Arthur stood in the entrance of the simple tent, his first mate, Leon, strong at his side. The smell of incense was heady and soothing, but Arthur had to stay alert.
“You know who I am,” he said to the old man crouched on the ground. “You know what I can do if I have to.”
The old man didn’t respond, just cast his dice again and hummed to himself, a mindless tune, unconcerned.
“What do you have of value in this village?” Arthur said, louder. “I don’t want to take anything you need, but if you don’t tell me what you can part with, my men will decide for you, and you may not like that outcome.”
“Pendragon,” the man said at last, still facing away from them, brave to offer his back to two armed men. “What you seek is not here, but I can guide you on your path.”
Arthur sighed. He hated India, the air of spirituality that flowed through hamlets like this one. The old man was a sage, revered by the people, and like all larger-than-life figures, he was all but unintelligible. Leon wrinkled his face and shook his head, nudging Arthur with an elbow and dipping his head towards the open night air. Arthur nodded, and Leon exited the tent, leaving him to negotiate with the man on the ground.
“Others do not know you, but I do,” the man said. He finally turned to look at Arthur, and he was even older than Arthur had imagined. “Come. Sit down. Learn.”
“I don’t sit,” Arthur said, rough-edged, fingers dancing on the hilt of his sword.
“You will sit for this.”
Arthur suppressed a groan. “I’ve offered you enough chances. I’ll order my men to take whatever they want.”
The sage’s face was impassive as he said, “If you must.” He turned around, gathered up his dice and threw them again. “Come sit or go steal, but act quickly. Patience is not a luxury the very old can afford.”
Arthur was surprised by this man’s confidence, his unwavering certainty in his own importance. He’d met many kinds of men on his voyages, but none of them had shown so little care for the threat of Captain Arthur Pendragon’s crew being unleashed on their village. Intrigued, Arthur entered the tent fully and walked past the sage, crouching down on the other side of his prayer mat. “What is it, then?”
Before he could perceive the movement, the man’s hand was around his wrist, grip tighter than someone his age should be capable of. “You stay, and you listen, and you will find what you are looking for.”
Arthur yanked his arm back, but the man’s grip held fast. “I’m not looking for anything, and if you don’t take your hand off my arm, I will kill you.”
The man shook his head, a condescending smile on his face. “You do not kill, and even if you did, you would not kill me.”
Before Arthur could react, the sage drew his hand back and leaned over to a small chest at his side. He pulled out a roll of parchment and a quill and inkwell.
“This symbol marks that which belongs to you,” he said. Arthur watched his hands as he drew a symbol Arthur realised he’d seen before. It was a triangle and three spirals, one continuing out from each corner.
“What does it mean?” Arthur asked.
“It marks a treasure beyond compare, an object so profound, so rare, that no one has seen it in thousands of years, but its tale is still told.”
Arthur was intrigued. “What’s that got to do with me? Is it here?”
“No, Pendragon. It is your duty to find it,” the sage said, one long finger reaching out to press against the right side of Arthur’s chest.
“What is it?”
“It is impossible to know what form it will take, but I assure you, it exists, and you were made to find it.”
“And why me, exactly?” Arthur was almost certain the old man was having him on, but he didn’t have the face of a liar, and that gave Arthur pause.
“It needs you,” the man said simply. Arthur didn’t know what that meant.
“Again, why me?”
The man waved his hand through the air dismissively and said, “That is not for any of us to know. I read the truth of the signs. I do not ask why.”
Arthur was frustrated with the lack of answers and even more with the pull he felt to learn more. He shouldn’t be taking this seriously, but he was, and that was unsettling. There was a thrill to this, the idea that there might be something greater out there waiting for him beyond the routine: threaten, steal, celebrate. There was no challenge in his life, and he ached to search for something new.
“And why should I believe you?” he said, hoping the sage would give him something that could justify his interest.
The man’s smile then was unsettling. “Because you are bored,” the sage said, and Arthur felt suddenly transparent. “And because this will be a great adventure.”
Arthur nodded and forced himself to stand, the smoke from the incense swirling around him. He needed to leave, to escape this man who saw him too clearly. “We will leave your village unharmed,” he said, an offering.
The sage looked back to his dice, picking them up and throwing them, waving his hands above them in a kind of ritual Arthur wanted to understand but wasn’t willing to ask about.
When Arthur was at the opening of the tent, the old man said, “Travel west.”
Arthur shook his head as he walked into the cool, clear night air, but he was already plotting a voyage back to the Atlantic, planning stops along the African coast where he thought there might be clues—places where people were spiritual and valued knowledge. He had seen that symbol before and was determined to learn more about it.
He found Leon standing by the narrow road that had taken them into this hamlet, awaiting orders. When Leon caught sight of Arthur, he approached, saying, “After a preliminary examination, I’d say the pottery here is most valuable. They haven’t much food, and none of the men have come across any gems or precious metals.”
“We’re leaving,” Arthur said. “Gather the crew.”
“Yes, sir,” Leon said, but he hesitated, the hand that always rested on the hilt of his sword restless. “Is everything all right?”
Arthur nodded and quirked up his lips. “Of course. There’s simply nothing of use to us here. I’m about ready to leave India for good.”
“Very good, sir,” Leon said, walking back into the heart of the hamlet to assemble the men for embarkation.
Arthur would have to tell Leon eventually, he supposed, but not before he had more to go on than the whispers of a possibly deranged spiritual leader.
The sage had been right about at least one thing: this was an adventure that had come to wholly consume Arthur’s consciousness. Every stop the Albion I made on its way back to the Atlantic made him more confident that this incredible treasure existed. From the moment Arthur found the symbol again at the centre of an African tribe’s religious shrine, he was a true believer, and he left pillaging behind. His life shifted then, each action part of his mission to search the world for answers, the symbol an arrow leading to a treasure of legend.
His crew had stayed with him, their loyalty unwavering even in the face of an unprovable quest. They didn’t care if they were stealing goods or buying them. So long as Arthur led, they would follow.
He sought information, asked questions and stole answers, gathered books and maps and wrote down the oral traditions of several cultures, whether they shared a language or not. Everyone could draw pictures in the dirt, and no matter where he visited, the treasure was represented by the exact same symbol. Arthur became so fascinated with it that he had Leon tattoo it on his chest: the right side, a second heart, his purpose. He let it guide him all the way back to Britain, the home he’d forsaken more than a decade prior.
It had taken years of searching, years of going on next to nothing, fuelled by belief alone, but eventually he met a librarian on the Isle of Man who gave the symbol a name: triskelion. He said it was a wretchedly common symbol, unworthy of note, but at the point of Arthur’s sword, he amended his statement with a ponderous, “Unless ….”
The symbol was unfathomably old, and before it was common, it was sacred, used only to mark places that were said to be home to the very essence of life. It was a magical symbol, a symbol of cycles, rebirth, and unknowable power. Arthur knew with a deep, inexplicable certainty that the treasure he sought was the source of this power, was perhaps the cradle of life itself.
Arthur demanded to know where this symbol had first been found, and the librarian told him: Newgrange. Arthur left then, returned to his ship, and consulted his maps. Newgrange wasn’t a port town. It wasn’t a town at all; it was a monument, ancient, prehistoric. He could port in Drogheda and allow his crew shore leave while he walked to Newgrange. He estimated the walk wouldn’t take more than a couple of hours.
It didn’t take long to make port once they’d set off from the Isle of Man, and the crew was bustling with excitement for their first shore leave in a big port city in several months. Arthur knew the source of their excitement—brothels—but didn’t share in their enthusiasm, too focussed on the task before him. Excitement and longing tingled beneath Arthur’s skin, his treasure finally within reach.
Newgrange was a disappointment. Arthur had felt so certain that he would find his treasure here. He was getting old—he was already twenty-eight—and no closer, it seemed, to the missing piece that would complete the life he’d chosen, the most prized treasure in all the world. The place was beautiful—Arthur could appreciate that. Green and lush like everything on this island, marvellous in its deep, enduring oldness. But it felt empty to Arthur, somehow sucked dry of the life that had once thrived there. The grass on the mound was verdant and rich, but within, it was hollow. There was no magic left in this place.
Arthur walked back to Drogheda with rage seeping out of his boots, stamping his disappointment into the soil at his feet.
The first two brothels he stopped in turned him away, already at maximum capacity even with many sharing. When he approached the plain door of the third, he felt oddly confident that this place would have what he needed.
It was a simple one-level building, undecorated inside save for an odd coat of arms Arthur didn’t recognise over a pitiful fire. It was poorly made and featured an ass and a snake, undoubtedly a commoner’s attempt at mockery. Arthur shook his head and stood in the middle of the room, waiting for the proprietor. There were six doors—six rooms—each one closed, but Arthur couldn’t hear a sound. It was unsettling. He’d been in dozens of brothels in his day, and not a single one had ever been silent.
The door behind him creaked open. He turned to see a dark-haired woman enter, her arms full of linens.
“Oh, good evening,” she said, dropping the linens on a bench. Her accent was out of place here, too English. “What are you looking for tonight?”
“Someone who likes pain, or is willing to tolerate it for the right sum of money,” Arthur said. He wasn’t interested in hurting anyone who wasn’t ready for it.
The woman smiled. “I appreciate your honesty, Captain. Most of our adventurous customers are not so forthcoming.”
“You know who I am?” Arthur asked. He wasn’t surprised, really, but he liked to pretend sometimes.
“We all know who you are. And we know what you can pay, if you’re duly satisfied. So I’m going to give you something special, and you can make up your own mind as to the fee when you’ve finished.”
Arthur was intrigued. People didn’t make such offers if they weren’t confident in the quality of their product. He followed her out the front door. The wind had picked up, and she had to press both hands to the brim of her ornate hat to keep it from flying away. She stopped around the side of the building and pulled a key from beneath a large fabric flower on her hat.
“Close your eyes and think about what you want tonight,” she said, hand pausing in front of the lock.
Arthur felt a bit silly, but he didn’t want to cheat himself of a good time, and he trusted the proprietor to know her business. He closed his eyes and imagined dark hair, his hand striking a smooth, bare arse, and a woman with a bad attitude. He heard the lock click and the door creak open, and the woman said, “Enjoy yourself.” Arthur entered the room and heard the door lock behind him.
Given the starkness of the foyer, Arthur could hardly believe the intricate opulence of the room he was standing in. The bed was enormous and made up with the finest of linens—Chinese imports from the look of them—nothing like the pile of rags the proprietor had been holding earlier. The walls were draped in a thick yellow fabric that made the room feel private, a hushed space where he could play out every single fantasy without being disturbed. Standing near the bed was a woman with black hair, more beautiful than any whore Arthur had ever seen, not because she had a more admirable body or a prettier face but because she held herself with a kind of confidence and pride that few people ever achieved. Arthur found it overwhelmingly alluring.
“You must be the captain,” she said, crossing her arms behind her back. She wore brown trousers and a white tunic, laces opened. The belt around her waist showcased the narrowness of her body. She had small tits. Arthur was sure he’d accidentally stumbled upon paradise.
“I am the captain,” Arthur said, excitement tingling under his skin. “And you’re under my command. Bend over the bed.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, and her voice was full of insubordination. It made Arthur want to pull the tunic off her shoulder and bite. She bent forward on the bed, her arms stretched out above her head and her arse on display. Arthur was impatient, quickly removing his jacket and scabbard. He pressed up behind her and pushed her tunic up as far as the belt would allow, then reached around and undid the laces on her trousers, yanking them down and taking in the smooth skin of her arse.
He spanked her arse, hard enough to sting but not enough to bruise.
“Coward,” the woman spat, and Arthur chuckled. He brought his hand down again, hard this time, and she goaded, “Is that all you’ve got? Not such a mighty pirate after all, are we?”
He didn’t hold back. He hit her again and again, drawing sharp gasps and low laughs. This woman was a true masochist, pressing her arse against his hand as if begging for more. He hit her until his arm was tired. When he relented, she pressed back against the front of his breeches, wiggling her arse and coaxing his cock into hardness. He gripped her hips and rubbed against her until she bucked him off, pushing him down on the bed.
Stepping between his legs, she pulled his shirt over his head and threw it behind her, her full lips quirked in a grin that seemed like a challenge. His eyes fell closed as she kissed a path from his jaw to his nipple, then stopped. He reached out to grab her head and press her face back to his skin but couldn’t find it. When he opened his eyes, she was nowhere in sight.
“Running away, are we?” Arthur said, amused. “That’ll mean a lashing when I find you.”
But something was off. The air was colder than it had been a moment ago, and things began to change. The draperies on the wall disappeared, leaving ugly wood panelling in their wake. The bed beneath him felt hard, and when he looked down, the linens were a dull grey colour and rough to the touch.
“What the hell?” he muttered. His hand was halfway to the dagger in his boot when he noticed him—a boy, maybe fifteen, sixteen—standing by the door in front of a chair that hadn’t been there before.
“Who are you?” Arthur said, sitting back up, dagger forgotten. “What’s going on?”
The boy approached him, his young face calm but for the worry evident between his brows. He pressed his thumb to Arthur’s tattoo and asked in a thick Irish accent, “Where did you get this?”
Arthur forgot how to breathe. He stared at the boy’s hand against him, at the triskelion stained into his own flesh. It took him too long to recover. The boy jabbed him again and demanded, “Where?”
“I had my first mate do it,” Arthur said. “A few years ago. I like the symbol.”
“I don’t believe you,” the boy said. He had thick black hair that curled slightly around his large ears. His eyelashes were long, and Arthur realised as he stared that the boy was remarkably pretty—not handsome yet, though Arthur suspected he would become that way after a few more winters. His lips were pink and lush. Arthur cleared his throat and looked away.
“Why are you interested in the mark?” he ventured.
The boy pulled his tunic up to his neck, exposing his chest and abdomen. Arthur’s unsatisfied lust clouded his mind, and he drank in the boy’s skin. It looked soft and fair as any woman’s, but newer, younger, fresh in a way that had Arthur feeling unseated in his own body.
Unthinking, he reached out for the boy, curved a hand around his waist, and his skin was just as smooth as it looked. But then something caught his eye: the tattoo, a triskelion on his chest exactly where Arthur had placed his own.
“Where did you get yours?” he breathed, hand still pressed to the boy’s side.
“I’ve always had it,” the boy said, jerking away from Arthur’s grip.
Arthur thought he was telling the truth, or as close to it as the boy could conjure. The mark was faint and showed signs of having been stretched by rapid growth, expanding with the breadth of his chest, still narrow and hairless—a boy’s chest—but lined with the tight muscles of early virility.
“Do you know what it means?” Arthur said, watching him smooth his tunic back into place.
The boy laughed, a mirthless sound, condescending in a way someone so young shouldn’t know how to execute. “Do you?”
“It’s power,” Arthur said, and he knew it was an ineloquent answer, but it was also the only one he could give.
The boy shook his head and pointed at his own chest with his thumb. “I’m power.”
Realisation struck Arthur momentarily dumb. “You did that? The woman and the room? You made me see that?”
The boy sniffed as though it was obvious, as though it was easy, and Arthur knew as he’d known since he approached the door to this brothel that he’d found it. The treasure he’d been searching for was here, and he was looking at it. And it was human. It didn’t fit in any of his plans or fantasies, outside the realm of anything he’d predicted. But confidence seeped in warm and thick that this boy’s magic belonged to him, that he would come to possess it. The question was how.
He watched the boy’s face, the way insecurity wore through his smugness. His fingers clenched and unclenched, and he dropped his head forward, unwilling to meet Arthur’s eyes. He had the ability to bend reality but used it for something as mundane as whoring, and that was the key piece of information that made certainty settle deep in Arthur’s mind. Arthur would win this. The boy was young, full of something raw he didn’t understand, and Arthur knew how easy this would be, to play this boy, to take him and possess him.
Arthur chose his next words carefully, hoping to affront the boy’s self-perception, to insidiously tear apart his sense of control. He remembered being young. “All this power, and you’re a common whore?” He shook his head as though disappointed.
“Not so common,” the boy spat, and Arthur knew it was working.
“Do you have a name, my little whore?” This boy wasn’t accustomed to being seen. Arthur could use that.
“Why would I tell you?”
“Because I want to say your name when I fuck you.” It was an empty threat, but the boy’s breath caught and he sputtered, believing.
“You can’t! I’m not … I don’t ….”
“You’re a whore, boy. That’s what whores do, isn’t it?”
“Merlin,” the boy said, and at Arthur’s raised eyebrow, he continued, “My name. It’s Merlin. Don’t call me ‘boy.’”
It was uncomfortable for Arthur, the way Merlin reacted exactly how he expected him to, urging Arthur down a path that felt cruel and threatening and too close. But he was willing to do this if it meant finally taking his treasure.
“All right, Merlin. You may call me Captain. Now, strip.”
“I don’t do that,” Merlin said, firmer this time, calm. “I make people see. I don’t touch.”
Arthur knew his own body, knew his surroundings, and he had Merlin pressed to the bed in half a wink, shoving Merlin’s shirt up again and pressing his hand to the tattoo.
“Whores fuck, Merlin. One way or another, that’s all they do.”
Merlin’s face looked wild, and his chest was rising and falling rapidly. Arthur knew, could sense the power in him, the magic thrumming through his body, but he didn’t use it. He stayed caged, trapped beneath Arthur’s weight, and wasn’t that interesting?
“Do you want more?” Arthur asked, intentionally vague.
“More?” Merlin said, and his voice was thin, just a breath. The blacks of his eyes threatened to overtake the blue.
“I have a ship,” Arthur said. “I sail the world. I can go anywhere, see anything. I’ve seen things you can’t imagine.”
“Please,” Merlin huffed. “I’ve seen things you don’t want to.”
“Fantasies,” Arthur said. “Lies. I can show you the real world.”
Arthur ran his hand down Merlin’s chest, stroked up Merlin’s side, a challenge, and there was something dangerous on Merlin’s face, something Arthur couldn’t resist.
“I’m taking you with me,” he said, pulling off of Merlin and noticing, storing away for later, the swollen front of Merlin’s trousers.
“I’m not afraid of you,” Merlin said, and Arthur knew he meant it.
“But you’re coming with me anyway.”
Arthur handed the proprietor his entire pouch of gold and said, “I’m taking the boy with me.”
She took the pouch, hand calm and slow like she was accustomed to being well paid for Merlin’s services, and nodded at them both. Arthur stood dumbly, waiting for a fight, until she said, “Good evening, then.”
Arthur glanced at Merlin, who seemed unbothered, and then back at the proprietor, who nodded and turned. She approached the farthest room to the left and knocked on the door, shouting, “Time’s up, boys.”
“Oh,” Merlin said, as though he’d forgotten something, and then the room was filled with the sounds of fucking. Arthur glared at Merlin, who shrugged a shoulder and moved for the door. Arthur strode up to him and fisted a hand in his shirt, dragging him out into the night as though he felt in any way in control. Unnervingly, Merlin let him keep it there, and Arthur was the one to pull away.
When they were halfway to the ship, Arthur stopped walking and asked, “Why was that so easy?”
“Oh, she didn’t own me,” Merlin said as though it was obvious.
“Then why were you there?” Arthur stared at him, perplexed, but Merlin merely shrugged and walked ahead.
“Didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
Arthur watched Merlin walk a moment, brain slow and uncomprehending, then jogged to catch up. “And why were you there in the first place?”
“Room and board. Needed to make my way somehow.”
Arthur scoffed in disbelief. “All your gifts, and you chose whoring?”
Merlin shrugged again. “It was easy work.”
Merlin didn’t feel like the most sought-after treasure in the world. After two months, he mostly felt like a giant pain in the arse, a constant sniping in Arthur’s ear. Merlin fought about everything: what was to eat, where he’d sleep, who he’d spend his time with, who got to steer the ship.
“You don’t need all these ropes and pulleys,” Merlin said. “I can guide the ship.”
“Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should,” was Arthur’s response, and Merlin would never know how true it was for Arthur.
Sometimes Merlin offered to show him things when Arthur was feeling most irritable. He always said no, even though he wanted it, wanted to feel satisfied down to his toes. He knew Merlin could do it for him, that Merlin was gifted, but he still refused.
One day, after Arthur had to maroon Morgana, one of his most experienced crew mates, because she’d betrayed him, Merlin offered again.
“Come on,” Merlin said. “Go on. You look like you could use it.”
“No,” Arthur said, clutching his hands into fists. He needed it, desperately, but he would not accept.
“I don’t mind.” Merlin was lounging on his pallet, stretching his fingers out in front of his face. “I’m used to it.”
“You’re not a whore anymore. No.”
“So noble,” Merlin mocked. He rolled on his side, resting his head in his hand, and Arthur was struck again by how pretty his face was.
“You came with me because I promised you a new life.”
“That’s not why,” Merlin said, and his face was serious.
Arthur wanted to ask why, but instead he said, “My answer is no.”
Merlin stormed off then, and Arthur couldn’t understand what had upset him.
Honing Merlin’s magic was difficult, largely because Arthur didn’t know what to do with it. Ostensibly, this was why Merlin was with him, wasn’t it? Arthur knew he was supposed to be harnessing Merlin’s power, finding a way to use it somehow. But what did he need? He had money and influence. He could disappear and live well until his death. Was he supposed to seek immortality? It didn’t appeal to him. He didn’t like himself enough to want to be stuck in his own company forever.
What use did Arthur have for Merlin’s magic? Maybe that wasn’t the point. Maybe his job was to protect Merlin, to keep others from using him for their own ends. Maybe Arthur’s lack of ambition made him the ideal gatekeeper of Merlin’s gifts. He’d rescued Merlin from a whorehouse—rescued him from a life he hadn’t even realised was a prison. Of course Merlin would let himself be used. Of course Arthur had to protect him. Just his luck that the greatest treasure in the world was a chore.
Also a bloody curse for his libido. He felt like he’d been waiting to get off since that night in the brothel, like he had blue balls that wouldn’t end no matter how many times he wanked pretending the lips in his mind’s eye belonged to a woman. Pretending he didn’t feel heat surge through his body when Merlin was indiscreet at night, lying on a pallet not three feet from Arthur’s bed, soft gasps and the sound of rustling linens travelling the short distance between them. Arthur never gave in, never reached down and touched himself, timing his strokes with Merlin’s harsh breaths, but he wanted to. He thought about it. He wondered what Merlin was thinking of, what kind of girl Merlin took to. If he took to girls at all.
Arthur couldn’t stop thinking about the way Merlin’s eyes had gone dark and his cock had grown hard under Arthur’s body. It only made sense, he supposed. Merlin was young, would probably respond to anyone’s hot skin pressed up against him. But Arthur couldn’t help feeling like this was different, like they were drawn to each other. They bore the same mark, occupied the same spaces, and Arthur swore he wasn’t imagining the way Merlin would look at him when it was late and they got ready to sleep.
Arthur diligently ignored the way he felt drawn to Merlin. Merlin wasn’t a woman, after all. He wasn’t even a man. The boy was fifteen, and while Arthur had been captaining a ship at that age, he knew how young that was now. Bravery then was stupidity, overconfidence, luck. Arthur remembered fifteen, the overwhelming newness of everything, the way his body yearned for contact.
Merlin’s body was no different. Every night, Arthur was trapped in Merlin’s hot gaze. Every night, he listened, breathless, to the sounds of Merlin’s hands on himself. The days were better, easier, but sometimes one of his crew would get too close to Merlin, would ruffle his hair or steady him as he leaned over the bow, hands on Merlin’s hips, and Arthur felt irrationally jealous. He never let himself touch Merlin, even in passing.
But Merlin touched him sometimes, and it affected Arthur so profoundly that it scared him. Merlin’s skin against his was electric, suffocating, like nothing Arthur had ever felt before. He was certain it was Merlin’s magic, the inherent power of his being. But knowing that didn’t make Arthur’s desire any less intense, didn’t stop his hands from itching to slip beneath Merlin’s tunic and feel his sea-damp skin.
Taking their midday meal together in the captain’s mess, Merlin looked at Arthur seriously, setting down his fork.
“Am I ugly?”
“What?” Arthur was caught off his guard.
“You heard me,” Merlin said, eyes staring straight into Arthur’s face.
“I don’t understand the question,” Arthur said, hoping Merlin didn’t notice the evasion.
“It’s just. I can make people see what they want, but they don’t want me.” Merlin didn’t sound sad, exactly. He sounded more ponderous, as though human attraction was a thing he’d only witnessed but never experienced, something he didn’t understand. It made Arthur want to shove him down on the table and show him what his want felt like, hot and consuming.
“You’re just a boy,” Arthur said finally, reminding himself of that keen fact.
“Don’t call me that.”
“You’re young,” Arthur amended, and in his mind added too young. “Don’t worry so much.”
“But am I ugly?” Merlin was persistent, and Arthur couldn’t ignore the bare vulnerability drawn across his face.
“No. You’re not ugly.” Even that small admission left Arthur feeling terribly exposed.
And then Merlin pushed his food aside and leaned across the table, pressing his hand to Arthur’s face. Arthur gasped, the sensation bright and hot and overpowering, the feel of Merlin’s skin sucking every thought from his mind. Arthur leaned into the touch, angled his face and rubbed his nose across Merlin’s wrist, smelling his soft skin. He nearly had his lips pressed there, and then Merlin pulled his hand away, settled back in his seat.
“I believe you,” Merlin said, returning to his meal, his mouth quirked in a self-satisfied smile that could only mean he knew. He knew what Arthur wanted.
Arthur, dread pirate feared around the world, was terrified.
If Merlin had been indiscreet before, he was actively showcasing himself now. What had once been choked-off gasps and the sound of moving fabric became open moans and the wet, slapping sound of skin against skin. It drove Arthur mad, fingers itching to touch himself and even more to crawl between Merlin’s legs and finish the job for him, take his cock into his mouth and taste him, pull groans from his mouth and swallow down his release. Listening to Merlin come every night was fucking torture, knowing he could open the boy up and press inside but remaining trapped in his bed by a conscience no self-respecting pirate held to.
And that was the thought that drove him to the edge, the thought that other men would be weaker, would have pressed Merlin’s pretty face into the bed and taken his body ages ago. After a week of losing sleep, a week of listening, paralysed, as Merlin brought himself off, sometimes twice in a row, Arthur relented. He allowed himself this—just this—to roll on his side and take himself in hand, pump himself slowly, silently, listening to every breath and every moan, coming hard into his own hand and finally finding peaceful sleep.
Arthur felt like he was being played. He couldn’t tell what pleasure this brought the boy, teasing reactions out of Arthur. But it was certainly a game, perhaps Merlin proving to himself that he didn’t need magic to win a man’s desire. Arthur wanted to throw him overboard, almost as much as he wanted to shove him facedown on any given surface and lick him open, but he knew it would be no good. He was bound to Merlin now, committed to showing him the world, giving him access to knowledge. But Merlin didn’t seem interested in knowledge.
They visited the best libraries, spoke with the wisest scholars, examined artefacts as old as Merlin’s magic, but Merlin was busy playing coy, playing younger than he was, casually pulling his tunic off to the side and exposing the tattoo like he knew Arthur wanted to touch it. Any tenderness Arthur felt for the boy was supplanted by frustration when he behaved this way. Arthur was trying, and Merlin seemed keen to undo all his careful work.
The ship made port in a northern lumber town in January. It was so cold that many of the boards holding the ship together had begun to crack. Damage like this would only get worse, and Arthur knew they needed to resupply immediately. They couldn’t afford to wait until they made it farther south.
It was miserable ashore. The high winds bit through their clothing, and the ground was slick with snow that had melted and then froze again, jagged and unpredictable. It took them thirty minutes to walk to the lumberyard, slipping and nearly injuring themselves every step of the way.
There were no carts that could safely navigate the ice, so they would have to haul the load on foot. Arthur looked at the stacks of lumber and turned to Leon. “How much do you think we need?”
“Honestly?” Leon asked, the look on his face indicating that Arthur wouldn’t like the answer. “We’ll need to take two trips, and that’s with heavy loads. On this ice, we probably need to do it in four.”
Arthur wanted to tear his hair out. He kicked at the ground and nearly slipped and fell. “We need to do better than that.”
“I can do it,” Merlin offered. Arthur turned and saw Merlin standing off to the left, listening in as always. “It wouldn’t be hard.”
Leon took a step back, opening the conversation to Merlin. “It would make this much less dangerous, sir.”
“No,” Arthur said, shaking his head. “We can’t risk someone seeing.”
The three of them stared at the lumber for a moment, and Merlin said, “I’ll make it easier, then. I can make the lumber lighter, and we can do it in one trip.”
Leon nodded. “Your reputation is well established here. These people will accept the strength of the crew.”
“Very well,” Arthur said. “But carefully. We can’t afford any mistakes.”
Merlin smiled, his young face bright with excitement. He loved to be useful.
Arthur and Leon covered him as he crept up to the lumber and put his hands on it, and Arthur supposed he was getting a sense for its texture and weight. Merlin let out a slow, steady sigh, then came up to stand between them, saying, “Ready.” He brushed a clump of snow off Arthur’s shoulder, and Arthur took a step forward, away from Merlin’s too-familiar touch.
Arthur paid the lumberyard foreman in gold and told him to go inside. The man turned instantly and entered his small wooden hut, and Arthur felt smug. Even when he paid for his wares, his authority went unquestioned.
He walked cautiously back to his crew, taking small, measured steps. He urged his men to be careful, told them to speak up if they felt themselves slipping. They had to do this right the first time.
The crew gathered all the lumber they could carry, hefting it between them and forming as stable an arrangement as they could on the treacherous ice. One by one, the small groups moved slowly towards the ship, sharp yells ringing out every now and then as someone lost his footing. But the lumber never dropped.
Merlin walked beside them, staring at the cargo as it floated on the men’s hands, seemingly unaffected by the wind that nearly toppled Arthur. A few steps behind, Arthur watched Merlin, his clumsy feet slipping and sliding on the ice. Arthur braced himself, ready to catch Merlin’s ever-impending fall, but despite his carelessness, he never lost balance.
It took an hour, but they made it back to the ship with the cargo intact and no serious injuries. Arthur stayed ashore until every piece of lumber had been loaded and the crew were warming themselves in the lower decks. Merlin sat at the water’s edge, his hands hovering above small patches of ice that melted under his gaze. Leon and the others almost had the sails rigged properly for embarkation, so Arthur went to untie the ropes holding the gangplank steady on the dock.
The first one released without incident, but Arthur struggled with the second. The wet knot had frozen solid and wouldn’t budge, so Arthur pulled the dagger out of his boot to cut the rope. Somewhere between the ice at Arthur’s feet and the force of slicing through the rope, there was a sudden shift of the world around him that coincided with a bright, hot pain in his chest. He fell headfirst against the gangplank, a gasp caught in his throat.
“Arthur!” Merlin shouted, his voice wrecked and terrified, and Arthur wondered what was the matter. Firm hands turned him onto his back, and the sky was too bright until Merlin’s face was over his, blocking out the light. Leon’s face joined a moment later as he crouched over him, blocking the wind.
Arthur tried to reach out for something to hold on to, but his arms were heavy and clumsy. Leon and Merlin were staring at his chest, so he glanced down to see what they were looking at. The hilt of his dagger was sticking out of him, its blade embedded near his heart.
“Oh,” he said, his slow brain catching up with his senses. He tried to ask what had happened, but he couldn’t find the breath. Panic seeped into Arthur’s mind as he tried and tried to find air and couldn’t. He curled his fingers around Merlin’s neck, but his glove was in the way. He pulled it off with his teeth, the cold ripping into his skin immediately, and brought it back to Merlin’s neck, seeking out the softness of his skin. Leon cleared his throat and turned his head away as Arthur stared up into Merlin’s concerned face. Merlin nodded as though preparing himself for something, and Arthur felt a rough tug as Merlin pulled the dagger from his chest.
“You’ll be okay,” Merlin said, pressing his hand to where the blade had pierced Arthur. “I’ll make you better.”
Arthur gripped Merlin’s neck tighter, and Merlin leaned forward, pressing his forehead to Arthur’s as he closed his eyes and muttered too low for Arthur to make out the words. Gradually, Arthur found his breath again, the weight of injury being lifted from his body, eradicated by Merlin’s touch. Merlin pressed his face in closer, his lips brushing across Arthur’s as he whispered, and Arthur wanted to kiss him. He wanted to move his fingers up into Merlin’s hair and angle his head and lick into Merlin’s pretty mouth. Merlin was so focussed, his hand still pressing firmly against Arthur’s chest, his eyes closed.
Arthur’s breathing felt constricted again, but this time it was because of Merlin, his closeness, the way he poured himself into healing Arthur. Merlin leaned back and tore at Arthur’s coat, ripping apart Arthur’s tunic and running his fingers over the skin. Arthur gasped and lifted his head, looking down to see his skin, covered in blood but completely healed. Merlin let out a single laugh, and Arthur looked up at his face. He reached his hand up to touch the tears that had frozen against Merlin’s skin, stroking his cheek with numb fingers and wishing he could feel him. Merlin’s eyes grew wide and his lips parted, and Arthur’s fingers were in his hair, pulling him down until he was close enough to share his breath, warm and wet.
“Arthur,” Merlin breathed, wet hand coming up to rest against Arthur’s neck.
A sudden wind and the sound of footsteps on the gangplank jolted Arthur, and he angled his head to see Leon’s back retreating up towards the ship. He glanced back at Merlin, beautiful and near—too near. Arthur disentangled his fingers from Merlin’s hair and pressed his hands against Merlin’s chest, pushing him away.
Merlin looked confused and, beneath that, hurt. Arthur had let him get too close. No, that wasn’t right. Arthur had put him there, tugged him in and let himself get lost in the nearness of him.
“Merlin,” he said, trying to find words. “Get on the ship. You’ll freeze.”
Merlin hesitated, looking at Arthur as though he might yet change his mind, then pulled away, stomping up the gangplank. Arthur lay there, cold and exhausted, wondering how he’d ever rebuild the boundaries he’d just invited Merlin to crash through.
The answer came two tense days later when Arthur was horribly drunk for the first time in years and Vivian came on to him again. She was smart and an excellent carpenter, and Arthur absolutely loathed her. Somehow, a sloppy conversation about replacing the cracked planks had shifted into Vivian in his lap, eager lips on his neck, and all Arthur could think of was Merlin, who was back in their quarters sulking. She was so opposite to him—cold and blond and soft and female.
He pushed Vivian off his lap, which was typical, but then he wound his arm around her waist and dragged her along the corridor, sliding fingers beneath her tunic to find the warm skin of her belly. He shoved the door of his quarters open, and it slammed against the wall.
Merlin jumped, the pages of the book in his lap fanning shut. He looked from Arthur to Vivian and back. “Arthur, what are you—”
“Get out,” Arthur said, pushing Vivian into the room, jabbing his thumb towards the door.
“No.” Merlin glared over at Vivian, who was sliding her tunic over her head.
Arthur marched up to him and grabbed him by the back of the shirt, hauling him off his pallet and shoving him out the door. He shut it behind him and barred it, and Merlin’s yells were drowned out by Arthur’s own shame. He pressed his forehead against the door, which was vibrating from the way Merlin was banging on it.
Vivian curled her arms around his waist, and he just wanted to get this over with. He shoved her back into the room, and she laughed as he yanked off her trousers and pushed her face-first against the bed. He didn’t even bother getting undressed, just unlaced his breeches and pulled himself out, still soft. He squeezed his dick and thought of Merlin on his knees, lips stretched around his cock, hating that that’s what it took to get hard.
When he was most of the way there, he shoved against Vivian and loathed himself as he slid inside. He fucked her hard and felt nauseous, thinking of Merlin sitting outside. He’d stopped yelling, but Arthur knew he was still there, sitting, waiting. He pulled Vivian’s hair, and she shrieked. “Louder,” he ordered, and she started wailing like he was the best fuck she’d ever had. The lie of it made him snort.
He just barely found the courtesy to reach around and rub at her. “Louder, louder, louder,” Arthur urged, needing Merlin to hear this, and she looked over her shoulder at him like he was insane but did as he said anyway.
It took forever for Arthur to come, guilt coiled deep in his gut as Vivian screamed insincere pleasure and Arthur thought only of Merlin—Merlin’s eyes and lips and skin and how good it would feel to press inside his body and make him cry out in genuine satisfaction. He felt disgusted with himself as he pulled out and came into his own palm.
He wiped his soiled hand against his tunic and laced himself back up immediately, wanting to vomit. Vivian stood and looked at him, her face full of judgment, and he deserved it.
“You’re fucking weird,” she said, pulling her trousers back up. “Sir.”
Arthur just shrugged, feeling weak and unable to explain himself. There was no explanation for this. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right,” she said, voice unperturbed as she found her shirt and put it on. “I came twice anyway. Thanks for that.”
Arthur went to open the door, and Vivian tumbled out, her hair matted and wild. Merlin was sitting with his back against the wall, knees pulled up to his chest. When he looked up at Arthur, his eyes were red and puffy and his face was wet from tears. Arthur wanted to kneel before him and apologise, beg forgiveness, tell him it didn’t mean anything, but he couldn’t. Merlin needed to know that Arthur wasn’t his, no matter how much Arthur felt himself bound more and more tightly to everything about him. To save Merlin’s heart, he had to break it.
Merlin had been angry with Arthur for weeks, scowling and stomping and sassing him. But he healed soon enough, and they returned to life as usual, building Merlin’s control over his magic and ignoring the fine tension between them.
Merlin leaned back against the mast, one hand ruffling his own hair, as Arthur steered the ship. It was easy and silent, and Arthur forgot to look at Merlin for a long time, staring out over the sea and remembering what drew him here in the first place. It was eternal, graceful, and his. Then Merlin hummed, and Arthur cast eyes at him, and he was like the sea, solid in the wind, beautiful in every ancient piece of him, cherished in every bit that was new.
“Did you know some men take to bed with other men?” Merlin asked.
Arthur took care not to react in any way Merlin could see. “Of course. It’s very common at sea.”
“But I mean some men do it because that’s what they want.” Merlin’s voice was doing that unsettling thing it did sometimes where Arthur couldn’t read it. He looked at Merlin’s face and realised just how much Merlin must have been watching him, learning. The boy couldn’t study a book, but he could study Arthur. It made Arthur feel liquid inside.
“Yes,” was Arthur’s response, an acknowledgment that some men do these things. An acknowledgment. Nothing more.
“Have you done it?”
“Had sex with a man?” Arthur asked, voice even, eyes trained on the sea.
“No.” Against his better judgment, he looked at Merlin, but Merlin didn’t seem to react to this at all. He just stared at Arthur, calculating, and Arthur felt transparent.
“Oh,” Merlin said, and Arthur felt suddenly certain that he’d just lost an important battle.
One unusually frigid April day, Arthur had spent several hours battling a leak in the lower decks. It was dirty work, cold and miserable, and while they got it fixed in the end, Arthur’s mood was distinctly foul. He peeled himself out of his clothes and returned to his quarters wrapped up in a bath sheet, his feet freezing against the cold deck.
All he wanted was to crawl into his bed and lie there until the cold left him, but when he entered his room, his bed was already occupied. There was a woman there, blond with large breasts, naked. The light from the roaring fire played against her skin, and the room felt oddly bright.
“Come to bed,” she said, sitting up and patting the space next to her.
“Merlin, I’ve told you I don’t want this,” Arthur said, climbing into the bed and carefully not touching the apparition.
“No,” said another woman’s voice, and Arthur looked over to see the woman from that first night with Merlin, the one he’d spanked and nearly fucked. “You like women more like this, don’t you?”
“Merlin, stop it. I’ve had a long day, and I don’t want to play games.”
“You like games,” the woman said, leaning across Arthur’s lap and wriggling her arse in his face. “You’ve had a rough day. Play a little.”
Arthur shoved her off of him, pinning her on her back. He leaned over her, staring at her face, marvelling at the intricacy of Merlin’s creation. She was so real. She had a messy hairline and freckles and a scar on her chin.
She shoved away the bath sheet he’d kept on for the barest shred of modesty. He wasn’t hard, didn’t want this, and he said, “Merlin, stop.”
“You don’t want this?”
“How about this, then?”
Arthur watched as the woman’s hair shortened and her ears grew, watched her nipples shrink and a triskelion tattoo bloom on her chest. And it was Merlin, the same scar, the same freckles, the same messy hairline, and Arthur felt like part of some cosmic joke.
Arthur couldn’t help but look, but stare at Merlin this close, the heat of his body warming Arthur. Merlin’s hands were on his chest, his leg wrapped around Arthur’s hip.
“Do you want this?” Merlin said, grabbing Arthur’s hand and shoving it against his cock, which was hard, so fucking hard, and grinding against him.
Arthur wanted it, felt torn apart inside over how much he wanted to let Merlin’s thighs draw him in, let Merlin’s mouth find his neck, let Merlin overtake him, overpower him. He wanted to give in.
But he didn’t. He tore his hand away from Merlin’s cock and shoved Merlin’s hands above his head, pinning them there, caught off guard by how fucking delicious Merlin looked trapped beneath him, smooth skin stretching over his ribs as he writhed, cock resting hard and thick against his belly.
“How could I want you?” Arthur said, pulling away from Merlin, praying he didn’t look down. “You repulse me.”
“You’re lying,” Merlin said. “You said I wasn’t ugly.”
“But you’re still just a whore,” Arthur hissed, shoving Merlin out of the bed.
But when Arthur looked, Merlin wasn’t on the floor, and the fire wasn’t roaring, and the room faded to its usual dullness. Merlin was leaning, fully clothed, in the doorway, and without a word, he left.
They didn’t talk about it. In fact, they hardly talked at all. Outside of their magic trials—Merlin cursing and huffing and storming off when he couldn’t make a jug of water empty itself a single drop at a time—Arthur didn’t see Merlin at all. Merlin seemed to spend most of his time with Gwaine, the brig guard, taunting crew mates who had become drunk and aggressive. He didn’t come to bed until late, hours after Arthur retired, and when he did, he was silent. He crawled onto his pallet and slept, his soft moans a sound Arthur could only remember.
This was better, Arthur decided. He missed Merlin, raw and palpable, but Merlin avoiding him was preferable to Merlin challenging him, testing his resolve. Arthur didn’t know if he’d be able to resist again if Merlin crawled into his bed, real or projected, and offered his body. Arthur started dreaming of it, the way Merlin would feel, how he’d react to being touched—his chest arched towards Arthur, his breath coming in gasps.
Arthur woke and watched Merlin sleep, the placid look on his face, the sharp curve of his Adam’s apple, three days’ worth of patchy coarse hair on his face. Someday Merlin would grow a full beard, would stop being lovely and start being handsome. Would it be okay then? Would Merlin want him then? It made Arthur ache, knowing what he could never have. Sometimes he wanted to crawl behind Merlin on his pallet and kiss the seam where hair met skin on the back of his neck, curl his hand around Merlin’s hip and just be close to him, just feel him there. It was something he shouldn’t want, could never let himself act on, but still, he started every morning just watching Merlin and wishing he were older, knowing deep down that he wouldn’t want Merlin so much if he didn’t have all those things that only youthful people have: passion, ambition, belief.
Arthur wanted to watch Merlin’s body change, see him every day as his shoulders filled in and his voice became richer and his abdomen became rough with hair. Every day, he wanted this, and every day he tried to find Merlin someone better, someone younger and gentler and easier. He had a great variety of men and women on his crew, and he picked his favourites for Merlin. Guinevere, who ran the armoury: kind, smart, beautiful, and an ace with any weapon. Lancelot, his navigator: worldly, genuine, brave, and perhaps the most objectively attractive man Arthur had ever encountered. And as much as the thought of Merlin sharing his smile and his heat and his pleasure with these people made Arthur feel hot with jealousy, he knew he would have to find a way to bear through it. Merlin deserved a life of his own.
Sometimes Arthur considered finding himself a wife, settling down, having children, but getting married just to show Merlin what moving on looked like was unfair. Arthur had never felt drawn to domesticity, happy to have sex or not but preferring the stillness of his own mind for company in his rooms. But being alone now, Merlin away from him, he felt anxious, like something essential was missing. He hadn’t known just how intimately Merlin had become installed in his life until he was gone, and the emptiness in all of Arthur’s spaces felt deafening.
It got easier with time as Merlin warmed to him again. They began taking meals together, planning voyages to all the places rumoured to be magical hubs. Merlin seemed happy, finally taking an interest in honing his abilities. He was distant still, unchallenging, as though nothing Arthur did could get under his skin. Arthur pushed and pushed, and Merlin let him, acquiesced, worked hard and gave and fell into his pallet exhausted at the end of the day, the mindless rubbing over his tattoo reminding Arthur of how they belonged, and of what he’d given up.
He was so focussed on Merlin and his gifts that he didn’t notice the warning signs, the too-clean ports and the empty waters. Captain Arthur Pendragon was untouchable, had been for years. But word had spread that he’d gone soft, and the Crown wanted him, watched him, tracked his movements.
Arthur was surprised when he saw the first ship on the horizon, the King’s flag waving proudly. By the time he spotted the thirteenth ship, he was filled with dread. They were the finest warships in the fleet, equipped with enough firepower to sink the Albion I in just a few short minutes. Arthur saw the end coming, felt everything he’d built sinking into the sea that could no longer shelter him. But then Merlin emerged on deck.
Merlin took one look at the fleet closing in and said, “Arthur.”
Arthur looked at him, and he wasn’t a boy any longer. His face was calm, but there was unfathomable life in his eyes. His body seemed sure, and Arthur could feel Merlin’s magic coalescing, the air becoming charged and tense. He looked at Merlin now and saw a god, magnificent in his power. He was older than man, older than the earth, eternal as the sea, and he said, “Let me help you,” and Arthur just nodded.
Time seemed to dilate as Arthur watched Merlin raise his arms, focussing on the ships closing in on them. Merlin’s voice was deeper than Arthur had ever heard it as he spoke in a language Arthur didn’t recognise, a language he suspected even Merlin didn’t know. The sea became utterly still, the surface like glass, and only Arthur’s own breathing convinced him that time was still moving forward.
Merlin’s hands turned up towards the sky, and then he glowed, fucking glowed, his whole body radiant, and the world around them grew dark, Merlin’s light the only beacon in endless black. Arthur watched him, listened as something ancient and powerful worked within him, and Arthur knew that Merlin was connected to everything, the sea and the sky and the earth and time itself. When the darkness lifted, the Albion I was alone. There was no sign of the other ships—no wreckage, no wake. They had simply vanished.
And then Merlin turned to him and smiled his bright, boyish smile, eyes crinkling, and Arthur loved him. Merlin looked unsteady, his limbs uncoordinated and his face slipping into an expression of confusion. Arthur took three long strides and caught him as he fell, unconscious, precious in Arthur’s arms. He carried him to their room and laid him in the bed, allowing himself the small luxury of brushing Merlin’s hair off his forehead and stroking his cheek, staring down at his pretty face and coming to terms with just how much he adored this boy. He moved to take off Merlin’s boots and saw that he wasn’t wearing any. Arthur laughed at the absurdity of it. He had saved them all without a moment’s hesitation, bore this burden and came out smiling, and did all of it barefoot.
He watched Merlin rest, no doubt exhausted from what he’d done. He looked so young lying there, long eyelashes resting against unweathered skin. His tunic was skewed, showing one corner of the triskelion, and Arthur couldn’t help but pull the fabric aside and look at the grey ink embedded in Merlin’s skin. Arthur pressed his fingers to it, and it felt like the rest of Merlin: soft and warm, inviting. Merlin sighed and began to stir, and Arthur pulled his hand away and moved to stand, but Merlin’s hand came up to hold his leg in place.
“Why don’t you ever touch me?” Merlin said, his voice thick. He opened his eyes and looked up at Arthur.
Arthur wasn’t sure what to say, but he thought he owed Merlin the truth. “I want it too much.”
Merlin sat up and leaned in close, moving his hand to Arthur’s waist. “I want you to touch me.”
“You don’t know what you want,” Arthur said, pulling away from Merlin and sliding out of his reach.
Merlin got on his hands and knees and stared at Arthur, calculating. Arthur looked away, feeling exposed and nervous. But then Merlin’s hands were on his chest, and he was pushed flat against the bed, and Merlin’s mouth was on him, soft and wanting, and when Arthur moved to push Merlin away, he ended up just clutching the boy’s neck, leaning up and kissing him properly.
Merlin pulled back and gasped, eyes wide with shock, and Arthur said, “What’s wrong?” but then Merlin just groaned and kissed him again, laid along his body and whimpered against Arthur’s lips. He tried for tongue too soon, enthusiastic and sloppy, and Arthur let him, opened for him, felt the simplicity of his desire.
Arthur was uncomfortable, his legs hanging off the bed and Merlin pressed all along his torso. He pushed Merlin onto his back and crawled between his legs. Merlin’s hands trembled slightly as he slid Arthur’s jacket off his shoulders and ran fingers under his shirt, pulling it off over his head.
Arthur felt oddly self-conscious like this, as though Merlin had never seen him before. But he hadn’t, not like this, close enough to feel each other’s heat. Merlin scratched his fingers through Arthur’s chest hair, and Arthur pulled off Merlin’s tunic, wanting to see just how different they were. And he’d seen Merlin before, of course, had seen a vision of him close and naked, but this was different, and Arthur could feel it. This was Merlin beneath him, Merlin who was hot and writhing, running his hands over Arthur like he was beautiful, like he was wanted.
Being desired wasn’t new to Arthur, but this, Merlin leaning up to kiss his tattoo, dragging lips up his neck and pulling Arthur back down with him, kissing him like he was looking for something—that was new. It scared Arthur, made him want, made him dig his fingers into Merlin’s hair and hold his head down as Arthur pulled back and just looked at him, Merlin’s eyes semi-unfocussed and lips swollen, chest rising and falling. He looked young and wild, and he was, but there was something else in there, something Arthur was meant to possess, so he let go of every protestation of his conscience and took in Merlin’s narrow chest and fine, smooth skin and let himself be overcome by his desire.
Arthur leaned back and unlaced Merlin’s trousers with steady fingers, pulling them down to his knees. He pressed his hand to Merlin’s swollen cock, still trapped in his underclothes, which were wet—so fucking wet—and Arthur felt suddenly lightheaded, couldn’t catch his breath, knowing how desperately Merlin wanted him.
He knew from the way Merlin’s breaths tore out of his chest in ragged pants, knew, but he wanted to ask, to hear Merlin say it out loud, to watch his skin grow hot with embarrassment and want. “Have you ever been touched before, Merlin?”
Merlin shook his head, blushing deeply, and Arthur soothed him with a rough, “Good,” before he pulled away the last barrier keeping the hot skin of Merlin’s cock out of Arthur’s reach. He didn’t bother with freeing Merlin’s legs, because Merlin’s prick sprung out thick and hard, and Merlin was arching off the bed, aching for contact, and Arthur gave it to him, leaned forward licked Merlin’s cock into his mouth.
Arthur had never done this before, but it didn’t matter one bit, because two deep sucks were all it took for Merlin to cry out and come, filling Arthur’s mouth with the light, salty taste of his release. Arthur swallowed him down, relishing the intimacy of consuming the product of Merlin’s desire, and then crawled up his body. He leaned in and kissed down Merlin’s neck, kissed his ears and his forehead and his chin.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” Merlin whispered, eyes shut tight. He was bright red all down to his chest, but he was still twisting beneath Arthur, seeking pleasure against his body, and Arthur wondered how many times he could make Merlin come that night.
“Want more?” Arthur asked, licking along Merlin’s clavicle.
“Yes,” he breathed, fingers digging into Arthur’s shoulders. “No. No, let me.”
Merlin took a steadying breath and then moved his hands around to Arthur’s front, sliding them slowly down as though preparing himself. His hands were shaking, he was so nervous, and Arthur leaned back on his knees to watch his fingers fumble with the laces on his trousers. Merlin got them undone and then huffed when he tried to push them down and they wouldn’t budge. Smiling at Merlin’s consternation, Arthur leaned over and removed his boots, then slid off his trousers and underclothes. Merlin stared openly at him, and Arthur felt his face flush as he realised Merlin had never seen him hard like this before. He leaned over and slid Merlin’s breeches down his legs, throwing them on the floor and staring back at him, taking in every gorgeous angle of the boy’s body. Hard like this, cock heavy in a patch of dark hair, he didn’t look so young, but he was still beautiful, absolutely exquisite.
Arthur climbed onto the bed between Merlin’s legs and sat back, running his hands up and down Merlin’s torso. Merlin grinned wide and bright, looking cheeky and confident even though his limbs were still quivering. “I’m bigger,” he said, pointing at Arthur’s cock, and Arthur couldn’t help but smile.
He leaned over Merlin, dragging the head of his cock across the crease of Merlin’s hip, and Merlin gasped. “You won’t want it to be any bigger than this when I’m stuffing it in your little hole.” Merlin’s eyes grew so wide that he looked frightened. “Only if you want me to,” Arthur promised, kissing Merlin’s pretty mouth. “I’ll only ever do what you want me to.”
Merlin’s breaths came in short gasps, and his hands flew up to tangle in Arthur’s hair. “I want you to,” he said against Arthur’s lips. “I do. I want you to.”
Merlin’s hands rested on Arthur’s hips as they kissed. His mouth became clumsy, and Arthur realised Merlin wanted to touch him. His hands brushed over Arthur’s abdomen, teasing near his prick but not touching. Arthur pulled back and watched Merlin’s face as he gathered the confidence to wrap a hand around Arthur’s cock.
Merlin started to move, and his grip was too loose, Arthur’s foreskin awkwardly folded in Merlin’s hand. He wasn’t good at this at all, and that made it hotter, made Arthur feel like he wanted to crawl out of his skin and climb into Merlin’s, feel what it was like to be so fucking new. This boy had pleasured hundreds of men, maybe thousands, but his own hands were clumsy with how much he wanted it, how much he wanted to please Arthur.
“Is this,” Merlin started, looking down at his hand. “Is it all right?”
He looked fragile, and Arthur knew he could break the boy’s heart, so he kissed him deep. He held Merlin’s face in one hand and kissed into his mouth, hoping to erase all his self-doubt.
“You’re perfect,” Arthur said, and then Merlin smiled bright, deep happiness radiating from him. He regripped Arthur’s cock, ran the fingers of his other hand over Arthur’s thigh, and Arthur couldn’t help but groan as Merlin fell into a rhythm. Merlin stared up at him openly now, full of desire, unashamed, and Arthur kissed him again for the sheer want to taste his mouth.
“Be a good little sorcerer and fetch me something, hmm? Something slippery.”
Merlin held out a hand and his eyes flashed gold—beautiful—and then he shoved his hand toward Arthur, dripping with what smelled like cooking oil. Arthur slicked his fingers and said, “Knees up.” Merlin complied, a fine blush across his cheeks.
“You’ll love this,” Arthur said, even though he had no way of knowing that. He’d heard some drunken crewmen admitting to each other over whiskey that they always came better with a finger in the arse, but later, in his own bed, Arthur was too self-conscious to test the claim.
But here, with Merlin, he wanted to know. He was half tempted to slide wet fingers into himself instead, but there would be plenty of time for that, and what Merlin needed right now was proof that Arthur would always take care of him. And Arthur needed it, too.
Arthur cupped Merlin’s balls up away from his arse, and Merlin groaned. He was so fucking sensitive, and Arthur was committed to making everything perfect for him. He pressed his fingers against Merlin’s entrance, rubbing and massaging, waiting for Merlin to relax. Slowly, he pushed the first finger inside, holding his breath at how fucking hot Merlin was.
“That’s weird,” Merlin said, hiding his face in the crook of his arm.
“Weird bad or weird good?” Arthur asked, pushing his finger in deeper.
“Weird … weird ….” Merlin said, uncertain. Arthur pulled his finger out slightly and thrust it back inside, shocking a moan out of Merlin. “Weird good.”
“You want more?” Arthur said, already pressing his second finger in alongside the first.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Merlin said half under his breath.
Arthur thrust his fingers into Merlin, watching his legs fall apart as he ground slightly back against Arthur’s hand. Arthur didn’t want anything more than to watch Merlin come undone, lost in the pleasure of being fucked.
“Can I have ….” Merlin’s body glistened with sweat, his chest pressed up towards the sky like an offering.
“You can have anything you want, darling.” Arthur pressed a sloppy kiss to Merlin’s knee. “Just tell me.”
“I want another,” Merlin said, wiggling his hips in demonstration.
Arthur pressed a palm against his own cock, aroused beyond belief by how much want Merlin had. He pressed a third finger inside. It was a tight fit, and Merlin grimaced a bit before he began fucking himself on Arthur’s hand, lost, so lost, in sensations that were brand-new to his body, brand-new to Arthur, too, as he watched him grow unstable.
“Ah … fuck,” was the only warning Arthur got before Merlin’s arse clenched around his fingers and his cock jerked, streaking come across his abdomen. Stilling his fingers inside him, Arthur pressed his other hand to Merlin’s belly and smeared his release into his skin, pleasant and slick.
Merlin was quiet, eyes closed. His breathing was less frantic, and his cock began to soften. Arthur debated whether he should let Merlin sleep. He looked so lovely lying there in Arthur’s bed, calm and easy. But Merlin hummed and quirked his lips, ran a hand through Arthur’s hair, and Arthur knew he wasn’t done yet. He kissed Merlin’s cock until he was thrusting shallowly against Arthur’s face, arse greedy around Arthur’s fingers.
“You want more, darling?” Arthur said against Merlin’s cock, pulsing his fingers with implication.
“Mm-hmm,” Merlin hummed, wiggling off of Arthur’s fingers and flipping onto his stomach, one leg on either side of Arthur. He looked fucking obscene like that, legs spread and arse open, just a hint of the dark hair under his arms visible where his hands were stretched over his head.
“Fucking gorgeous,” Arthur said, pulling Merlin up onto his knees. “Gonna fuck you so good, love. So good. Make me wet, now.”
Merlin reached one hand between his legs and grasped Arthur’s cock, slicking it up with fast tugs that betrayed how much he wanted this. He pulled his hand away and got up onto his elbows, head hanging low, watching.
Arthur pulled his fingers out of Merlin and spread them over the gorgeous skin of his arse, steadying himself as he pressed his cock to Merlin’s hole, stunned that he was allowed to do this. “Arthur,” Merlin groaned, voice full of need, and Arthur couldn’t believe that even after coming twice, Merlin could be so anxious to have Arthur inside him.
He pressed into Merlin, slow and easy, and had to hide his face between Merlin’s shoulder blades as the feel of Merlin around him silently shattered him. He wrapped an arm around Merlin’s chest, holding him as he worked his way in. He stopped for a moment when his thighs were pressed flush against Merlin’s, their bodies touching everywhere. It was overwhelming, and Arthur thought he might drown, but Merlin whined and writhed against him, and Arthur said, “I’ll take care of you, love,” and he figured out how to move.
Merlin felt so good, and Arthur couldn’t help kissing him wetly all across his shoulders. Merlin twisted half onto his side, leaving his arse rocking back against Arthur and slinging an arm over Arthur’s shoulder, pulling him close for a kiss. The way Merlin could bend had Arthur envisioning all the ways he might fuck him, just to see if he could. He licked past Merlin’s lips as he thrust, wanting every piece of him at once, frustrated at how little of Merlin he could fit against him.
Merlin was moaning like he couldn’t get enough, and Arthur kissed his jaw, his neck, wanted Merlin to come like this, loud and wild-eyed and unable to stop himself fucking back onto Arthur’s cock. Arthur grabbed Merlin’s prick, rough and impatient, needing to hear Merlin fall apart.
Merlin sobbed and went still, spreading his legs so fucking wide, offering more and deeper and it was so fucking hot that Arthur was dizzy with it. He didn’t have to ask, just fucked hard into Merlin’s body and squeezed his cock, and Merlin came so loud and perfect that Arthur forgot how to breathe. Merlin panted hot and wet against Arthur’s neck, going boneless. The room felt utterly still as Arthur laid him down flat and kissed Merlin’s temple, the smile at the corner of his lips.
“Can I keep fucking you?” he asked, mouth on Merlin’s jaw.
“Mm-hmm,” Merlin hummed, stretching his arms over his head and pressing his arse back against Arthur.
“Gonna come for you,” Arthur said. “You want that?”
“Gonna fill you up.”
“Yeah,” Merlin sighed. “Please.”
Arthur bent one of Merlin’s knees and pushed his leg forward, and it moved easily, no resistance in Merlin’s young body. Merlin sighed happily as Arthur began thrusting again, and Arthur felt his orgasm building. Merlin was giving him this, letting him slide his face across Merlin’s slick back as he fucked him. Merlin twitched and moaned, and Arthur couldn’t contain his feelings for him. After everything, Merlin still wanted this, still got off on it.
“Perfect, beautiful, darling,” Arthur muttered against Merlin’s shoulder, half mad with the frenzy of his need to come. “Yours, yours, yours, yours, yours. Fuck.”
When Arthur came, he nearly lost consciousness. He bit down on Merlin’s shoulder, and Merlin hissed a heady, “Yes.” Arthur rocked his hips without rhythm, mindless in the pleasure of Merlin, the feel of filling him.
Arthur sat back and watched as he pulled out, come leaking from Merlin’s arse as it adjusted to the loss. Arthur was mesmerised. He pressed his fingers to Merlin’s fucked-out hole and pushed in, feeling him sloppy and used. He felt his come inside Merlin, rubbed it against the heat of Merlin’s skin, wanted to make it sink into his body and become a part of him.
“Uh-huh,” Merlin groaned, thrusting his hips against the bed.
“Oh, fuck,” Arthur said, plunging his fingers harder into Merlin. “You need more?”
“Yes,” Merlin said, hiding his face in the bed. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. You’re perfect. Flip over.”
Arthur kept his fingers buried in Merlin’s arse as he turned onto his back, pulling his legs back and giving Arthur an obscene view.
“I don’t know why I want you so much,” Merlin said, and he looked helpless and humiliated.
Arthur pumped his fingers in Merlin and leaned over his body, kissed him deeply. “Shh, darling. I’ll take care of you,” he said, looking down at Merlin’s face until Merlin looked back at him and nodded, a small smile crinkling his eyes.
Arthur kissed his way down Merlin’s body, loving how Merlin let himself go, let himself feel and fuck and cry out as Arthur took his cock in his mouth. He fucked Merlin’s arse with four fingers as he sucked, hard and unrelenting, and Merlin loved it, judging by the way he was thrusting up into Arthur’s mouth, fingers pulling his hair.
“Fuck!” Merlin groaned, his breathing loud and unsteady. “How does this still feel so good?”
Arthur replaced his mouth with his hand and said, “Because you’re young and sensitive and you’ve never been touched like this before.”
“What’s it like for you?” Merlin looked down at him for a moment but then tossed his head back, moaning his pleasure.
“For me, it’s like … like a slow burn, hot and crawling up my skin, making me feel like I can’t breathe until I’m touching you. And then when I touch you, it’s worse, like I’m drowning in it and can’t touch enough of you. And when I come, it’s like I lose everything, forget everything, and it slowly comes back to me piece by piece. And then I feel calm.”
“And you … fuck … you don’t mind? Me?”
Arthur licked the crease between Merlin’s thigh and groin, savouring his scent as he moved. “Merlin, I want to make you come and come and come,” Arthur said, thrusting his fingers hard into Merlin, voice going rough.
“Fuck, ah,” Merlin groaned. “Put your mouth on me.”
Arthur wrapped his lips around Merlin’s cock again as he slowed his fingers in his arse, massaging carefully. Merlin arched hard on the bed, his chest heaving as he whined, high-pitched and open. He twisted his hips in shallow circles and then stilled, his contracting muscles and breathless cries Arthur’s only indication that he’d come. Arthur felt heady in the knowledge that he had fucked Merlin dry.
Merlin slowly relaxed on the bed, and Arthur pulled away from him, watching his body readjust itself into sleepiness as he ran his hands over Merlin’s thighs. Sated at last, Merlin smiled at him from under heavy lids, exhausted and happy.
Arthur peeled back the blankets and ushered Merlin under them. An electric thrill pulsed through him as he watched Merlin sprawl out on his back with his arms and legs stretched out wide, as though he belonged there. Curled up beside him, Arthur pressed soft kisses to Merlin’s neck until Merlin chuckled and pushed him off.
“Tickles,” he murmured, voice suffused with the onset of sleep.
“Go to sleep, darling,” Arthur said.
“You too,” Merlin said, then added a cheeky, “Darling.”
Arthur hid his smile against Merlin’s triskelion.
Captain Arthur Pendragon had indeed gone soft. After two decades on the sea, there was nothing more he wanted to steal. From gold to goods to knowledge, Arthur had travelled the world, taking what he wanted. But when he learned that true happiness could only be given and shared, he hung up his scabbard and lowered the black flag that had waved proudly on the Albion I for over fifteen years.
His crew transitioned from warriors and thieves to stewards, and Arthur captained the finest passenger vessel on the seas. People booked their passage months in advance, word of mouth spreading that the dread pirate Pendragon had built himself a miracle ship. Merlin took great pleasure in making the Albion I a luxury ship, pulling the acrid salt smell from the air and replacing it with lavender, steadying the ship against the rocking of the sea, making the sheets soft and the fires warm. He entertained the passengers with impossible tricks, taking joy in his magic and in the wonder it drew across young children’s faces.
Arthur had never felt more at peace than when he’d raised the triskelion flag, a symbol of his allegiance to Merlin and no one else. The Crown gave him a wide berth, horrified by the power Arthur wielded. He chuckled to himself as he looked at Merlin’s bright eyes, his too-big ears, and the soft skin of his neck. If they only knew that such power lived in this young, beautiful, kind creature.
Merlin was Arthur’s treasure, the thing he’d been searching for his whole life. But the power, the magic of his being, was nothing, nothing, compared to the curve of his smile, the warmth of his body, the way he made Arthur feel like a good man. It was incidental, his magic. It was just another part of him, something Merlin shared or guarded as he saw fit.
Sometimes Merlin still offered to make Arthur see, and Arthur felt embarrassing when he told Merlin there was nothing Merlin could show him that was better than what he already had. But Merlin would just blush and pull Arthur down for a kiss, and Arthur would remember what home felt like.
He’d never had a home before, and that, he thought, was the treasure after all. Home was something any man could find with a certain amount of luck. The triskelion, the magic, the destiny—none of it mattered to Arthur. And though he housed and commanded something ancient and ever-generative, Merlin was just a young man, perfect in his generosity. And Arthur would never stop feeling awed and grateful that Merlin had seen fit to share himself with Arthur.
Come storms or clear skies, Merlin would always keep them afloat.