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The Pact

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"I want a burrito," Gwaine complained around midnight.

Merlin leaned forward over the steering wheel, squinting at the top story of the house across the road, lit only by the dim moon. He'd love to dangle a little mage light over the roof, just to spare his eyesight. The Met never shelled out for night vision specs, despite Merlin's constant protests that magical binoculars, or mag-nocs, didn't show anything non-magical and warlocks couldn't see in the dark any better than anyone else.

Gwaine had stopped trying. "It's just that the curry was a bit unsatisfying. So I'd quite like something else. Like a burrito."

"There are many things I'd like." Merlin tapped the windscreen, burning off the fog clouding what little view they had. "I probably have a better chance at most of them than you finding a Mexican place in this neighborhood."

"Hang on, I'll map it. I could swear we passed a Chipotle a few blocks over. Give me a boost, would you? My 4G's for shit. This place is a fucking dead zone for anyone but you."

Merlin spared a flare of magic for Gwaine's 4G signal because a burrito did sound rather nice. And even if he didn't get food out of it, Gwaine on a quest was still more entertaining than the dark house across the road that might or might not be harboring stolen magical artifacts. And he needed something to occupy the thoughts threatening to churn in his head.

"Bugger. They closed an hour ago."

Disappointment at the loss of their hypothetical snack struck Merlin harder than he would have expected. "Sure there's nowhere else?"

The hunt distracted them for several minutes, but in the end, Mexican food options in London were limited at the best of times, and at this hour, non-existent. When they agreed that another curry was not an acceptable substitute, Gwaine expanded his surfing to the celebrity gossip sites. Merlin resorted to the mag-nocs to keep up a continual magical scan of their target.

"Tch, that one's got to learn to keep her knickers on around the footballers," Gwaine tutted without slowing down the swipe of his finger of the screen. "Not that I would, either, mind you. Oh, look, it's your old mate."

"What mate?" Merlin lowered the mag-nocs to wipe the crystal lenses on the edge of his shirt and then lifted them again to continue scanning for any glimmer of magical presence around the house. Just enough for reasonable grounds, that's all they needed.

Gwaine turned his head until the incredulous slant of his eyebrows loomed in Merlin's peripheral vision. "Just how many of your friends end up in the news, anyway? I'm talking about your Prince of bloody Wales, of course."

And fuck, there it was: exactly what he'd been trying to not think about all night. Gwaine had dumped it right back into his gut, icy and squirming.

"Just because I skivvied for him in school doesn't make him my anything." He looked at his hand, which had risen in the air in front of him before he was aware of moving. It hovered, trembled, unsure whether to touch the phone in his pocket or the spot that twinged over his heart.

"He must be somebody's by now, or he's in real trouble. Listen to this: 'According to Palace insiders, the Prince has not begun the formal process of confirming a mate, despite his thirtieth birthday passing over six months ago. A source within Glastonbury Cathedral said that High Priestess Morgause has begun involving herself in the search for an acceptable mate for the Prince of Wales to prevent the imminent breaking of the Albion Pact.'"

She certainly had. Merlin himself, along with every other person of magic of childbearing age in Britain, had been summoned to Westminster Abbey a fortnight past to be tested for power and magical compatibility. To add just a bit more dignity to the process, the bored priest in charge of the testing had forced Merlin to shift into a female form to prove that he could bear the royal heirs, if necessary.

No one had bothered to notify him whether they’d determined he would be an acceptable brood mare. It didn’t matter. Merlin had known the answer to that almost half his life.

Gwaine elbowed him when he didn’t respond. "Come on, then. Who’s he got his eye on? There must be someone."

"There must be," Merlin agreed, and then lied, "But I don’t know who it is."

Right up until he’d found the voicemail on his mobile, Merlin had also thought there must be someone else. Arthur’s most important birthday had come and gone. Merlin, stuck on a sensitive investigation, had sent his regrets and a gift to the party. Arthur had rung to thank him, and they had chatted, casual, natural, with nothing hidden under Arthur’s tone.

Merlin should have asked. He knew he should have asked, but he hadn’t wanted to know the answer. So many pretty witches and warlocks flocked around Arthur in hopes of winning his attention, his soul, and a crown. Merlin didn’t need to know which one Arthur had chosen any sooner than necessary.

He should have asked, but when Arthur hadn’t said anything himself, he’d assumed that was enough of an answer.

"Do you think it’s true? That Arthur will really sicken and die if he doesn’t stick his knot in someone magic?"

"Yeah. I think it’s true." No one but Arthur had pushed the time limit of the Pact this far since the middle ages. Plenty of people thought the Pact nothing but ancient superstition and propaganda by the Church of the Old Religion of England. They praised Arthur for not taking it seriously. Merlin knew better on both counts.

"Speaking of – have you seen it?" Gwaine flashed him a lascivious grin and waggled his eyebrows. "His royal knot?"

"You have one yourself. Two if you count your head." Merlin rolled his eyes. "Stop trying to pretend you’re not nobility. You've all got the knots."

"Sure, but I’ve just always wanted to know: is his bigger than mine?"

"Yes," Merlin returned without hesitation.

Gwaine sputtered and took the mag-nocs away from him, declaring Merlin’s eyesight faulty. It left Merlin’s hand empty and wavering in the air again.

He took advantage of Gwaine’s distraction to rub his chest. The pinprick over his heart throbbed like it hadn’t in years. Arthur bore the fault for that yet again, him and that sodding voice message that weighed down the phone in Merlin’s pocket like a rock.

He could still hear it. He really wished he could stop hearing it.

Merlin. It’s me. You know why I’m calling.

***

Merlin stumbled into his flat around six the next morning after Lance and Griff had taken over the surveillance. If only they were allowed to install some magic filter lenses in the CCTV cameras, he and Griff had bitched to each other over the radio. Their non-magical partners ignored them and drove off mid-whinge.

"They don’t get it," Merlin continued to complain to his refrigerator as he dug through the crisper bin for his emergency apple stash. "Even with the mag-nocs, it’s bloody exhausting."

He flung himself down on the sofa and crunched into his apple. The skin was a bit wrinkled--contrary to popular legend, the Hesperides groves did have an off season--but the juice broke over his tongue, fresh with magic. As soon as he swallowed the first bite, his jangling anxiety leveled out and his exhaustion mellowed into the merely physical.

Merlin finished the rest of the apple and went to bin the core. On his way back from the kitchen, the blinking light of the answer machine caught his eyes. Odd. Usually his mum was the only person who called his landline. Everyone else texted or emailed if they couldn’t get through on his mobile, though he was pointedly not checking his texts right now.

Hunith Emrys was off on holiday in Blackpool with her boyfriend Matthew at the moment, so she shouldn’t be calling Merlin at all. He grinned as he tapped the play button. Maybe she’d won big and couldn’t wait until he was off work to tell him.

The message crackled for several seconds; he was about to dismiss it as a wrong number after all when he heard the familiar voice. "Merlin. This is Arthur again. I left a message on your mobile yesterday, but I know you get shit reception in that shit flat of yours, so I thought I’d try the other line."

Silence fell again, giving Merlin time to pull a breath into his tight lungs. He waited for Arthur to say something more, though he wasn’t sure what he wanted Arthur to say.

"Merlin. I know I can’t hold you to promises we made when we were boys. I don’t know if you even remember. But... could we talk, at least?"

Another moment of silence, and then the machine beeped once more with finality. Merlin let out a shaky breath that ended in a sharp laugh. He had his hand pressed over his chest again.

Of course he fucking remembered. What kind of cabbage head forgot almost soul bonding with his best friend?

As vividly as he remembered it, he might as well have still been there in Arthur’s tiny study. The air was close and stifling because they’d used up all the oxygen in their gasps in between kisses. Merlin had the wall at his back, Arthur against his front, and the biggest hard-on of his life in his trousers.

That hard-on was rubbing against Arthur’s sport-muscled thigh that had worked itself between Merlin’s legs. Every undulation of their hips made Merlin clutch at Arthur all over, half on his shirt, half on his skin. He moaned frantic kisses into Arthur’s mouth and felt the answering push of Arthur’s tongue.

He couldn’t believe it. His beautiful, exasperating prince was here in his arms, Merlin’s at last.

Lights swirled behind Merlin’s eyes as Arthur shoved against him with increasing urgency. His magic rose with his arousal. A hot, glorious trickle began in his chest, and it reached for Arthur to share the oncoming pleasure with him.

Merlin realized what it was seconds before it would have been too late.

Arthur looked confused and hurt when Merlin shoved him away as hard as he could. "Soul bond," Merlin managed to gasp, holding Arthur at arm’s length when he tried to pull Merlin back into his arms. "The magic... we’re too compatible."

"Shit," Arthur breathed and stumbled backward, looking wrecked and devastated.

When they got themselves under control, they found they could be around each other without risking permanent consequences, but sex would never be possible. Merlin could still feel the nascent soul bond pricking his chest, a raw itching pinprick over his heart. Giving into an orgasm with Arthur would seal it, and them, for life.

"I’m not ready for a bond yet," Arthur whispered miserably much later, clutching Merlin's hand across the table. Even fully clothed, this much intimacy felt dangerous. "Even though I know it has to happen someday."

"With someone." Merlin swallowed past the lump of helpless, hopeless, sixteen-year-old love in his throat. "But not me."

Arthur swallowed as well, looking stricken. "I'm to be the king. And you're going to be a brilliant Detective Inspector Warlock."

Merlin nodded stiffly. It had been his dream his whole life to follow his father, who had been the Assistant Commissioner of the Directorate of Magical Investigation before he'd been murdered. He couldn't do that if he were bound to be the royal consort before he even sat his A levels. "You'll find someone. Everyone loves you."

"Of course they do." Arthur stared over Merlin's shoulder, jaw working. "Dunno that I'll find anyone like you, though."

"Of course you will." The mere thought of Arthur sealing his soul to someone else nauseated Merlin; he grasped for anything to banish it. "But if you don't--I mean, at least we know I would work, yeah? Magically speaking."

Arthur's gaze zeroed back onto Merlin's face. "Yes," he said slowly. "If I don't. And if you don't."

Maybe he would. Maybe Merlin would find someone else with laughing blue eyes and a smile that made Merlin forget his name. "If we don't, then you'll always have me."

"Is that a promise, then?" Arthur's hand gripped his as though to seal an oath. "If there's no one else in the picture when we're thirty, we'll come back and finish this."

"It's not like I'd let you die," Merlin mumbled and retrieved his hand. Arthur laughed and leaned over the table to kiss the corner of Merlin’s mouth. Magic fluttered in his chest, delighted and then disappointed to be teased.

Of course, his moment of jealousy hadn't only been a symptom of their near miss. He realized it in words much later: Merlin had fallen very inconveniently in love with Arthur Pendragon, the Prince of Wales.

But school ended and they went to opposite sides of Oxbridge. Arthur had his military service after that, and then his investiture as Prince of Wales, which bound him life and soul to the Albion Pact. Merlin had a great deal of training and then a long slog up the ladder to become the next DIW Emrys.

They were still best friends, but they saw each other less as the years went by, and never spoke of their boyhood dalliance or the private pact they'd made between them. All better forgotten.

Except that Merlin had never forgotten, nor had he fallen out of love. The pinprick over his heart stayed as raw and open as on the day he last kissed Arthur. He had assumed himself alone.

But now he knew that Arthur remembered, and Arthur was so desperate to live and reign that he was being forced to call in one ancient promise to fulfill another. Good old Merlin, always saving the day.

He grimaced and glared at the answer machine. He only realized after a minute had passed that his hand remained pressed firmly over his heart.

***

"You had three orders at Nando's," Merlin protested. "Plus the hummus. How can you possibly still be hungry?"

"That was four hours ago. How can you possibly not be hungry?"

Merlin's stomach rumbled in betrayal, but he'd only had a double order of chicken and three pieces of garlic bread, so he felt justified. "I'm not saying I wouldn't take a burrito if you actually managed to find one."

"That's my lad," Gwaine crowed. "I was starting to worry about you. What's gotten in your knickers lately? You've been a bit of a git."

"Yeah. Sorry." Merlin tilted back against the headrest to avoid looking at his partner. "Lot on my mind. With the case and all."

The case provided only flimsy cover: it was not actually stressful so much as tedious. The artifacts they pursued were valued more for their history than their power, and they had a very good, if circumstantial, idea of who had stolen them. All they needed was the tiniest cause for a search and it would all be over.

Gwaine, as a good partner, knew when to let Merlin's lies lie. "Right. Well, no worries." He gave Merlin's arm an affectionate nudge. "Some guacamole will set you to rights."

"Don't disappoint me again. I could go mental at any moment."

"I understand that risk, which is why this time I looked up the hours." Gwaine tapped the side of his nose. "I shall return victorious if you let me out, I promise."

Merlin double-checked the glamour that concealed their car. "Go on, you're good."

A blast of cold air disrupted the warmth of the car as Gwaine made a break for it. Merlin waited until the door slammed shut before he abandoned the mag-nocs for his mobile. He stared down at the voicemail icon: he couldn't answer it, he couldn't delete it.

He jumped when the door opened again. "That was quick. What did you--?"

"Ah, so you do know where your phone is. I was starting to fear either you or it had met with some tragic end."

Merlin's body twisted in his seat in shock, his brain overwhelmed by the unexpected sight, sound, and scent of the Prince of Wales, who had settled himself in Gwaine's place behind the steering wheel. "What the fuck?" was the only thing Merlin could find to say.

Arthur smiled a slight, cautious smile. "Hello, Merlin."

It had been nearly a year since he had seen Arthur in person, Merlin realized. Arthur had spent a great deal of time touring abroad in celebration of his significant birthday.

"You look like hell," he blurted.

"Thank you, Merlin. You actually look well. Better than I was expecting, considering it was actual hell trying to get a hold of you."

"Sorry." Merlin studied Arthur's drawn face, pale even in the washed-out moonlight. He had looked fine on television a few days ago; they must have had him in make-up. But even waxy and pinched, Arthur was beautiful enough to hurt Merlin’s heart. "I knew times must be desperate if you were calling me, but--it really is bad, isn't it?"

Arthur turned his head to look away out the window. "I never wanted to have to ask this of you. Some part of me wished you'd go and get married so that I couldn't. I waited as long as I could, but I can't wait any longer."

The muddled pride and pain in Arthur's voice made Merlin's stomach hurt with shame for trying to avoid this conversation even for a day. He put his hand on his friend's knee and squeezed. "I'd do anything for you. You know that."

Arthur smiled, still without looking at him. "I know. That's exactly why I tried--I really tried to find someone else I could stomach the thought of binding my soul to."

"I guess I should be flattered that you can stomach the thought of me." Merlin had meant to soften his tone, but hearing the love of his fucking life expound on exactly how much of a last resort Merlin was cut too sharp to contain.

"Merlin--"

"Sorry. But you have to admit, it's not the most romantic proposal the world's ever seen."

Arthur let the side of his head thunk against the glass. "Yeah. You deserve better than any of this."

"And you deserve better than an arranged marriage." Merlin finally turned his head to give Arthur a rueful smile. "Even to me."

Arthur turned to meet his smile. "It’s too late for me. And I know I shouldn’t have waited so long, but you deserved to live the life you chose."

A life he was about to lose, but that seemed less important now. Maybe he could still find a way to work in law enforcement again someday, but first he would be crowned as Arthur’s consort, bear Arthur’s children, never to be far from Arthur’s side again. It was a small price, a very small price, for Arthur’s life. If he’d had Arthur’s love as well, it wouldn’t have been a sacrifice at all. "I won’t let you die."

"I won’t die. You do still have a choice, you know. Father and Morgause... well, they have their own plans, if it comes to that."

Merlin had no doubt about that. He’d met King Uther. "I’m just happy to have beaten out even one other candidate for the job."

Arthur started to smile a bit more. "It’s not just desperation, you know. I think we’d still be good together. Don’t you?"

"Yes," Merlin answered because he couldn’t lie about that. "We always have been."

Arthur’s smile grew into the grin that made Merlin’s stomach flutter—and then narrowed into the smirk that made Merlin want to punch him. "So it’s romance you want, is it?"

"What?" Then Merlin remembered his wry complaint. "No, that’s not the—"

"Now, now, Merlin." Arthur held up a silencing hand. "Romance I can do. I am quite the romantic deep down, you know."

"It must be very deep down," Merlin retorted before realizing that Arthur would take that as a challenge.

Arthur was still grinning as he leaned over to kiss Merlin’s cheek. His lips were plush and a little rough; their touch made Merlin flinch with the need to kiss Arthur properly, an urge he had managed to repress for a long time.

"We’ll talk again soon. See if this might work." Arthur said, not noticing that Merlin’s body had gone flustered from his proximity. "Answer the phone this time, would you?"

Merlin hadn’t moved a muscle between the time the door closed behind Arthur and when it opened again. Gwaine got in with two fragrant paper bags. "Who was that I saw getting out of the car?"

"Huh?" Merlin stared down at the bag Gwaine set on his lap. Right on top of the half-chub he hadn’t been able to get rid of, on account of not being able to stop thinking about Arthur’s lips touching his skin.

"I was turning the corner down the street and I saw someone. It looked like the bloody Prince of Wales."

"Don’t be ridiculous. You’re seeing things." Merlin got the magon counter out of the glove compartment and waved it at the house in what he hoped was a distracting, if futile gesture. They hadn't managed to get it to detect even a tiny speck of magic yet.

To his surprise, the little device gave off one soft but distinctive whine before falling silent again. They both stared at it.

"Was that--?" Gwaine started, pointing to it.

"Tachyon plasma," Merlin confirmed from the readout. "Just a trace."

He waved the magon counter again. It stayed silent.

"Doesn’t matter. That’s all we need." Gwaine grinned and grabbed for the door handle again, food and gossip forgotten in the face of action.

Merlin shrugged and opened his own door. "Let’s get to work."

***

"High profile." Gwaine tapped the newspaper spread open over Merlin’s knees. "Page two, above the fold. Lance and Percy can suck my dick."

Merlin smirked as Gwaine parked and they got out of the car. "I thought Percy already was."

It wasn’t often he (or anyone) could make Gwaine blush, but somehow it made everything feel normal again.

He grinned to see Lance and Percy loitering near the door to the Directorate, ostensibly fixing their tea by the hot water urn. He wondered how long Lance had been stirring the sugar into his cup.

"Well, look who bothered to grace the Yard by actually showing up." Percy, who had been stuck at his desk since his DIW partner Freya had gone on maternity leave, hid half of his smirk behind the delicate teacup that always looked ridiculous in his beefy hand.

Gwaine rose to the bait as he always did. "We were rather busy recovering over three million pounds of Lord Gedref’s ancestral crystals and assorted magical gizmos. Did I see you at the scene? Oh, no, I didn’t."

"Ah, I suppose you were expecting to be greeted by a shower of wine and roses." Lancelot took a sip of his tea before his eyes widened and he turned an innocent, but odd look on Merlin. "No, I’m sorry, that would be you, wouldn’t it, Merlin?"

Merlin stared at him blankly. He was usually only a spectator in the alpha male posturing that went on between the non-magical half of the Directorate; the magic users had their own ball-busting rituals. But suddenly both Lance and Percy looked as though they were going to burst into hysterics of some sort at any moment.

"All right," Gwaine said slowly, looking as confused as Merlin felt, which was discomfiting. "We’ll just be at our desks, when you lot have sobered up."

Merlin followed him into the main room of the Directorate, which seemed oddly empty for the hour. No, not empty – everyone was crowded down at the far end of the room, near where Merlin and Gwaine’s desks sat.

No, he realized as they drew closer. They were all crowded around Merlin’s actual desk, and even from halfway across the room, it was easy to see why.

Wine and roses indeed. The wine, at least, was confined to a single bottle in front of Merlin's keyboard. He couldn't read the label from this distance, but he could tell from the shape that it was more likely to have come from someone's ancestral wine cellar than Tesco.

The real problem were the roses, numbering at least in the hundreds, covering Merlin's desk, his computer, his filing cabinet, his chair. Most of them were a vivid scarlet, but many of them were gold. They were a rich, gilded gold that meant Arthur had got someone to enchant them.

Yes, Arthur. The Pendragon colors could not have said 'Arthur' more if the flowers had been arranged to spell out his name. Which Arthur probably would have done as well if he'd thought of it.

Gwaine stopped a step in front of him, turned to face him, and gave him a very pointed look.

"I can explain." Merlin ran a hand through his hair. "Er, or maybe not."

"Oh look, here’s our Queen to be now," called Gilli, who had also been tested by the priests of the Old Religion and bragged about his high scores. Merlin hadn’t called him out on the fact that he couldn’t possibly have known his score, or if there even were scores. Now he regretted being nice.

Not that Gilli was the only one taking the piss as Merlin approached his desk, torn between mortification and a pleasure that was sneaking up on him with each quickening thump of his heart. The roses were ostentatious and deeply embarrassing – and beautiful.

A card stood propped against the wine bottle, rich paper with Arthur’s personal crest emblazoned in red and gold to match the roses. The only thing it lacked was an envelope. Merlin had no doubt that everyone in his department had already read it.

They all faded out of his awareness as he picked up the card and opened it. Instantly he recognized Arthur’s own handwriting.

Love is begun by time
And time qualifies the spark and fire of it

Merlin had to close his eyes to shut out all the hubbub and steal a small moment of privacy to contemplate love. He had Arthur had always loved each other, of course. It may not have been the grand romance that either of their parents had enjoyed, but it was enough for a partnership. It was enough for a life together.

And apparently, Arthur didn't mind making the grand romantic gestures, however overblown they might seem in context.

When he opened his eyes, he found Lance at his shoulder, peering at the card and typing it word for word into his phone. "Sorry, but Gwen will kill me if I don't give her all the details. You know what a hopeless romantic she is."

Much less so than her husband, actually, but it gave Merlin a fuzzy feeling nonetheless. At least until he remembered that Lance's wife worked for the Guardian.

"Oh, you stuff it, you jealous hags," Gwaine was snarling at Gilli and his cronies. "Our Merlin's going to make a brilliant queen."

"I'm not going to be a bloody queen," Merlin snapped at the room at large.

Gwaine turned to look at him with surprise. "What, you're turning him down? I wouldn't have called that."

"I didn't say that." Merlin shut the card and tucked it under his arm for protection. The romance was whooshing out of the moment like a deflating balloon. "I--whoever marries Arthur will be his consort, not necessarily a queen."

Gwaine exchanged an amused look with Lance. "Sure. But when--all right, all right, if--if you marry him, you'll have to be in lady form, right?"

Merlin gritted his teeth, but Gwaine had a point. They all knew it, since the media had been discussing Arthur's predilections and the ramifications of them for years. The public wedding would not happen until some time after the sealing of the Pact, by which time Merlin would almost certainly be pregnant.

And even if that weren't enough to keep him in female form, tradition and law dictated it for the wedding itself. The law would allow completely equal same-sex marriages sooner rather than later, but not soon enough. To marry Arthur, he would have to be in female form at the time.

"Yes," he finally admitted.

Lance squeezed his shoulder. "I think you'll be a beautiful bride," he said with an absolute sincerity that finished off what was left of Merlin's masculinity.

"Bloody fuck, Lance, you're not helping." Merlin winced as Percy and Griff started hooting about the amount of lace it would take to hide Merlin's bony arse. Thank God none of them had ever actually seen him gender shift.

Gwaine gripped his other shoulder and drew him away from the mob. "Look, it's all in good fun, but if he's trying to bully you into something you don't want, just say the word. I'll take care of your prince problem for you."

Merlin laughed and relaxed a little at the reminder that whatever else in his life might change, at least one thing never would. "Oh, will you?"

"You've dated a lot of wankers, my friend." Gwaine gave him a look that managed to be both pitying and respectful at once. "I've had some fantastic places in mind to dump the bodies for years now. Just in case, you understand."

Though his goal was to keep his prince alive, he'd spent enough time with Arthur to find Gwaine's offer reassuring. "Well, now that I know that--"

"Pardon me, but is anyone in Scotland Yard interested in solving any actual crimes today?"

On autopilot, along with the rest of the department, they turned at the bark of their Assistant Commissioner. Gaius stood in the doorway of his office, managing to glare at every one of them personally as only he could.

"All the lot of you, back to work. Emrys, Greene, get that mess cleaned up."

"Yes, sir," they answered in unison. Merlin turned back to his mountain of roses, dismayed at the thought of disposing of them, embarrassing as they were. At least it sounded like Gwaine would know a discreet dump site.

"Oh, and one more thing, DI Emrys."

He turned back to look at Gaius. "Sir?"

"Please inform His Royal Highness that if he wishes to woo you, he may do it on his own time, not the City of London's."

"Yes, sir," Merlin replied and rather looked forward to passing along the message.

***

Merlin eyed the front of his building warily as Gwaine pulled up in front of the block of flats. He didn't see any reporters or curiosity seekers. Perhaps Lance's wife had kept the news to herself after all.

When he voiced the thought, Gwaine gave him a condescending look, made some incomprehensible remark about social media, and told him to make a run for it. He left Gwaine pointedly checking his tweety blogs while Merlin trudged at a deliberate pace up the steps, clutching the handful of roses he had managed to keep after his coworkers had nicked some for souvenirs and he and Gwaine had disposed of the remainder.

The scent of them had distracted him all day. Gwaine had done most of their paperwork, making it more of a disaster than usual; Merlin hadn't even bothered to look it over. With every thought of Arthur, and there were many, his normal life seemed further and further away.

He got to the top of the stairs, turned toward his flat, and stopped cold. A rather large man stood at something resembling military attention in the corridor, and he had chosen to take his stance directly in the way of Merlin's front door.

The man wore a suit and looked more like one of Merlin's brawny colleagues than a reporter, which meant Merlin could probably take him. "Mr. Emrys?" the man asked as Merlin strolled up.

"Nope," Merlin answered, pausing, but prepared to keep walking if he saw any glint of a camera.

"Mr. Emrys, my name is John Pellinor, and I work for His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales." The man reached into his jacket and pulled out a slim box tied with a red and gold ribbon. "His Royal Highness asked me to deliver this to you personally."

Merlin gave up his charade and took the box. Instantly, he felt the tingle of magic in his fingers, so strong that it went right up his arm. The magic felt rather like Arthur somehow, which was peculiar since Arthur had no hint of magical ability to speak of.

"Thanks," he said and pulled out his keys, eager to get inside and see what Arthur had sent him.

Pellinor moved a step to the left, enough to let Merlin get to the door handle. He made no other move to depart. When Merlin looked at him pointedly, he looked back with an intense lack of expression.

"Er, sorry," Merlin said after a moment. "Am I supposed to tip you or something?"

"No, sir," Pellinor said, though he still didn't move. "I'm not a delivery boy. I'm a bodyguard."

Merlin felt his eyebrows pop upwards. Now this was something he was going to have to put a stop on immediately. "I'm a grade 18 DIW with the Met, you know. I could well be the last person in London who needs a bodyguard."

"Not for you. For that." Pellinor nodded at the box in Merlin's hand. "I can't leave until I see you securely inside your abode with it."

"Right. Well, cheers, then." He kept eyeing Pellinor, trying to match the man's expressionless stare as he watched Merlin unlock his door, push it open, and sidle around it to get inside.

As soon as the door closed behind him, Merlin sighed. "Can't do anything like a normal person, can you?" he muttered at an invisible Arthur. He threw the bolts and waited until he heard Pellinor's footsteps on the stairs before taking his flowers and gift to the sofa.

Merlin had handled quite a few powerful and important magical artifacts in his career; none had given him this rush of anticipation. He had asked Arthur, however inadvertently, for romance, but what he’d actually wanted was significance. Whatever Arthur had sent, Merlin could feel the magical weight of it through the box.

He untied the ribbon and opened the box. A folded slip of paper rested on the top. Merlin plucked it out and started to open it until his finger brushed something metal beneath. The magical sense of Arthur flooded him, although it wasn’t precisely Arthur after all, now that he could feel it more directly. It was Arthur without the sharp edges, the sweetness of his smile without the grim steel of his frown.

Merlin picked up the medallion with reverence. He had learned the symbol on it in grade school Magical Education classes, but he would have known to whom this had belonged even without it.

Ygraine du Bois had been a powerful young sorceress, destined for the Church until Uther had fallen in love with her and bonded her to be his mate. Unlike most royal consorts, it had taken her quite some time to conceive after the bonding. That had caused some rumblings, but her death in childbirth had provoked an outright constitutional crisis. Nothing could have been a more powerful magical condemnation of Uther's sacred kingship.

Lady Nimueh, the High Priestess at the time, launched an investigation fueled by her icy fury. When she uncovered Uther's affair--and illegitimate daughter--she took her fury to Parliament and the public. Debate had raged for months over whether the Pact had been broken. Only the survival and radiant health of the tiny baby prince had saved Uther's crown.

Merlin cradled the medallion against his chest to better feel the heat of the magic. He opened the note with his other hand.

Merlin,

This was my mother's sigil. She wore it as a brooch on her Coronation Day. I had it reset for you.

I understand that it has powerful magic; I can feel it sometimes, the way I can feel you.

If you do me the honor of becoming my consort, you'll have your own sigil in time, of course. But I think my mother would still want you to have this, a token to welcome you to the family.

All my love,
Arthur
P.S. Did you like your flowers? Your precious blushing face is all over Twitter.

"Wankers," Merlin muttered, remembering all of his coworkers snapping pictures. He was just happy none of them had posted his home address onto a website somewhere. Yet.

His attention skittered back up to Arthur's signature. All his love. Arthur held nothing back from anything he did. If he chose to love Merlin, Merlin would never feel any lack as long as he didn't question it.

They always had loved each other. Maybe Merlin could earn the rest of what he wanted, in time.

He slipped the sigil over his head and let it fall under his shirt so he could feel it against his skin. Then he reached for the phone and dialed Arthur's number.

"Hi." Arthur's voice was soft when he answered. He must be alone, and expecting Merlin.

"Hi." He fell quiet, and so did Arthur. His hand spread over his chest, covering both the sigil and the familiar twinge of the bond that, after long dormancy, wanted completion. "Do you feel it?" he asked after a while. "I've always wondered."

Arthur laughed. "I may not be a warlock, but I'm not an idiot. Fifteen years with an unfinished soul bond, always aching for you? Of course I feel it."

Merlin felt a moment of elation, but guilt crushed it quickly. Perhaps Arthur never had a chance to find anyone else, even from the beginning. Of course, neither had Merlin. "I'm sorry."

"For what?" Arthur's voice lightened with fondness. "For making me send you flowers like you're some bloody girl?"

"I liked my flowers." His roses streaked the coffee table with color. He brushed his fingers over the edges of the vibrant petals. "Is it such a bad thing to want to feel like you actually want me?"

"Like I want you?" This time Arthur's laugh rasped in his ear. "Bloody hell, you absolute idiot. Of course I want you. Don't you know what I think about every damn night?"

Merlin inhaled slowly, taking in the implication. "I think I'd like it a lot if you told me."

"You want to hear what a pathetic sod I am. About how I think about your body and what it felt like fifteen years ago? And more importantly, what it would feel like now?"

Merlin struggled to calm his voice as blood began to seep into his cock, stirring him. "I don't even believe you," he challenged.

"No? Good." Arthur's voice dropped. "Then I don't have to tell you about the way I play with my knot. Have you ever taken a nobleman to bed? Have you ever had a knot in you, Merlin?"

Merlin pressed his lips together in a grimace. He wouldn't give Arthur the satisfaction of hearing him groan. "No."

"Really? Not even that partner of yours? Yes, I know whose son he really is."

"No. Never him." Merlin shifted to slouch down on the couch, spreading his thighs to give himself more space.

"Good," Arthur said again. "I won't have you thinking of his knot when I'm putting mine in you."

Merlin's hips lifted a little from the couch; he could feel the pressure of the zip confining his cock now. "You think about that a lot? Putting your knot in me?"

"I circle my knot with my fingers and squeeze it tight to pretend it's the rim of your arse gripping me. That's the only way I can come. I think about fucking you, tying you, finally bonding you, and I come like a rocket."

Fuck. Merlin started to rub his hand over his bulging dick, but had barely lifted it before he dug his fingers back into the upholstery. One touch and he'd be done. "You better not go off like a rocket when you're fucking me." He wasn't trying to sound unaffected anymore, just trying not to come. "I'd expect a bit more from the Sacred King."

"My knot always ebbs so fast after, like it realizes I was lying to it. But it'll be different when I'm in you. I could feel it the minute I was next to you last night. I'll tie you until you forget how to move."

Merlin arched again as a wave of softer, warmer pleasure surged between his legs. For a moment he thought he had come, but his arousal didn't abate. He let out a strangled whimper before he could choke it off.

Arthur hummed, sounding pleased. "If your stupid notion about me not wanting you was your only hesitation, I hope I've disabused you of it. I want you to be mine, Merlin."

At some point, Merlin's eyes had squeezed shut. He kept them closed to enjoy the darkness with nothing but Arthur's voice in his ear and the slow throb between his legs. His own voice sounded strange in his ears when he answered. "I want you as much as I wanted you when we were boys. Nothing's changed."

Arthur's sigh of relief gusted like static over the phone line. "There's a number on the back of that note. When you're ready, call it. Someone will bring you to the Palace and Lady Morgause will meet with you."

"I have to go through another interview?" Merlin tipped his head back against the sofa and smiled.

"Just a formality, so she can confirm that our bonding will fulfill the Pact. I think we both know that won't be a problem." Arthur paused. "Good night, Merlin."

He didn't want to hang up, except that hanging up meant he could get his hand down his pants and make himself come. "Good night, Arthur," he said.

As he clicked off the phone, he realized that the next time he said those words, he would probably be in Arthur's bed. The thought made his arousal surge again, and he felt a gush of wetness between his legs.

It wasn't the usual wetness of precome from the tip of his cock. Slowly he lifted his head and looked down at himself, at the gentle curves at breast and hip that hadn't been there before. His magic had responded to Arthur's courting by shifting his body into female form, ready for mating.

He pushed himself to his feet on wobbly legs, overbalanced and almost fell back onto sofa before he adjusted to the shifted center of gravity. His whole body felt flushed with arousal. Although, like every other young witch or warlock with the ability, he'd gotten himself off in gender-switched form for the novelty of it, being female had never felt like this before.

The fabric of his shirt scraped against his nipples, which were more sensitive than he'd ever felt. He fumbled the buttons open and stripped it off, lurching toward his bedroom. His trousers, now tighter in the hips than the crotch, and his pants fell in a heap in the doorway, where he left them.

Naked except for the sigil, he closed his bedroom door and stepped in front of the mirror hung on the back of it. His mother had installed it when he moved in, with bright hopes that it might inspire him to pay attention to what he was wearing when he left the flat every morning.

It hadn't, but he was paying attention now to every detail of the feminine body reflected back at him. He watched himself lift his hands to cup his small but full breasts, for the first time enjoying the weight of them. One felt better than the other when he squeezed it; he left his hand there and moved the other down across the flat plane of his belly that would soon swell with Arthur's child.

Another throb between his legs answered that thought. He dug his fingers into the wet softness there. He had enough time to think that he should probably groom himself better for Arthur before his fingers found the spot he remembered from his teenage explorations. A few hard, quick rubs brought him into a shuddering climax that washed from his toes up to his cheeks.

The next time he blinked, he was himself again, sprawled on the floor, cock replete against his thigh.

***

By the next morning, the press had found him. He had to cast a glamour to make himself look like his blonde, middle-aged neighbor to get out of the building. Even so, they clamored around him, asking him questions about his newly famous neighbor, until he elbowed his way to the street where Gwaine idled in wait.

"Hello, Evelyn," Gwaine said as Merlin threw himself into the passenger seat and slammed the door shut. "I knew you'd succumb to my advances eventually."

"Stuff it." Merlin looked over his shoulder at the mob of cameras and people. He didn't dare let the glamour fall until they turned out of sight, despite Gwaine's increasingly rude remarks.

A new case file awaited them at the Yard once they got through a second media cordon outside, a magical fraud investigation that would have been in Merlin's area of specialty if he'd been able to concentrate. His eyes wandered off the file over and over, glancing around the place he'd called home for most of his adult life. Everything looked different, as though he didn't know it and didn't belong to it. He could feel himself detaching from his old life, already stepping into the life he needed to build with Arthur.

He'd hoped to solve one last case before he went; by noon time, he knew it wasn't going to happen. Someday soon, he would make sure he got back here, but today, he needed to be elsewhere.

Gwaine cast him a sad look from across his desk when Merlin sighed and closed the file. "You're going, aren't you?"

"I think it's time," Merlin admitted. Arthur's note was in his pocket, the mysterious phone number burning a hole into him.

Gwaine waited while Merlin pulled it out and dialed the phone. A young female voice answered with a brusque, "Yes?"

"Er, this is Merlin Emrys. I was told--"

"It's about time. Are you at your home address?"

"No, I'm at work at--"

"A car will come for you in a half hour." A click signaled her disinterest in taking any questions.

He hung up in time to see Gwaine sneak a swipe under his eyes. "Don't you dare. I won't have you actually showing normal human emotions at this late date."

"Wouldn't think of it," Gwaine muttered, but he stood up and hauled Merlin into his arms. "Fuck, I'm going to miss you. Never had another partner, never wanted one."

"I'll be back," Merlin promised, hugging Gwaine hard. "They can't keep me chained in a castle forever."

"I'll get to work on your escape plan," Gwaine answered and looked much more cheerful.

Merlin didn't bother casting the glamour again as he walked out the front door to the waiting car. He smiled and waved a little as the flashbulbs went off. He'd never cared much about reporters, other than helping Arthur dodge them and clipping the occasional article about one of his cases. But now he supposed he'd better get them on his side if he could.

He didn't realize until he was in the back of the sleek town car that Ygraine's sigil had somehow ended up on the outside of his shirt, in full view of all the reporters and cameras. Merlin winced, then tried to shrug it off. Ygraine, at least, had always known how to work the cameras.

Although Merlin had visited Arthur at several of the royal residences over the years, he had never set foot in Buckingham Palace. Even Uther himself preferred the family seat at Camelot Castle in Cornwall. As Merlin followed his escort through the endless ornate corridors, he could understand why. Camelot might be a little drafty, but at least it felt like somewhere you could live.

It hit Merlin all over again. Both places were somewhere Merlin was going to live--with Arthur. At least if the High Priestess didn't throw him out on his ear.

They finally arrived at a large drawing room, occupied only by a small antique table, two chairs well older than Merlin, and what he quickly realized was the owner of the brusque voice he'd heard over the phone.

"My name is Isolde Markham, liaison between the Palace and the Church of the Old Religion." Her expression wavered when she saw the sigil around Merlin's neck, and then softened. "And I suppose you must be Mr. Emrys."

"That's DI Emrys, thanks," Merlin returned, desperate to hold his ground and dignity as long as he could before the royal machine swept it out from under him. He remembered Arthur's investiture ceremony.

"Of course. No disrespect intended." She studied his face for a moment. When she stepped forward to touch the sigil, he could feel the magical examination. It was the same one he used on suspects at work.

"You can check my teeth if you like," he offered with the eyebrow twist he'd learned from his boss.

That surprised a smile out her. "Unnecessary, but thank you. We've already pulled your medical and dental records from the NHS."

"Oh. Well, why not? Privacy laws, really just a suggestion, aren't they?"

The smile threatened to revive at the corner of her mouth. He suspected she wasn't taking him seriously. "Please have a seat. Her Grace will be with you in a moment."

She left him alone in one of the chairs, which turned out to be more comfortable than he'd expected. It grew less and less comfortable as the moment in which Morgause was supposed to arrive grew longer and longer. His nerves didn't need that much breathing room.

Just as he began to wonder if he should go find someone and remind them that he was there, the doors swung open again. Morgause strode in as though she were royalty herself, Isolde at one shoulder and a man bearing an enormous accordion folder at the other.

Merlin found himself scrambling to his feet, irreverence dissipating. Even dressed in sedate business attire rather than the ceremonial robes Merlin had half expected, the High Priestess inspired respect. Also, he needed her on his side even more than the media.

"Your Grace," he said before it occurred to him that he probably wasn't supposed to speak before he was spoken to. So much for reverence. Well, fuck it. He was going to be the bloody queen, wasn't he?

Morgause did not seem fussed, giving him a small smile as she motioned for him to sit. "Mr. Emrys," she said and he didn't correct her. Like Isolde, her gaze lingered on the sigil before she took the other chair. "A pleasure to meet you at last."

"Likewise, Your Grace," he said, not yet convinced it was true, but willing to be optimistic.

She gestured to the man at her shoulder. He handed her the enormous accordion file before he and Isolde faded back discreetly to the back wall.

Morgause removed a much smaller manila folder to her lap and eased the rest of the file onto the tiny end table between them. The table wobbled; Merlin wondered if Morgause would have to pay for it if it couldn't bear the weight of all her paperwork.

"You may call me Dr. Gorlois, or even Morgause, I suppose." She opened the folder and took her time flipping through the contents. "I must admit, I've missed having a royal consort installed during my tenure. I am looking forward to working with you."

"Likewise," Merlin said again because it seemed safe enough.

It didn't work as well the second time. She gave him a sharp look without quite raising her head. "Are you? Then I wonder that it took you so very long to come here."

"Sorry?" Merlin felt his mouth open, but he wasn't sure what should be coming out of it. "I mean, it was a bit late last night when Arthur gave me the number."

"You needn't get me started on our stubborn Prince. I would wring his neck myself if the magical consequences weren't so horrific."

He started to grin at that, but her icy look shut him down.

"I won't ask why you've waited until he was nearly thirty-one before coming to him. I respect privacy of your personal relationship. But it's been over a week since he finally reached out to you. Is there something about the urgency of this matter that needs clarification for you?"

Merlin stared at her in confusion. "I was on a case. He left me a voicemail."

A stifled noise from the back of the room told him that Morgause's people were not as out of earshot as they looked. Morgause herself leaned back in her chair, pinning him with hard eyes. "I see. Apparently neither you nor the Prince appreciate exactly how close the Pact is to breaking."

The fact that Arthur had called him at all meant it had to be pretty damn close, but the chill of her words stopped any jest before it could start. The Pact breaking sounded ominous enough, but the reality of it was sinking in past his layers of denial. A broken Pact meant Arthur's death.

He drew himself up and met her eyes without wavering. "I'm here now."

Morgause held his gaze another long moment before slowly nodding. "So you are. And while you wouldn't have been my first choice, you are Arthur's choice. At this point, I'd agree to a hedgewitch if it meant Arthur would accept the bond."

Merlin wavered between feeling insulted and relieved. "Who was your first choice?"

"Morgana Pendragon, ideally." She looked down at the file and flipped to another page.

"Arthur's sister?" He knew he was pulling a face. He couldn't help it. Good thing she was still looking down.

"Half-sister. It was quite the done thing in the ancient days, I assure you." She looked up and smiled at his discomfort.

"Yes, because they didn't know about genetics. Or nausea."

Morgause had a laugh as sharp as the rest of her. "Yes, well, magic has its own genetic code. I would have liked to see the House of Pendragon reunited to heal the rift Uther caused when he split his own bloodline. But Arthur would consider no one but you. Eventually, I had to reprioritize."

Merlin didn't answer. If the only alternative was marrying his sister, he could understand why Arthur had called in their schoolboy promises. Still a keen note of disappointment played through him. After last night, he realized, he had begun harboring some hope that Arthur actually was in love with him.

"No matter. All will happen as it was intended. Morgana will almost certainly follow me as High Priestess." Morgause flipped to another page and looked at it for almost a full minute. "And as it turns out, I’m not at all disappointed in you."

"You’re not?" That was hard to believe, though it would be nice if one of them wasn’t disappointed with the way things were turning out.

"You are arguably the most powerful and talented warlock of your generation. Had you been born a girl, you would have been trained for the priesthood without question." She finally turned the page. "I see you’ve been hiding yourself at the Directorate of Magical Investigation. The public will like that."

"And I intend to go back there." Merlin jumped in, feeling confident about at least one thing in this conversation. At least until he kept talking. "I mean, I know that—after I have—er, when the children...."

She looked up and they stared at each other for a long, mortifying instant. "That’s fine," she said at last and resumed flipping pages.

"No, I mean it, I want—what?"

"Mr. Emrys, I require you to soul bond with the Prince of Wales, after which you will need to produce an heir and a spare, as the saying goes. You will also have a number of ceremonial and religious duties. What you do with the rest of your time is not my concern."

"Oh. Good."

"Of course, His Majesty may well have a different opinion on the matter."

As if she had summoned him, the doors opened again and King Uther strode into the room, trailed by his own staff. The King was dressed in his version of casual wear, which meant he had traded his normal suit jacket for a cashmere jumper over his shirt and tie. It did not make him look appreciably more casual.

Morgause rose from her chair and Merlin hastened to follow suit as Uther came right up to him and extended his hand. "Mr. Emrys. How do you do?"

Merlin grabbed the King’s hand in as firm a grip as he could. "Fine, thanks, Your Majesty. Er, we’ve met before."

Uther blinked at him before carefully retrieving his hand. "How could I ever forget? Please, be seated."

Merlin sat, belatedly remembering that the royal "how do you do?" was not a question that required an answer. Uther gestured for one of his people to bring another chair, and Merlin realized that either he or Morgause was in the King’s customary chair. He had a sinking feeling that it must be him.

It was a testament to the importance of the meeting that Uther merely waited for a new chair to be brought. "In fact, I’ve kept rather a close eye on you over the years, Mr. Emrys."

"Have you?" Though he’d expect Uther to be aware of the friends his son kept, Merlin wouldn’t have expected more than a cursory regard for the poorest and commonest amongst them.

"Of course. My son has been in love with you since he was a teenager. I could hardly afford to ignore you and hope you went away on your own, though it’s certainly seemed as though you intended to do exactly that." The chair arrived, and Uther settled into it, facing both Merlin and Morgause as though he meant to interrogate them both at once. "I understand you’ve had a somewhat distinguished career in the Directorate."

"Er. I—" Merlin’s brain struggled to frame an appropriate response, but his brain had stuck two sentences earlier. Arthur was in love with him?

"As I’m sure you know, your Assistant Commissioner served with me many years ago, not long before my succession."

"Yes. He—" He had no idea Arthur’s father had ever known anything about their youthful feelings for one another. If Arthur had felt so strongly for so long that he had told his father—

Uther’s brow creased, but he persevered with his attempt at a jolly façade. "The only man from whom I’ve ever taken orders, I like to say. Other than my own father, of course."

"Right, I’m sorry, but did you say that Arthur was in love with me?" Merlin leaned forward, gripping the arms of his chair until they threatened to snap.

Uther let his forced smile flatten as he leaned forward as well. When his fingertips brushed the sigil hanging from Merlin’s neck, Merlin felt the magic in it respond to the King's touch with a burst of dizzy joy. "You stupid boy. He’s endangered his life in devotion to you. And you wear this great token like one of your cheap accessories."

Merlin’s own dizzy joy stretched his mouth in a grin he couldn’t contain. Dimly he recognized that he probably looked like a mental patient, but he didn’t think anyone could blame him. Merlin had already agreed to the bonding; Uther had no reason to lie to him, which meant Arthur—

Arthur. Arthur was just as much of an idiot as Merlin.

When the doors opened again a moment later, he was seconds away from burbling laughter and grateful for the distraction. At least until he saw the alarm on Uther’s face when he looked up to see who had dared to interrupt them.

"What is it?" the King demanded in a tone that could slice glass. "What happened?"

Merlin turned to see a man leaning in the doorway, out of breath. "The Prince has collapsed. No one can get near him without causing him pain. It’s started."

"You must go to him." Morgause whipped her head towards Merlin. "We’ve no more time for your—"

But Merlin never heard the rest. He was already out the door.

***

Unlike the Palace, Merlin was much more familiar with the residence at Clarence House Arthur had taken over when he came of age. He raced ahead of his guide, sprinting up the long staircase to the upper floor where Arthur’s private rooms were.

Arthur’s childhood friend Leon stood on guard in front of the bedroom door. When he saw Merlin, his face crumpled with relief and fury. "Where the fuck have you been, Merlin? What the hell have you--?"

Merlin extended a hand and moved Leon out of his way before he was off the last step. Leon grunted and grabbed at the wall, but said nothing as Merlin plunged through the door that had opened on its own before he reached it.

It slammed behind him; he spared a thought to throw the locks as he advanced into the room. Heavy curtains blocked out the daylight, leaving him in near darkness. "Arthur?"

A pained moan answered him. Instantly he started feeling his way along the heavy wood furniture towards the sound. His eyes had just started to adjust when he ran into one of the posts of Arthur’s massive bed.

He groped for Arthur across the expanse of the covers, but when he squinted at the bed, he could see it was unoccupied and neatly made. Merlin leaned on the mattress for a moment and pressed his hand to his chest; the pinprick of the bond outright throbbed now.

Beyond the bed, Arthur groaned again, and Merlin heard a thump as he tried to move. "It’s all right, I’m here," Merlin called and fumbled his way around the bed. "Just hang on, love. I'm here now."

Arthur had collapsed in the furthest corner of the room and lay crumpled against the wall where Merlin nearly tripped over him. "Merlin?"

Merlin dropped to his knees and reached for him. "I’m here, love. I’m here."

"I’m sorry." Arthur pressed his face into Merlin’s neck as Merlin pulled him into his arms. His skin was burning with fever. "I tried. I’m sorry."

"I know, you gorgeous halfwit." Merlin ran his hands over Arthur’s head and body. Arthur had been fading slowly before; now the Pact had run out of patience. Merlin had some success healing minor injuries, but this was beyond the scope of his understanding, let alone his skill.

Magic gave a strong throb in Merlin’s chest. Arthur groaned and burrowed into him as though he were trying to get to it. Magic. He needed magic.

What Arthur needed was Merlin to complete him. Instinct told him that, but also told him Arthur was too unstable to complete the bond now. All he could do was cradle Arthur against him, wrapping as much of himself around Arthur as he could, body and magic.

Merlin concentrated on radiating magic, a gentle mist that could seep into Arthur’s skin and cool his body. He slipped his hand under Arthur’s shirt and rubbed magic up his spine. Arthur moaned again; it sounded less pained than before, and when Merlin kissed Arthur’s cheek, he got a softer sigh in return.

In a series of awkward shifts, he stripped the clothing from Arthur’s unresisting limbs. When Arthur was down to his boxers, Merlin curled back around him and concentrated on soaking him with magic.

Each drop of it plucked at Merlin as it absorbed into Arthur’s hungry soul. He let it pull from him, felt himself tying to Arthur in microscopic increments. When Arthur finally relaxed in his arms, Merlin understood that the Pact had accepted this as betrothal.

"All right now?" He kissed Arthur’s hair. His own breathing had settled; he hadn’t realized how great a pressure the nascent bond had put on him until it eased.

"Yes," Arthur mumbled into his neck. "Thank you. I was coming to the Palace to rescue you."

"Cheers," Merlin answered drily. "But it’s all right. I was having the most fascinating conversation with your father."

Through the magic of their impending bond and the more ordinary magic of their entwined bodies, he could feel Arthur’s uncomfortable contemplation of that. He also felt the moment when Arthur realized exactly how fascinating that conversation could have become.

"I apologize if you heard anything you didn’t want to know." Arthur tried to lift his head up to look at Merlin, but he had barely stirred when he sank back down to rest on Merlin’s collarbone with a sigh.

Merlin wrapped his hand around the back of Arthur’s neck to restrain him. He knew from experience how a magical assault could drain someone, even when it wasn’t your own soul trying to do you in. "I heard they wanted you to marry your sister. I didn't need to know that."

Arthur snickered softly against Merlin's skin. "If it was good enough for the pharaohs, it's good enough for my father. But don't avoid it. What else did he tell you?"

"He told me exactly what I wanted to hear." His other hand stroked down Arthur’s spine to soothe him. "I just can’t understand why you didn’t tell me yourself, you great gormless barmpot."

"What could I tell you that everyone didn't already know?" Arthur's nose pressed harder into Merlin's collarbone. "You know my situation. You know what's between us."

Yes, Merlin had known everything except for one tiny, slightly important detail that Arthur had probably never even considered mentioning.

Arthur was still mumbling, his voice getting fainter as his body tried to drag him into healing sleep. "You had a brilliant life. So proud of you. I had nothing better to offer. I tried to do without you, but I couldn’t, in the end."

The defeat in Arthur’s voice hurt; Arthur would never have let him hear it, if he weren’t so worn down. Merlin felt knackered as well. The magic that had begun binding them still sapped his energy to feed Arthur’s recovery.

He couldn’t fathom trying to get Arthur into bed, so he raised a hand and pulled until the pillows and bedcovers slid off the bed and over to them. Letting Arthur use him as a mattress, he tucked the pillows and covers around them until they lay buried in a warm nest.

"Can I tell you something you need to know?" he said into Arthur’s ear when they were settled, hoping he was still awake.

"If you must."

"I don’t mind the crown nearly as much as you seem to think, not if I get to have you. That’s all you needed to offer me."

This time, Arthur managed to lift his head and stare at Merlin’s face. His eyes looked clear, if a little unfocused. "Tomorrow," he said slowly, "when I’m feeling better, I’m going to kill you."

Merlin bit his lip, then gave up and let the grin spread across his face. "No. Tomorrow, when you’re feeling better, you’re going to bond me. Then we can argue for the rest of our lives over whose fault it was that it took us so long."

Arthur looked back at him, considering. Then he inclined his head to brush his dry lips over Merlin’s in a brief, deliberate promise. A touch of wetness, and then he sank back into Merlin’s neck, asleep almost before he fell still.

Merlin let himself follow. Outside, he could dimly hear people banging on the door, demanding to see the Prince. He ignored them. Morgause herself couldn’t get through that door if he didn’t want her to, and there was nothing he needed from any of them anymore

***

Merlin woke a little sore from Arthur's weight pressing him into the hard floor for--huh. He had to stare at his watch for a good minute before realizing that they had slept through the rest of the previous day and the entire night. Morning light glimmered through a crack in the curtains; Merlin looked at them, and they drew open on their own.

When the light hit his face, Arthur grumbled in his sleep, rolling away from Merlin to smush his face in a pillow. Merlin grinned. Arthur had always been a grumpy git in the morning. Back in school, it had been Merlin's job to make sure Arthur made it to lectures on time, which he’d usually had to do through physical and magical force.

Today there was no school or work or obligation beyond what they needed to do with each other. Merlin was sure the King and the High Priestess had some questions, but he wasn't inclined to care. Today was the day he bound his soul to Arthur's and despite what they all clearly thought, it had nothing to do with anyone but them.

Thankfully Arthur--what Merlin could see of him--looked the picture of bed-headed beauty and health. The connection hummed so strongly between them that for a stomach-dropping moment Merlin wondered if the soul bond had completed during their sleep. But the pinprick was still there, now feeling more like an oddly pleasant open wound.

Excitement rushed in his stomach at the thought of finally closing it. Now that he was here, settled in Arthur's home and presence, he couldn't imagine why or how he had resisted the idea for so long.

He pulled the covers back from Arthur's body, gently turning him onto his back, but careful to let him keep sleeping a little longer. Arthur was flushed with healthy sleep, and when Merlin rested his hand on his chest, Arthur's heart beat strong.

Below his chest, Arthur exhibited more evidence of good health. Merlin grinned and lowered his hand to the thick erection outlined in Arthur's boxers. He rested his hand on it, motionless, to feel the size and heat of it. It almost filled his hand and at the edge of his palm, he felt the slight swell of the royal knot.

He had to force himself to his feet then, or he would have interrupted Arthur's sleep in a very disruptive way. For once, he supposed, Arthur might not even object, but after yesterday's scare, Merlin would rather not interfere with his natural rest.

And it gave Merlin a chance to shower. He stripped off his shirt and dropped it on the floor by Arthur's feet. The rest of his clothes landed wherever they happened to fall until he finally shed his boxers in a heap in front of the bathroom door. The sigil he placed carefully on top of a hand towel next to the sink.

Though he'd used Arthur's private toilet a few times over the years, he'd never really made himself at home before. Now he stood naked in front of the vanity examining everything Arthur kept here. Merlin let himself touch everything, acquainting himself with comb and toothbrush and razor, picking up each bottle and sniffing each scent that together made the scent he knew as Arthur. He'd have to use Arthur's products, after which he would smell like Arthur as well. He had a feeling Arthur would like that.

The shower compartment felt surprisingly spacious for such an old building; the hot water beat down on him and soothed away his aches. He felt better than he had in weeks: vibrant, happy, aroused. As he tilted his face under the water and closed his eyes, he palmed his cock in a little preview, just to tide him over.

"Don’t you dare."

Arthur’s rough voice made Merlin’s cock swell and jump in his hand. He squeezed it tighter and turned as Arthur slid the shower door open. Arthur stepped one foot inside and loomed in the entrance. He had shed his boxers and stood naked; his cock jutted out enormous and fully erect, swollen at tip and base with its need to latch them together.

"Do you have any idea what it did to me to wake up and find a trail of your clothes leading me away?" Arthur’s eyes were dark with arousal, sharp with a predatory focus. Merlin’s excitement ratcheted higher every second their gazes locked. "Everything still warm from your body. And here you are, naked for me."

"Born hunter, you are." Merlin let go of his cock to reach for Arthur’s. His hand closed around the shaft between the top bulge and the bottom and tugged Arthur into the shower with him.

They fell against the wall, naked flesh meeting for the first time, mouths meeting for the first time in such a very long while. Merlin’s jaw ached as Arthur stretched his mouth wide with the force of his kiss. Their tongues clashed for a brief, intense struggle, and Arthur’s moan rumbled into Merlin’s mouth.

Then Merlin raised his hand to cup Arthur’s jaw and gentle the kiss. Their lips softened, and they pressed together with mouths and chests and thighs in simple, purposeful touches.

Arthur lifted his hands to Merlin’s shoulders and moved him back under the water. His mouth made a slippery glide along Merlin’s jaw line, to his throat, to his shoulder. Merlin’s lips found Arthur’s ear as his hands found his hips and back and arms.

With slow, deliberate kisses and touches, they washed each other. Merlin concentrated on cleansing every inch of Arthur’s skin from the millions of people who had gazed at the beautiful prince with lust, from everyone who was not Merlin who had ever touched him. Arthur performed the same ritual over Merlin’s skin. Merlin felt his intent as clearly as his own, as the magic began to align their souls in preparation for the binding.

Merlin left Arthur’s cock for last because fingers, flannel, and soap would never be enough to prepare it. He slipped from Arthur’s arms and dropped to his knees. His mouth closed around the head and his hand closed around the knot.

He tried to suck Arthur with the reverence such a gorgeous cock deserved, slow and thorough. But as Arthur’s need escalated, so did Merlin’s. He sucked and squeezed, caught up in the way Arthur’s blood surged, giving into the primal urge to drive him higher and harder.

"Enough." Arthur wrenched Merlin to his feet, spun him around and pressed him into the shower wall, face first. The head of his cock prodded at Merlin’s entrance. A rush of magic went through Merlin’s lower body, relaxing his passage in anticipation of coupling. Both of them had been made for this.

The head pressed harder against his rim. They both moaned as it began to give way. Arthur gasped and pulled back. "I want to mount you right here and now. But I won’t be able to stop."

"Neither will I." As well appointed as the bath was, being locked together for hours on the floor of the shower did not speak of comfort. And Merlin didn’t fancy a post-coital waddle to the bed with Arthur’s dick latched into his arse. "Let’s go."

The trip to the bed was awkward enough as it was, with Arthur unwilling to stop kissing and Merlin trying to dry them both with magic, which seemed to involve tangling his fingers in Arthur’s hair and not letting go. The bed was worth it when Merlin tumbled onto it. Not only did it allow him to be horizontal with Arthur, but the bed itself was a gigantic expanse of sumptuous bedding within a heavy wood frame. Merlin felt at home immediately.

Arthur didn’t let them remain horizontal for long. After a few grappling kisses, he got to his knees and hauled Merlin up along with him. They hung onto each other, arms around each other’s shoulders, but even as Merlin swayed toward Arthur’s lips again, he felt a wrenching certainty that this embrace would not do, that he needed to take a more appropriate position.

He twisted around in Arthur's arms until he could grab onto the headboard. His backside rubbed against Arthur's cock and immediately the magic snapped into place.

What scant preparation Merlin required, Arthur performed with military efficiency. Then Arthur seized Merlin’s hip with one hand, using the other to guide his cock back to Merlin’s entrance. He penetrated in a long steady push as Merlin's flesh gave way around him. Neither of them made a sound as their bodies fit together.

Arthur finally gasped as his knot bumped against Merlin’s rim. "Merlin," he said as he took a harder jab. "Fuck. I’ve needed this for so many years."

Merlin arched his back and pushed back against him. The magic shuddered up through his body from the point of their joining. "So have I," he said, and his body tightened with an unbearable tension, indistinguishably sexual and magical.

Common parlance referred to a knotted royal bonding his sorcerer mate, but in reality, it happened the other way around. Merlin’s magic licked out toward Arthur in greedy flares. It demanded to seize and claim and bind him, but Merlin checked it through desperate strength of will. He didn't want to take Arthur like a beast in heat, not when Arthur was taking him in such a gentle way.

His growing empathetic sense of Arthur let him share Arthur’s desires. Arthur wanted slow. Arthur wanted to make love. Arthur wanted to make it last.

Arthur wasn’t going to get his wish for long. Merlin ducked his head and choked back a sob of need and love as Arthur kept fucking him in blissful, rhythmic thrusts. "I love you."

"I love you." Arthur groaned and surged forward so he could stretch out against Merlin’s back. "I love you," he said again, and Merlin could feel it so clearly through every pore that he wondered how he could ever have doubted it. "Merlin, I love you. Bond with me."

"Mate with me." Merlin undulated his hips until Arthur surged into him harder. "Come on. Mount me. Fuck me. Do it right."

Arthur obeyed and the instant he started fucking Merlin harder, the magic drew tighter around them in anticipation. Merlin braced against the headboard with one hand and reached for his cock to pump it in the same rhythm as Arthur was humping into him. The sensation of Arthur’s cock pushing into his flesh was driving him wild—but more than that, he was being undone by the feeling of Arthur’s knot, now hard and swollen, bumping against his hole, stretching the rim and trying to press inside.

An echo hit him: Arthur’s prick, the sweet pleasure in the tip and the building ache in the knot, and the maddening jolt every time the knot felt the beckoning warmth of Merlin’s entrance. "Oh, God, I can feel you. I can feel your knot."

Arthur’s laugh was almost a yelp as he pressed the knot hard against Merlin’s hole. His body trembled against Merlin’s back. "My knot. I think I need to get it into you now."

Merlin closed his eyes with gratitude and nodded. He ached to be filled—he ached to be locked and to finish what they started too many years ago. "I’m ready for it. I want it."

Arthur sat back on his knees, pulling out all his cock but the head. Merlin’s back felt cold and his gut empty. Before he could do more than whine, Arthur’s hands seized around his shoulders and pulled him up, off the headboard and back into Arthur’s arms and onto his cock.

His weight shifted so that the knot pressed harder into his arse. The beginning of the stretch hurt just a little; in response, his body went utterly pliant, beyond his control. Merlin gave into it, relaxing back onto Arthur’s shoulder.

Arthur’s arm wrapped around his waist, securing Merlin against him. His other hand gripped Merlin’s thigh, knuckles brushing the smooth, straight underside of Merlin’s cock. "That’s right, sweetheart. Press down."

Merlin pressed down as Arthur rocked up into him. For a moment, Merlin thought they had waited too long, that the knot had already swelled to the locking point and he wouldn’t be able to take it in. "Oh, fuck. How close are you to coming?"

"Fuck, so close. We can do it. Just relax." Arthur’s arm gripped him tighter, keeping him from moving anywhere but down onto Arthur’s knot.

Merlin reached down and moved Arthur’s other hand to his cock. Obligingly, Arthur began to stroke, his shaky breath warming Merlin’s neck as Arthur nuzzled his ear. As the pleasure distracted him, Merlin relaxed more and Arthur pushed up and didn’t relent until Merlin’s flesh finally gave way to the mass of the knot.

"Oh," Merlin said faintly as he clenched around the knot. Then his body jerked as his control slipped. His magic spilled out and rushed giddily into Arthur.

He had thought the soul bonding would be a sudden, violent rush; that was how it had felt against the wall of Arthur’s study when they were sixteen and frantic to get off. But now the magic twined around them in ecstatic swirls, twisting and tightening them together in strong pulses.

Arthur gasped and bit down on Merlin’s shoulder to muffle his cries. His arms and hands tightened as though trying to pull Merlin into his body along with the magic. He drove up into Merlin to get the knot in good and tight, and then started grinding in desperate little humps.

The bond began to solidify, the magic to clarify, and Merlin shuddered from the overwhelming awareness of Arthur. He could feel the give of his own skin under Arthur’s teeth, the warm clutch of his arse around Arthur’s cock, the pressure in his knot and Arthur’s need to complete the union.

He knew the moment the bond closed, when Arthur could feel him as well. Arthur’s muffled noises into Merlin’s shoulder grew wild as he started to feel what Merlin felt: the maddening intrusion of Arthur’s cock, the shifting bulk of the knot. And the magic, binding them.

They rocked and writhed in frantic coupling. The knot swelled until it stopped shifting. Arthur’s hands were all over Merlin’s body. Merlin reached back with magic, reached deep into Arthur and at last claimed him for his own.

Arthur gave a choked cry and started to come. The knot locked them firmly together so that when Arthur’s hips writhed, Merlin writhed with him. Arthur’s warm hand coaxed the come out of Merlin’s cock, but it was only a pleasant background to Merlin's focus on Arthur's seed spurting inside him, sealing their pact.

The initial climax ebbed slowly. When a small bit of sense returned, they carefully lowered themselves to the bed, Arthur curling around Merlin, centered on their locking point. "Is it done?" Arthur whispered, loud in the still sanctuary of the great bed.

"It’s done," Merlin answered, and Arthur immediately gave lie to the words by shivering into renewed orgasm. Merlin groaned in sympathy, feeling it as clearly as if it were his own seed spilling.

The throb of his arse around the knot felt soothing when they settled down into the tie. Every once in a while, Arthur would shiver again and spurt a little more come into Merlin’s locked channel. Merlin drifted into a happy doze, broken intermittently by the half-conscious flares of Arthur’s pleasure in the back of his mind.

***

Merlin woke with Arthur still wrapped around him, the pillows and duvet having miraculously restored themselves while they slept. The knot had shrunk and Arthur’s cock had almost slipped out, with just the head still catching on Merlin’s rim. But it didn’t matter—Merlin could feel Arthur’s sleepy presence heavy within him.

Arthur stirred against his back just as Merlin’s stomach growled. "I'm hungry," Arthur mumbled into his neck, and Merlin laughed.

"What have you got to eat in this little cottage of yours?" He gave up Arthur’s cock in order to twist himself around in Arthur’s arms. "And it had better be something we can get without putting clothes on."

Arthur huffed and kissed him. He tasted horrible, but somehow it just made Merlin want more. They had not kissed enough before bonding; Merlin could barely remember at all what it was like to kiss without the echo of Arthur’s happiness overriding even the hunger in his stomach.

They kissed until—just as Arthur started to pull Merlin on top of him—their stomachs gurgled again in unison.

"Food?" Merlin reminded him, eager to get all the biological necessities out of the way. They weren’t the physical distractions he was interested in.

"I would have offered you something impressive for your first meal here," Arthur said. "But I suspect there are quite a lot of people outside my door waiting for us, and not to order us a romantic breakfast."

Merlin sat up and extended his senses in a classical magical surveillance technique. "Oh yes," he said after a moment. "I count at least two from the Church and three of your blokes. Let’s keep that door locked, shall we?"

"You’re more useful than I ever gave you credit for." Only the underlying admiration in Arthur’s voice saved him, although not from a pillow in the face. "All right, all right. I think there’s still half a packet of biscuits in the lounge. Much better than eating the bedding, I promise."

They took turns using the loo, and then feasted on Arthur’s leftover chocolate Hobnobs. It was the most delicious meal Merlin ever had. Not a crumb made it to the bed linens because Merlin ate every one.

"I mean, there’s loads of world travel," Arthur was saying as Merlin sucked the last bit of chocolate from Arthur’s thumb. "So that part’s not so bad, is it?"

"I won’t mind it," Merlin allowed, releasing Arthur’s hand. "I don’t mind any of it, really. Not now."

Arthur traced his damp fingers along Merlin’s hip, a shy heat in his gaze as he finished tracing Merlin’s abdomen with his eyes. "Not even the bit where you have to bear my children?"

Heat curled through his belly at the reminder that as soon as the Church validated their union, Arthur would be expected to impregnate him to fulfill the final requirement of the Pact. He couldn’t tell which of them the heat had come from, but he knew they could both feel it.

"No, I don’t mind that at all." The admission left him feeling more exposed than anything else had so far. He pulled the covers up to his shoulders before making his next admission. "Turning into a girl, that part I wasn’t so sure about before."

Arthur withdrew a little—it was almost imperceptible, but Merlin could feel it. "I know you were never keen on the female form."

"Neither were you." Merlin let his eyes drift to the ceiling; this was the one worry he had left. Arthur would do his duty no matter what, but there wouldn’t be much pleasure in it if he found Merlin’s female body distasteful. "I know you dated a couple girls, but not for long."

"I wanted experience both ways." Arthur’s gaze lingered on Merlin as though he could still see him beneath the covers. "But you were always the only one I wanted. Maybe I’ll never know if I wanted you because I liked men, or if I liked men because I wanted you."

Merlin turned his head to look again at his lover, cock swelling at the implication of Arthur’s words. "So you’re saying if I were a woman...?"

"Well, Merlin, I’ve never seen you as a woman, have I?" Arthur shifted and pushed the sheets away so Merlin could see how hard his cock had already grown, caught against his thigh. He moved it up to his belly and rubbed his fingertips against his knot, his eyes challenging Merlin to match his boldness.

Merlin watched the pulse visible in the underside of Arthur’s knot. He felt the tug of Arthur’s curiosity and desire, pulling at their shared magic, urging him to shift his form—and he surrendered.

This time he felt the changes in his body: pressure in his nipples becoming a new heaviness in his chest, the stiffness of his cock melting into the wet softness of his cunt. A soft moan welled up in his throat when it was done.

Arthur echoed the sound. "Merlin, your face. I can see it. God, Merlin, show me."

Slowly, Merlin pushed himself up on his arm and drew the covers away from his body. Arthur’s gaze fell on Merlin’s breasts for a long, hungry moment before traveling down to the curves of hips and thighs and the damp juncture between. Merlin rubbed his thighs together enough to let Arthur feel the echo of the wetness already starting to slick him.

Arthur’s throat bobbed as he stared, eyes darting up and down Merlin’s body as though unable to take in everything he wanted at once. In slow, jerking movements, he got to his hands and knees and moved over Merlin.

He dropped a brief, distracted kiss at the corner of Merlin’s mouth. Then he bent his head to get as much of Merlin’s right breast into his mouth as he could. Merlin hissed when Arthur’s tongue flickered over his nipple—and then moaned as Arthur took his first good pull.

Arthur continued to suckle until Merlin was pushing up against him with hitching little gasps. It was all driving him mad: the suction of Arthur’s mouth, the plush softness of his tit and the way it gave under Arthur’s lips, his stiff nipple under the wet swipe of Arthur’s tongue.

Just as his nipple began to hurt under the rhythmic friction, Arthur pulled off and buried his face between Merlin’s breasts. "So you do take some pleasure in this form," he murmured into Merlin’s skin, tongue flicking out again to taste it.

Merlin snorted and shifted beneath him, restless with slow-surging arousal. "Plenty. I found that out the other night when you were whispering sweet nothings in my ear."

Arthur froze, then pressed a firm kiss between Merlin’s breasts. "Do you mean," he said hoarsely, "that you were like this when I was going on about knotting you?"

"Didn’t even know it until I hung up and reached for my cock." Merlin giggled; he hoped he didn’t sound too girly, but the memory seemed hilarious now with Arthur mouthing at the underside of his other, neglected tit. "And then it wasn’t there!"

"I thought your voice sounded different." Arthur didn’t laugh, drawn back into serious work. He was pressing harder kisses down Merlin’s sternum, down onto his stomach until his tongue dipped into Merlin’s navel.

Arousal ached as much in this body as the other—possibly more, because the ache was inside him as much as outside. He gripped Arthur’s head, digging his fingers into the soft golden hair and pushing his kisses lower and lower.

Arthur waited until his breath stirred the curls on Merlin’s mound. Then he shook off Merlin’s hands and looked up the length of his body with narrowed eyes.

Merlin met his gaze, trapped by it. His legs squirmed to get free of the weight of Arthur’s chest and spread for him.

"Did you touch yourself? Here?" Arthur’s head dipped. His tongue flicked over Merlin’s clit, lifting the hood to leave a daub of wet heat underneath.

One leg finally got free. Merlin stretched it out over the bed as far as he could, ankle tangling in the bedcovers. "Yes," he growled. "But harder. Much harder. I needed to come fast."

Arthur seemed pleased at that. Merlin felt his mouth against his mound, spreading into a smile. "I don’t think you’re going to come fast this time," he said as though commenting on the traffic. Then he buried his face between Merlin’s thighs and made a slow, thorough meal of him.

Although Merlin had no experience with being eaten out as a woman, Arthur clearly knew what he was doing. Jealousy tempted, but without words Merlin knew Arthur had spent so much time going down on women to avoid knotting them. He wouldn’t risk that, not while there was still a chance Merlin would come to him.

As Arthur’s tongue explored each unfamiliar ridge and fold, Merlin could only lie back and enjoy every stroke, every kiss, every suckle. Even the squishy wet noises prodded Merlin closer and closer to orgasm. But he could never quite get close enough to tip over the edge. Now that his legs were spread, Arthur would not even allow him to clamp his thighs around Arthur’s ears.

When Arthur finally lifted his head, his gaze had gone fuzzy. His hand trembled when he pushed himself up on Merlin’s thigh. "I don’t want you to come like this."

Merlin groaned in protest. Arthur’s word had become law in his body.

"You want me to change back?" He wasn’t sure he wanted to. He wasn’t sure he could. Inside him, magic throbbed, eager for mating.

"No." Arthur crawled back up Merlin’s body, until Merlin felt the bulbous tip of Arthur’s cock pressed to the swollen lips of his cunt. "I want you to come with my dick in you. I want to feel you slick around my knot."

In an instant, Merlin’s legs were up and trying to wrap around Arthur’s waist. "Fuck, yeah, now you’re talking sense. Knot me again. Tie my cunt."

"Can’t." Arthur nosed over Merlin’s shoulder to his throat. When he kissed him, he tasted of cunt, odd and stimulating. "Can’t get you pregnant. Not until the Pact is sealed by the Church."

"We’re bonded now. The rest is just ceremony." Merlin kissed him hard, hand clamping around the back of Arthur’s neck to keep him close even after he pulled back. "I’m your consort. Are you really going to let Morgause—or, ugh, your father—tell you when you can have sex with me?"

Arthur grunted and looked down at him, eyes glittering. Merlin only had time to think of how very blue they were before he felt Arthur’s cock penetrating his body.

He pushed in all the way to the knot in one thrust, and then gave one more jab to get the knot in as well. It was so swollen he almost couldn’t pull it out again, and every time he pushed it in, it stretched Merlin to the limit between pleasure and pain.

On the fourth thrust, the knot stuck and they were tied.

Arthur didn’t slow down. He kissed Merlin hungrily as they fucked, bodies surging together with mating passion. They grappled and thrashed, and Merlin gave vocal thanks for the huge and sturdy bed beneath them.

When he could speak at all, that was. Arthur’s knot rubbed without mercy into a spot with a direct link to his clit. The head tapped against what must be the entrance to his womb; every touch made Merlin shiver with the anticipation of Arthur letting loose his seed.

That wouldn’t be long, not for either of them, not when they could feel each other’s pleasure building. Arthur whimpered against his cheek as he gathered Merlin as close as he could, locking their hips even tighter together and crushing Merlin’s breasts against his chest. The soft scrape of Arthur’s chest hair over Merlin’s nipples amplified the throb between his legs.

Merlin didn’t recognize the onset of his climax until he was in the midst of the crest. The sweet heat of it broke through him in jolting waves. It felt like and utterly unlike the sharp peak of male release—which Arthur was now experiencing himself.

He shot jet after jet of come into Merlin’s body, the head of his cock prodding over and over into Merlin’s cervix as though Merlin were a glove made to fit him. Merlin found himself succumbing to another orgasm, body accepting and rejoicing in Arthur’s pleasure as it filled him.

Arthur pulled Merlin’s shoulders half off the bed as he fucked the last of his release into him. Merlin’s head lolled back in dizzy ecstasy until Arthur finally lowered both of them back down to the pillows.

They caressed each other for a while afterwards, distracted by each other’s touch, waiting for the first aftershock. It came in a hard jolt of pleasure that made Arthur gasp and jab up into Merlin again until Merlin's head bumped the headboard. They laughed after that and kissed.

After a few more kisses, Merlin felt Arthur shift and thought he meant to move their locked bodies onto their sides for greater comfort during their tie. Instead, Arthur reached for one of the pillows. Without comment, Merlin lifted them both up enough to let Arthur shove the pillow under his hips.

It did feel more comfortable when their combined weight settled back to the bed. It also tilted his pelvis to help the slide of Arthur’s come into his womb. He wondered if Arthur even recognized the instinct that drove him.

Regardless, Arthur exuded contentment as they began to kiss again. "Your face isn’t that much different," he murmured between deeper explorations of Merlin’s mouth. "But your lips. I don’t know how they’re even possible."

Merlin spent several minutes testing the union of their mouths before answering. "Would you like these lips wrapped around your cock, I wonder?"

"Very, very much." Arthur nuzzled another, gentler kiss. "But after the ceremony. Better stick with your usual self until then, because I don’t think I can keep from fucking you in any form."

"You’re assuming I’m not already stuck like this for the duration." Merlin laughed, relaxed and accepting of the prospect and more concerned with memorizing the planes of Arthur’s back under his hands.

"Nah, it’s only our first time," Arthur said with the confidence of a man who had talked himself into believing what he wanted to believe. "And surely the magic wouldn’t let it happen until after the confirmation ceremony, right?"

"Probably not," Merlin mumbled, and then they shuddered together again as Arthur’s cock shot another spurt of seed into Merlin’s waiting belly.

***

The cars pulled up to the north entrance of the Abbey at ten minutes before midnight. As he got out of one of the cars, cold prickled through the gauzy tunic Merlin had been hustled into by an entire team of professional valets. Only the knowledge that Arthur was just as cold in his similar garb made it tolerable.

The King, who had gotten away with a perfectly normal suit and tie, strode into the Abbey ahead of them, flanked by the few witnesses permitted onto the sacred ground for this ritual. Merlin fell into step beside Arthur and followed.

All around them he could feel the crackle of Morgause’s power; she and the Abbey deacons had spent hours weaving spells to ensure complete privacy for the ceremony. The public would have their grand televised wedding in a few months, but no one would know anything was happening tonight until Merlin was formally introduced to the press tomorrow.

Not that Merlin’s identity had been a secret for a while. He had glimpsed his face on the front page of the Times just that morning, before an efficient royal staffer had whisked it out of his sight. The headline had read "WHY THE PRINCE WAITED." He supposed he didn’t really want to know what anyone thought of Arthur's long wait for him, or his abrupt ascension into the royal family.

The church doors closed behind them, leaving them in near darkness. Uther and the other witnesses continued on towards the moonlight and candlelight glowing within. Merlin lingered for a moment in the shadows of the dark transept and Arthur lingered with him.

The darkness gave them the freedom to touch. Merlin closed his eyes in happiness as Arthur’s lips brushed his cheek—then rolled them when Arthur’s hand splayed across his stomach. "Will you leave off?"

"Just checking if I can feel anything." Arthur rubbed his belly gently as though expecting to stir the tiny life within.

"It’s only been a few days," Merlin grumbled, putting his hand over Arthur’s but not stopping him as he circled his palm over Merlin’s stomach.

Only a few days since they had finally emerged from Arthur’s rooms, equal parts smug and sheepish. Merlin had worn some of Arthur’s clothing, keeping it loose around his body to hide the feminine curves he could no longer lose, but the ruse had lasted only until Morgause had laid eyes on him.

He’d expected a scandal or at least a scolding. But Morgause had seen the immediate pregnancy as a victory for magic and proof of the righteousness of the union. Uther had merely clapped a traumatized Arthur on the back with paternal pride. "That’s my boy," he boomed and called for someone to bring Merlin a chair.

After that, he had barely seen Arthur during the days as the combined forces of church and palace had prodded and tested and readied him for the final sealing. It made every stolen touch the more precious, and he was halfway into Arthur’s arms before Uther’s voice summoned them from the sanctuary.

They hurried between the tall trees that twined with the stone arches of the church until they reached the circle of trees and columns that had once been Britain’s most sacred grove and now formed the inner shrine of the Abbey. Morgause, now in her full ceremonial robes, awaited them in front of the altar as the bells began to toll the witching hour.

"Who comes before the triple goddess in her holy house?" Morgause intoned into the reverberation of the final bell.

"King Uther comes, anointed king and ruler of this land," Uther answered, stepping to their side. "I bring the heir of my body, Arthur, and his consort who have fulfilled the great Pact of Albion."

"Is the bonding of their souls completed?"

Merlin almost missed his cue, until Arthur jabbed him in the ribs. "It is. We are one in the eyes of the gods."

"The gods have their own eyes to see. Come forward, prince and consort."

Morgause stepped aside as they advanced to the altar. A velvet cushion sat upon it, covered in cloth of gold. A hooded acolyte stepped forward to remove the cloth, revealing the crystal of Neahtid, which Merlin had only ever seen in textbooks.

"Lay your hands upon the crystal," Morgause commanded. "Let the gods look into your souls."

Whether any gods were actually looking, Merlin couldn’t say, but the crystal had power like nothing Merlin had ever felt. He lay his hand on the rough surface of the crystal and felt the magic buzz out at him like a fierce, curious hornet. Then Arthur laid his hand next to Merlin’s, and the crystal lit up like a star.

For a brief, suspended moment, Merlin could see their lives stretching out in slender threads into the future and the past. In that moment, he understood everything about fate, about history, about the Pact and magic itself.

Then he blinked and was back in the Abbey, the crystal humming under his fingers with a sedate glow. Arthur stirred beside him with a confused grunt. Merlin’s head felt perfectly empty now, save for the solid certainty that he had made the right choice.

"I assume that settles the matter once and for all?" Uther looked oddly shaken, but he looked at Morgause with steel in his gaze.

"Indeed," Morgause murmured. "The Pact is fulfilled."

Merlin hadn’t doubted that, but he joined the general sigh of relief as he and Arthur moved to sign the great register in the inner shrine. As Arthur took up the centuries-old quill to pen his name, Merlin stared at the pairs of names marching down the thick vellum page. Uther Pendragon and Ygraine du Bois, and above them, Arthur's grandfather Vortigern and his Prince Consort Ambrosius, and then above them and above them names Merlin only knew from history, centuries into the past.

For the first time, he felt he understood his own place in this history, in the binding of man and magic. His name would be in this book beside Arthur's for all time. He almost fumbled the quill when Arthur passed it to him, but he signed his name strong and clear.

He felt lighter as he moved to clasp Arthur’s hands and receive the blessing from the High Priestess. They tried to maintain the solemnity of the occasion as Morgause droned on, switching between Old and Modern English as though trying to keep them on their toes.

In the end, they couldn’t keep from grinning at each other like the schoolboys they’d been as she completed the blessing. "Go now to the sacred marriage bed. Couple and be fruitful to sustain the pact between man and magic for all time."

Well, they had already taken care of the fruitfulness bit. Merlin’s less-than-fruitful attempts to get his dick back had proven that. But they would go now to the sacred marriage bed and couple anyway.

And when they were finished, Merlin thought with satisfaction as his stomach rumbled, he’d make the Prince of Wales go get him a burrito.