went wrong to make me the way that I am?”

“What?” Merlin unfolded his legs and let them hang over the edge of the bed, though he didn’t quite dare to get up and approach Arthur.

“Or did you slip into my room when I was a boy trying to tie myself to my bed posts? Did you tell me that a prince mustn’t want to do such things?” Arthur’s arms dropped to his sides, fists clenching as he turned his back. “Because I regret to tell you that it didn’t work.”

Merlin slid off the bed and stalked over to Arthur, moving around to face him, though Arthur would not meet his eyes. “What are you talking about? Fix you? When have I tried to make you other than what you are?”

“That’s all you’ve ever wanted to do.” Arthur turned his head away so all Merlin could see was the twitching in his jaw. “Fix me so I can be the great king you wanted. Fix me so I’ll let you use magic freely. Fix me so that I behave so nobly, with no unsavory word or deed.”

“Is that why you’d never let me speak of it again?” Arthur’s flinch was answer enough, and Merlin stepped closer with a growl of fury. “I have never tried to change who you are, only bring out the best that’s already in you.”

“And... that was far from the best.” Arthur gave a short, humorless huff. “Forgive me if I didn’t want to face your judgment on something I can’t change.”

“You’re wrong. I was the problem, not you. I was the one who needed to be fixed.” He wasn’t sure whether he wanted to hug Arthur or shake him until his teeth rattled. Either gesture would end this fragile moment. “I never wanted to rid you of your desires, I just wanted to understand them. Not that you made it any easier on me, you stubborn ass.”

This time Arthur’s whole body twitched and his voice rasped. “You seemed to understand them just fine when you scoffed at them to my face.”

What did it matter now? Soon enough, none of it would ever have happened. Yet that thought only increased his urge to give them some kind of peace before the end.

“I didn’t. But I learned. And I learned that I loved it, all of it.” Almost as much as he loved Arthur, but those words stuck in his chest, his own vulnerability.

Arthur finally glanced up at him; the look cut into Merlin like a knife. “Yes. I suppose I saw that for myself.”

Merlin struggled to get enough air to speak through his tight throat, though his mind spun without anything to say. He was sorry? It meant nothing? It was only research, and all of it was for Arthur’s sake? He could feel Arthur’s scorn before he said any of it. “It wasn’t what you thought it was. But it won’t matter soon.”

“Emrys. What did you do?”

“I told you. I fixed my ignorance. So that when you make your offer, I’ll understand you and know what to do.”

“You—“ Arthur cut himself off and looked down again, shoulders tightening. “You told yourself about—“

Merlin looked down as well. They were standing on a large rug unfamiliar to Merlin—a Yule gift from some ally or noble, he supposed. The rug was richly woven with a pattern of vines and flowers. Merlin waved his fingers toward it with a soft murmur.

“I showed myself the possibilities I’d never considered.” His heart beat a little faster as the vines in the carpet grew brighter—and then began to grow. “I hoped I would take to it then as well as I did later.”

Arthur drew in an audible breath as the vines began to twine around his ankles and up his legs. He said nothing; Merlin felt emboldened by the lack of protest.

“I was worried at first. I remembered how naïve I was then. I had almost no experience with sex at all, you know, and the thought of using magic for it honestly never crossed my mind.” Merlin shook his head. “How I made it through adolescence without thinking of that, I’ll never understand.”

Arthur didn’t answer, though the opportunity for a jab at Merlin’s slow development should have been irresistible even now. He was watching, with wide eyes and shallow breaths, as the vines tightened around his thighs, limiting his mobility.

Merlin held his breath and sent one more command. Gently, the vines caught Arthur’s hands and drew them back to the base of his spine. They wrapped around his wrists, binding him.

They stood in silence. Merlin waited to see what Arthur would do. The vines were slender; a man of Arthur’s strength could break them easily. But Arthur stood still, looking down at his body, lost somewhere between his own mind and Merlin.

“We should have taken a better chance on each other,” Merlin continued after a moment. “We would have been brilliant together. We will be.”

Arthur looked up; his eyes were a wash of blue. His cheeks flushed pink and his lips parted, already looking dry. Merlin knew what anger, and fear, looked like on Arthur: this was neither. He had never seen Arthur aroused, but he recognized it all the same.

“How can you be so sure?” Arthur asked. It was the first time in years Merlin had felt him reaching out for reassurance.

Merlin took a step closer, nails digging into his palms. One question remained that he had not been able to answer, one doubt that he couldn’t shed. “Tell me. Did you ever trust me enough? Even then?”

Arthur closed his eyes. When he opened them, his lower lashes glistened. “Yes. But I was so scared, Merlin.”

He froze, stunned, and savored those two precious syllables. His name. He’d never thought to hear it again in this life.

Such a gift—he could only return the words with touch. He had to press his luck as far as it would go while he could. His hand came up to cup Arthur’s cheek. The heat of skin on skin shivered through him.

Arthur closed his eyes, but didn’t pull away, so Merlin raised his other hand to cradle Arthur’s face. “I’ll take care of you,” he said, and then kissed him.

Though Arthur remained still, he let his lips part under Merlin’s mouth. Merlin confined himself to soft, cautious kisses. One hand dropped down to Arthur’s hip to tug at one of the vines, hesitantly playful. When it snapped, he felt the faint gust of Arthur’s laugh in his mouth and tears pricked behind his eyes.

Then Arthur gasped audibly. Something knocked Merlin’s hand from Arthur’s hip and for a pained moment, Merlin thought Arthur had pulled free in order to push him away.

And then Merlin noticed the bed.

The frame had come alive exactly the way it had in his dreams and illustrations. Bedposts curled into sinuous loops, alive and wanting. One of them had reached out to Arthur and wrapped around his waist. It started to pull him from Merlin; the rest of the vines shredded and fell to the floor as it lifted him.

Merlin had not commanded this, at least not consciously, but arousal slammed through his body at the sight.

“Merlin?” Arthur thrashed in its grip, craning his neck to try to see behind him. “Merlin!”

“Do you trust me?” Merlin had to work some moisture into his mouth before he could ask one of the more terrifying questions of his life. “You trusted me then. Can you trust me now?”

The bedpost-turned-tentacle paused with Arthur suspended over the bed. A second post had begun to reach for him, but it paused as well, waiting for his answer.

Arthur met his gaze, panicked and aroused. Merlin hurt with the tension of the wait and his wanting. He looked for what he needed in Arthur’s eyes—absolution, permission, surrender—but he could no longer trust his own instincts with this man.

Finally, Arthur extended his hand toward the second undulating bedpost, permitting the living wood to wrap around his arm and draw him down into the wriggling bedcovers.

The moment Arthur touched the eager coverlet, it separated into a dozen or more velvety red tentacles and swarmed around Arthur’s body. Merlin’s breath caught at the sight, and the memory of similar velvet vines binding his own body during his night in the past.

“Fuck,” Arthur groaned. “They’re ripping my clothes.”

“That’s the idea,” Merlin said, but he snapped his fingers to make Arthur’s clothing vanish to a safer spot. Ripping could be great fun, but he'd risk nothing that might make Arthur feel truly violated.

His sudden nudity surprised a snort from Arthur. "Bet you wish you'd learned that one sooner," he gasped as the third and fourth bedposts also took hold of him. "Back when you--oh, fuck. Fuck. Fuck."

One of the bedsheets had wrapped around Arthur's thigh to help pull his legs open. A velvety tentacle crept up his inner thigh and curled around his balls, almost affectionate. Merlin noticed the activity peripherally; his attention focused on the thick swell of Arthur's cock, proof that Merlin was finally getting something right, however subconsciously.

"Fuck, Arthur," Merlin choked out. "If you could see yourself."

A bit of the headboard had slipped under Arthur's head and neck for support, lifting him so he could see what was being done to him. His eyes had gone wide with need--and a touch of shame. Merlin could only allow one of those to remain.

He walked towards the foot of the bed, fingers fumbling at the waist of his breeches. When he stopped at the edge of the bed, he pulled his cock free to let Arthur see how hard he was and how very much Merlin was with Arthur in every way.

"If you could see yourself," he said and slowly pumped his rigid length, "you would never doubt yourself again."

He caught a glimpse of Arthur's relief before Arthur shut his eyes and accepted the ministrations of everything trying to pleasure him. He still thrashed and struggled and Merlin hummed his approval; he knew from experience how much better resisting made it feel.

Arthur had red velvet wrapped around his cock and thighs and all the way up to his throat by the time the bed won the tussle and stilled him. When Arthur stilled, everything else did as well, holding Arthur wide open and waiting for Merlin.

Watching Arthur's arousal-slackened face carefully, Merlin created a thick tendril of pure magic and sent it exploring between Arthur's legs. Arthur stayed motionless as it nipped along his inner thigh like a curious fish, testing the skin with tiny kisses. When it reached the juncture of his thighs, it nuzzled around Arthur's balls, enveloping his sac and pulsating in a steady massage.

Merlin let it play until Arthur lost the battle with self-restraint and shifted his hips with a whimper. He nudged the tendril down to stroke soothingly over the tender skin between balls and hole. Then he guided it lower and let it burrow.

Arthur's whimper became a moan. He tried to buck up away from the intrusion, but one of the bedposts pressed gently down on his hips to hold him still. "Merlin? What the hell is that?"

"You know what it is." Merlin realized his still had his fingers wrapped around his own cock and forced himself to let go. He had to concentrate on Arthur's pace and Arthur's pleasure. Now was his only chance to get this right when he'd gotten everything else so very wrong.

The magic pulsed inside Arthur, a steady drumming against all the most sensitive places. The tendril conformed exactly to Arthur's passage, slowly expanding with each pulse to stretch Arthur further open. Merlin felt the echo of memory in his own body; he knew how much that pressure could stimulate the cock from within, well beyond ordinary fucking. At the same time, it left a maddening sensation of emptiness.

Arthur's cock twitched helplessly against his belly with every pulse, so swollen and dark. Arthur's arms had resumed pulling against his restraints in mindless attempts to get his hand to his prick, but Merlin knew the bed wouldn't allow it.

As it was, Arthur wouldn't last much longer. Merlin could read it in the restless movement of his body, the spasms in his face. He knew it had been so long since Arthur would have allowed himself even a fantasy; the reality overwhelmed, swamping him with sensation that wanted to spiral uncontrolled into climax.

Merlin wanted to control that spiral. He wanted to edge Arthur along the line between tension and release for hours until neither of them could tell the difference. He wanted Arthur to beg until his throat was raw and his voice a rasp.

Most of that would have to wait for another lifetime. Arthur was already too far gone to toy with much longer and Merlin's emotions made his concentration shaky at best. He couldn't hope to control the exact moment of Arthur's climax their first time together. He could barely stave off his own by not letting anything sink in too deep (Arthur here, at the last when it was too late, Arthur's skin, Arthur's trust, oh gods Arthur).

A low groan rumbled out of Arthur's chest as the magic rippled inside him with Merlin's momentary lapse. He was stretched so far open now that Merlin could see into his body from where he stood: the darkness and the glimmer of the magic within.

Merlin grew dizzy trying to take in the pale, flushed skin and the vulnerable dark entrance. He let the magic swirl around inside Arthur. He hoped Arthur could feel his tremulous joy through it, his profound, heart-crushing gratitude.

Then again, Arthur was already a little busy. His hips jerked against the post wrapped around him. His cock bounced against the wood. His head rolled back and forth, biting his lips against the cries he couldn't quite tamp down.

Finally it burst out of him. "Merlin! Please. Please, please, please--"

A velvet rope slithered over his lips and around his head, tightening until it wedged between Arthur's teeth, reducing him back to incoherent moans. Merlin laughed, high pitched and slightly crazed. "I'm not sure I've ever heard you say that word before."

Arthur glared at him through eyes wet with frustration. Merlin smiled at the clear "fuck you" in Arthur's expression.

The "fuck you" melted into a "thank you" as Merlin finally let the magic have its way unimpeded. The velvet around Arthur's cock tightened and began to pull in firm, purposeful strokes. The magic inside him stopped teasing and milked him hard.

With a muffled wail, Arthur finally began to orgasm. White spunk splashed across red velvet until Arthur's body sank limp into the embrace of his bed.

Merlin swayed on his feet, inconveniently without a bedpost to grab onto. He felt drained as much as if he had been the one to come, though his cock still ached. He leaned his weight on his thighs against the foot of the bed; then he reached out and lay his shaking hand on Arthur's foot, still bound at the ankle. Out of everything he had just done to Arthur, this felt the most daring.

Arthur's damp eyes fluttered open and the gag slithered out of his mouth. He looked down his body at Merlin and worked his throat to clear it. One corner of the bedsheet scrunched up of its own accord and started to wipe the drops of semen from his skin.

Arthur tugged one hand against his bonds. This time the bed let him go without hesitation, everything slipping from his body and coiling back in repose. He extended his hand to Merlin and spread his legs wider. "Come here."

Merlin stared at him, brain rendered useless by Arthur's boneless sprawl, the soft marks left on his skin. "What?"

"Come here," Arthur repeated, so gentle that tears sparked again behind Merlin's eyes. Arthur nodded toward the erection that still jutted from Merlin's breeches. "You're still in need."

Merlin shook his head and pulled his hand from Arthur's foot. "No. I--it's not about me." And he didn't deserve it.

"Come here," Arthur insisted. "Take your relief in me. I want it. I demand it."

The tentacles of the bed left Arthur and reached for Merlin. He had no idea to whose command they responded, but he had no worry to spare for it. They hooked into his clothes, lifting and dragging until he stood as naked and exposed as Arthur. Then they hooked under his arms and around his torso to help him climb onto the bed and onto Arthur.

He held himself on trembling arms as they looked at each other. A tiny smile played at the corner of Arthur's mouth as the head of Merlin's cock pressed into his rim. "Just you this time. If you can do that for me."

"Fuck you, Arthur." He didn't care that his voice wavered as he pushed into Arthur's body. "Fuck you. Everything is for you. Everything."

Arthur bit at Merlin's bottom lip as his arse closed warm and tight around Merlin's cock. "Everything? And Mordred? That was for me as well?"

"Yes," Merlin hissed and took a hard kiss from Arthur's mouth in return. "Fuck you, yes. My obedient little guinea pig, he was all for you."

For some reason, that seemed to turn Arthur on. He groaned and started to pull at his legs to get Merlin a deeper angle into him. Before he could shift, the entire bed shifted under them instead.

Merlin locked in to the hilt. He still felt the magic he'd left inside Arthur. It seeped in through his slit, still stretched from the magic sounding his younger self had given him. The magic tingled down his shaft, inside and out, making him feel like he was already coming.

Arthur lifted his hand to Merlin's neck, stroked his shoulder, and the gentleness renewed the assault behind Merlin's eyes. His face scrunched with the effort of holding back the tears. If the world didn't change as soon as he came, Arthur would give him hell for weeping.

That instinctive assumption, which hadn't been true for so very long, did him in. "How dare you," he choked, jabbing into the sweet depth of Arthur that no one could own but him. "How dare you think there's anything I wouldn't give you."

Arthur's blunt fingernails scraped along his neck in answer. He might have spoken, but Merlin ground harder into him, fucking the breath from both of them.

"You're the reason for my fucking existence." He had to close his eyes so he couldn't see Arthur's face and those dear eyes so close to his. "How dare you think there would ever be anything I wouldn't do for you."

"You went through time for me." Arthur's laugh choked off into a sob and he lifted his hands to Merlin's head. His fingers tangled in Merlin's hair and his thumbs stroked over his cheekbones. "Go on. Let yourself finish."

Merlin couldn't have helped it if he'd wanted to. One brush of Arthur's thumb over his eyelid and Merlin spilled in a hard flood into him. It was exquisite, though the pleasure felt less orgasmic and more a bone-deep relief.

He gasped it out until his cock finished emptying. Arthur's hands gripped his head harder while he came; his fingers relaxed as Merlin did.

Merlin slumped over onto his side, pulling Arthur with him. His hands moved over Arthur's body, restless with the need to take care of him, to ensure he was well and content and free of pain of any kind. He pulled Arthur close as the sheets wrapped around their entwining bodies, cocooning them together.

The bed returned to its inanimate state by the time they settled. The posts had warped considerably and the coverlet was a shapeless blob of rumpled velvet. Part of Merlin's brain started trying to figure out how to fix it, but he quelled the thoughts before they could take hold. He might as well leave this mistake for his younger self to erase along with his many others.

For the first time, the thought brought more sadness than relief.

"You went through time for me," Arthur mumbled into Merlin's shoulder as though following the drift of his mind.

"Don't get excited," Merlin mumbled back into Arthur's hair. "I can't ever do it again."

Arthur stayed silent for a moment, but something had stiffened along the line of his shoulders. "If you changed how it happened," he said at last, "then why are we still the same?"

"It takes time, ironically enough." This close, he could see the faint silver strands that had infiltrated the gold at Arthur's temples, less obvious than in Merlin's dark hair. "When I went back, I established a sort of bridge between that point in time and now. Time will run in parallel between their time and ours until the bridge breaks."

Arthur grunted. "How?"

"The changes have to reach a critical mass. When all other probable futures start closing off, the change will become reality. We'll become impossible." He expected that to happen the first time his younger self took Arthur to bed, which could be happening even as they spoke. Somehow he didn't think he would wait for Arthur to ask this time. "Then it'll all rush downstream, so to speak, until the timeline smoothes itself out again."

They lay in silence for a while longer. Merlin savored the weight of Arthur's head and body against him until he felt Arthur's lips move over his shoulder. "But what if it doesn't? What if we just... stay parallel? What if we just go on like this and they go on without us? Could that happen?"

It was a surprisingly sophisticated question--and one Merlin had been desperately trying not to ask. "I don't know. It shouldn't."

Arthur nodded, head bumping Merlin's chin. "Will we know it happened? Will we remember who we were?"

"I'll know, because I told myself. Neither of us will remember this. I don't know if I'll ever tell you."

"I doubt it." Arthur snorted with an edge that was mostly fond. "Will we know when it's happening?"

"I don't know." Merlin tried to shush him with a kiss. Every question made his chest tighten with uncertainty. Even after all his research, all his thought and planning, he still felt damnably, dangerously ignorant. For the first time, he wished he had kept a copy of the book, just in case.

Arthur huffed a matching opinion of Merlin's usefulness. "So we'll just...blink out of existence?"

"I don't know." He squeezed Arthur tighter against him, torn between the bliss of having him and the fear of hurting him again--or of not hurting him. Of erasing the healing they had just begun or not erasing all the pain that had made it necessary.

He would have Arthur in his arms regardless, he reminded himself. One way or the other, they were meant to be this for each other.

"Will we feel it? Will it hurt?"

"I don't know," he said again.

He could always rewrite the book, if worse came to worst. This time, Arthur could help.