The first time Merlin saw Prince Arthur it was only for a brief moment. It was just a golden-haired blur in a holobeam, a glitchy fluttering image and a voice, tinny, distorted.
"Help me," the man in the recording said, looking right at him - into the camera. "You're my only hope."
And then he was gone.
"He's beautiful," Merlin breathed. "Wait, what was he saying - is he in trouble? Bring him back, show me more!"
The little droid blinked its blue lens and stayed silent. When Merlin reached out to nudge the memory bank with his magic again, the robot screeched and zapped his fingers with a static charge.
"M0RDR3D, don't do that," said the other droid, the bigger one, finished in gold. "Merlin is our master now. You have to obey him."
The little robot rocked on its chassis, looking as rebellious as a bucket-shaped repair droid possibly could.
"You can't stop it," said the golden robot. "It's their destiny."
The repair droid launched into a long series of blinks and chirps that Merlin didn't understand. He put his hands on the droid's warm casing and let his magic flow.
"Sorry," he said, flooding the droid's circuits with his will, taking over. "I don't want to hurt you, but I have to help him. He needs me."
The message was meant for old Gaius, a pharmacist at the clinic Merlin's mother ran. Merlin took the droid to him, and they watched the whole thing together. Merlin had seen it half a dozen times already, but it still made him shiver.
"Gaius, please," said the young man in the recording. "Help me. You're my only hope."
He seemed to be in an engine room of a small spacecraft, crouching by the reactor. He held a blaster and spoke urgently, making every word precise and clear.
"We've been boarded by the Imperial troops. Darth Uther is here; I think they want to take me alive."
He shifted his hold on the blaster and Merlin's heart flipped again, like every time he watched this. But the man put the blaster down an reached toward the camera, to open the control panel on the droid's hull.
"They're jamming our comms," he said. "I can't think of anything else to do. I'm loading the intel into this droid's memory, using our old password, and I'm going to jettison it and hope it doesn't get shot down. You have to get the information to the Senate. Make sure they burn all my access codes. And tell my parents... Well. You'll think of something."
And that was the end of the message. The holobeam switched off, and Merlin turned to Gauis.
"Do you know him? Who is he?"
"That's Prince Arthur," the old man said. "Arthur of Deira, Senator of the Albion Republic. I... used to know his family."
"We need to rescue him. I mean, we need to get help. Albion army will save him, right?"
"We will let Albion know what happened to him," said Gaius. "Perhaps they will mount a rescue expedition. I doubt it, though."
"But he's a senator! And a prince!"
"The republican army is spread very thin defending the outer colonies," Gaius said. "You might have noticed that Arthur hadn't asked for help. He knows they can't spare any resources. Besides, for all they know, he's already dead by now."
"Do you think he'd dead?" Merlin asked bluntly. His stomach clenched at the thought, which was just stupid. Dozens of worlds were at war, and people died every day. He didn't even know Arthur. No matter how many times he watched that twenty-second recording, they were complete strangers.
"No. I don't believe Darth Uther would allow that. He doesn't want Arthur dead. He wants him to join the Empire."
Gaius was already unlocking the information from the droid's memory banks, punching in a long security code.
"Well," he muttered. "You're a bright boy, why do you think?"
"Because he's a senator? He has access to secret information. Even if they cancel his access codes, he'll still know a lot of stuff, right? And he has friends in republican army and government... Is Darth Uther going to try to brainwash him?"
Gaius nodded solemnly.
"We have to save him," Merlin said. "Gaius, if we can't get anyone else to help him, we have to do it."
"I suppose you're right," Gaius said. "And if anyone can do that, it would be you, Merlin. I have a friend who might be able to help us."
Through all his childhood Merlin had always believed that there would be amazing adventures in his future; that he had a great destiny, a huge part to play in the history of the whole galaxy.
As he got older he started to have doubts. Everyone on Ealdor must have thought that something great would happen to them one day, and all of them would end up spending their whole lives farming and trading and then they'd grow old and die. That was probably going to happen to him, too, if he was realistic about it.
Except, except. Some people of Ealdor actually had led amazing lives. Merlin's mother went to a medical school in Camelot, the capital of the old Kingdom, before it became the Empire and the wars of conquest began. She’d had a lot of adventures there as a student, even though Merlin didn't want to know about his mother having those kinds of adventures. Then she had escaped Camelot with the other war refugees, and fought with the rebel fleet as a field medic, and helped defend the coalition of free worlds that would later grow into the Albion republic. She raised a child all by herself, and then she set up a clinic on this poor farming world, and everyone on the planet knew her name; she'd made a difference in their lives, she was important.
And it turned out that old Gaius had lived quite a fascinating life, too. And it seemed that now it was Merlin's turn: his destiny was calling him, and he couldn't refuse.
He tried to explain that to his mother. He showed her the recording, he'd prepared a speech; he'd been convinced she wouldn't want to let him go, that there would be tears or something equally awful.
"Of course," she said instead, calmly. "Go, fight, rescue that boy, use your magic for good, that's what it's meant for. I always knew this would happen some day. It's in your blood, after all."
Gaius's friend had clever suspicious eyes, a pointy stubborn chin and rather stunning boobs. Merlin respectfully eyed their outlines under her thin white shirt, even though the sight was mostly wasted on him.
"Morgana LeFay. This is my first mate Leon," she said to Merlin after she finished hugging Gaius and making happy screechy noises. Apparently Gaius used to work at an orphanage where Morgana and Leon grew up. "I heard you have a job for my Millennium Dragon."
"It's more of a rescue mission," Merlin said. "Although Arthur is a prince, and a senator, I'm sure his family has tons of money. There will definitely be a reward if we save him."
He explained the mission; she listened intently, chewing her red lower lip. Her first mate made some soft sounds that might have been simple grunts or whole sentences in an alien language; Merlin had never seen any creature so tall or hairy, but he tried not to stare.
"This is going to be insanely dangerous," he said. "But - "
"Eh," she waved him off. "I'm sick of little smuggling jobs. I want to do something real. Besides, sticking it to the Empire is always fun. And we can certainly use the money. Momma needs new shoes and a hyperdrive booster."
Leon nudged her and grunted something, pointing toward the bar.
"Ah, speaking of money we don't have at the moment," she said. "Go start the engine. Walk briskly."
They got out of the canteen and nearly crossed the square when they heard the sounds of blaster discharge, and the next moment Morgana shot out of the door, holstering her weapon.
"Start running!" she yelled. Leon picked Gaius up and slung him over his shoulder, and they sprinted to the port.
Merlin was a decent pilot, but even he couldn't have made a ship dance like that, not without magic. Morgana's hands flitted over the controls almost carelessly, throwing the Millennium Dragon into crazy loops to dodge the meteors in their path. Gaius watched her, frowning.
"Are you still taking the medication I prescribed?" he asked.
"Oh, those pills you had me on when I was little? No, not for ages. I feel fine."
The old man sighed and went to the sleeping quarters for a nap. Merlin sat in the cockpit and watched her navigate the meteor field till they were through and she fired the star drive.
"Morgana, is Leon human?" he asked.
"What? Don't be speciesist."
"I'm not, I'm just curious. I'm from Ealdor, we didn't have many aliens. I've never seen..."
"Ask him then, if you're just curious."
Merlin glanced at the huge bulk of Leon's body where the first mate was crouched by the navigation computer, and decided that questions could wait.
"Your plan is insane," Morgana said. "Not that I don't admire your courage, but this will take more than guts."
"No, I can do this. I'm a warlock."
She gave him an amused glance.
"Seriously? You just walk around telling people you're a warlock? How did you escape the draft so far?"
There were only two options for magic users under Imperial law: to join the Imperial warlock forces, or be executed for dodging the draft. Merlin had known this before he learned to read and tie his shoes.
"I've always kept my magic secret. I'm telling you now because you're helping us save Arthur."
"Still a huge risk."
"He's worth it."
Merlin hauled the little droid over and made it show Morgana the recording.
"Okay, he's kind of hot," she admitted. "In a weirdly disturbing sort of way... Ah, I don't know."
"Do you want to see it again?"
"No, stop fiddling with this droid, you'll damage it. Aw, come here, you cute little thing, what did this big bad warlock do to your circuits? Open up, I'll make it all better."
The plan was simple: let the spaceship be detained by imperial security for a routine search, creep inside the base with the help of magic, find and free Arthur, and then run really fast.
It was even easier than they expected. Leon grabbed the storm trooper who came to search their cargo bay, and now Merlin had the uniform. He walked right past most of the patrols, only using magic to distract the ones who looked too vigilant.
He put his hand on the controls of the prison cell door and tried to steady his pounding heart, and then pushed his magic at the lock and forced the door open.
The cell was tiny, just a box with a little bench by one of the walls. Arthur was curled on the bench face-down, hugging himself tight; as the door opened he calmly stretched, rolled over and arranged himself into a lazy sprawl. He still wore the same clothes he had worn in the recording, only now they were dirty and tattered. His eyes were wary, but his smile was cold and arrogant, regal.
"Aren't you a bit skinny for a storm trooper?" he asked.
Merlin ripped his helmet off, then realised he probably had helmet hair and frantically ruffled and smoothed it again. Arthur laughed.
"Shut up," Merlin said. "I came to save you."
Arthur jumped off the bench and ran to the door, and cautiously peeked out.
"Okay, I have to ask," he said. "You and what army, exactly? The republic wouldn't - are you actually here by yourself? Are you totally demented?"
"I don't need an army. I have magic," Merlin said.
Arthur drew a long breath and smiled, and his whole face lit up beautifully. He stared at Merlin in delighted awe and grabbed him by the shoulders, into a half-hug.
"You're a Warlock Knight," he said.
Merlin had heard of the Warlock Knights. Everyone had. They were once the elite peacekeeping force that served Camelot, before Merlin had been born. If they'd still been around, he'd have tried to join them. But when King Uther went mad and accepted the rule of the Empress, most of the Warlock Knights had been slaughtered, their order banned, and those who escaped the purge were hunted down by the imperial forces.
"I'm not, I'm just a warlock," he said, but Arthur wasn't listening. He was gingerly touching Merlin's face, tracing his cold fingertips down Merlin's cheeks.
"I've always believed you were still around," he said. "I just knew. I had this stupid fantasy you might come and get me out of here. It was just about the only thing that kept me going. And you did. Are you real? I can't tell anymore. They've kept me drugged for days, to break me for the mental probe."
His pupils were tiny, and he slurred his words a little. Merlin grabbed his clammy hands and squeezed them tight, almost groaning with guilty pleasure when their palms pressed together.
"I'm real. I'm going to get you out," he promised.
And then the siren sounded, an oppressive high pitched wail that hurt his ears and made him cringe.
"Cameras," Arthur shouted over the noise. "We have to run – what's the escape route?"
"Um, I only know the way I came!" Merlin yelled back. Arthur tried to roll his eyes at that, and it must have made him dizzy because he swayed on the spot.
They ran back through all the patrols; at first Merlin tried to keep them hidden, but the alarm stirred the whole base. Storm troopers kept pouring into their path, and there were too many to distract them all. Merlin shoved them out of the way with his magic, making them clatter to the floor, clumsy in their heavy armour. Arthur picked up a blaster and kept firing, mostly wide useless volleys, his aim ruined by the drugs.
It got hairy very fast, and Merlin took a chance and pulled them into a side corridor that seemed quieter. Almost right away they ran into a raised bridge and halted over the abyss, clutching at each other. Far, far below the plasma engines of the base glowed and rumbled, and the exhaust heat rose even to their height, burning their faces.
Merlin threw his magic over the chasm and carefully stepped off the bridge. His power, stretched through thin air, pulsed under his foot and held steady.
"We can just walk over," he said. "I know it's scary, but trust me."
"I do," said Arthur and suddenly hooked his arm around Merlin's neck and pulled him into a wet, deep kiss.
His mouth tasted of medicine; his lips were chapped and rough, and his tongue was hot and slick in Merlin's mouth. Merlin clung to him and kissed back, helpless to resist. It was all like a fever dream, like a drug-induced hallucination. Since he'd first seen Arthur in that recording he'd been trying his best not to fantasise about this, and now it was happening. The siren and the clanging of storm troopers' armoured feet on the metal floors sounded light years away, and he could do this forever, just hold Arthur close and kiss him till they were both breathless with it.
Arthur abruptly pulled back. He looked wild and wrecked, more drugged than he’d seemed moments before.
"For luck," he said. "Come on."
They ran across the invisible bridge of magic; Merlin was painfully hard inside his armour, and all the metal kind of chafed. His heart pounded, and he was hoping it was from the run, not because he couldn't stop thinking of that kiss and remembering the feel of Arthur's lips on his.
They barrelled into the hangar area; it was cleared of the storm troopers, and Morgana and Leon were defending the Millenium Dragon, shooting short bursts at any sign of movement near the exits.
"Oh wow, what a pile of junk," Arthur panted as they ran across the landing strip toward the open airlock of their ship.
Just then another door opened, and a caped figure in black armour stepped into their path and rose his light sword.
"No," groaned Arthur and skidded to a stop. "Please, no. Please, let us go."
Morgana and Leon were yelling at them from the ship, they couldn't get a clear shot. Merlin whirled in place, trying to figure out an escape, and the sword in the man's hand sang, cutting a dazzling arc through the air, aimed at Merlin's chest.
Arthur grabbed at him to shield him with his body, and Merlin tried to shove him off, out of harm's way. The sword was coming down, and suddenly a wrinkled hand shot out and grabbed the man's armoured wrist.
"Uther," said Gaius, wheezing from the effort it must have taken him to run over. "If you strike this boy down, I will become more cross than you could possibly imagine."
Darth Uther's face was obscured by his black helmet, and it was impossible to tell what he thought of that ridiculous threat. But the sword's sound changed, and the glowing blade went down without cutting into any of them. Merlin grabbed Arthur and Gauis and ran flat out, dragging them after him.
They pushed into the airlock, and Morgana wrenched the ship off the landing strip before they even finished sealing it. From the small window on the pressure door they saw a squad of storm troopers file into the hangar, taking ineffectual blaster shots at their rear reflectors. Darth Uther stood among them, unmoving, quiet; Millenium Dragon accelerated to escape velocity and soon the imperial base was just a speck among the stars.
"Okay, this will be yours for the trip," said Merlin, guiding Arthur into a sleeping quarter. It was only a bunk room, barely bigger than the cell had been. Merlin hated the idea that Arthur's first day of freedom would be just like captivity, crammed into a metal box all by himself. Merlin had slept here on the way to the imperial base, and the room was now littered with his dirty laundry, which, in Merlin's opinion, made it look cosy, more like a home, but Arthur would probably find it simply disgusting.
"Millennium Dragon is a cargo ship, so there's not much passenger space," he said, fishing his underwear from under the bed. "I'm going to move my stuff into Gaius's room; we'll share, so you'll have this one all to yourself - "
"No, stay," said Arthur and pushed him against the wall, and kissed him again, softly, slowly. He wrenched his tunic off and dropped it on the floor, to join Merlin's dirty socks.
There was a huge ugly bruise on his shoulder, and more ringing his wrists and forearms, and a mess of green and purple at the creases of his elbows, where his captors had injected him with mind-altering drugs. Merlin touched the marks, trying to be gentle, soothing, and lightly raked his fingers through the blond fuzz on Arthur's chest before he could stop himself.
"Look, you should probably rest," he said. His mouth was dry, and he wanted to kiss Arthur again, to lick and nip at his lips and drink in his breath.
"Not tired," said Arthur and pushed him onto the bed.
He slithered on top of Merlin, big and heavy. His cock was hard, and Arthur rocked it shamelessly against Merlin's belly, grinding down with his hips.
"You saved me," Arthur said, staring down at him hazily. His fingers tightened on Merlin's hands, keeping them pinned to the lumpy mattress, and Merlin bit down a moan and arched to push closer to him. "Warlock Knight in shining armour. Like a dream."
"I'm not a knight - "
"I know you're not. But you should be. I grew up on stories about the Warlock Knights; I always dreamed we could restore the order some day. I want to bring magic back from the darkness. Together, me and you, we can make it happen."
He kissed Merlin again, caressing his mouth with his wet, warm lips, and nudged a knee between Merlin's thighs.
"Oh shit," Merlin twisted against him, trying to break free. He wanted to howl with frustration – this was unfair, so completely unfair. "Arthur, you're still high. Do you understand me? You're high, you don't know what you're doing. I can't, not like this."
"Feels like you can just fine," said Arthur, biting the rim of his ear and languidly rubbing his hip against Merlin's achingly hard dick. "I'm not waiting any longer. There were cameras in my cell; I've not jerked off since they caught me. And then, you... I nearly came when I first kissed you."
"Fuck," Merlin moaned, gritting his teeth. "I can't. You're not... Arthur, don't. You're not in your right mind."
Arthur laughed; he was beautiful like this, with his eyes crinkled joyfully and his mouth red from kisses.
"How long was I there?" he asked.
"Eight days," said Merlin. He’d kept count from the date stamp on the recording; every night he'd gone to bed wondering how Arthur was faring in Darth Uther's hands, how great a toll every day was taking on him.
"Eight days, and they took me off the drugs only twice. I've been high more than I've been sober. I had a mind probe fucking with my brain, and I didn't tell them anything. I didn't even give them my access codes, which should have been cancelled the day I didn’t check in. I was coherent enough to resist torture. You don't think I'm coherent enough to consent to sex?"
"I don't know, I just don't want to risk it. If you feel gross about it afterwards..."
"Shut up," Arthur said and pushed his fingers in Merlin's mouth. Merlin sucked at them frantically, imagining it was Arthur's cock in his mouth, twitching between his lips. His eyes shut from the sheer hotness of the thought, and when he opened them again Arthur had wriggled out of his trousers and was straddling him naked, his cock thick and moist and flushed angry red.
"You'll hate me when you sober up," Merlin mumbled miserably around Arthur's fingers.
"I could never hate you, you moron," said Arthur and drew his wet fingers out, and put them between his legs.
Merlin lay there, weak with want, harder that he had ever been in his life, and watched Arthur - a prince and senator - finger himself open. He knew it was a bad, bad idea, but this might be the only time – Arthur would probably hate him afterwards anyway, just for not putting a stop to it earlier, for letting it get this far...
Arthur yanked his fly open and put his spit-slick hand around Merlin's dick, and Merlin's brain kind of stopped working. Arthur wriggled down on top of him, forcing himself down onto Merlin's cock with soft grunts and sighs, smiling, and Merlin couldn't quite breathe, couldn't say anything, could only stroke Arthur’s warm flanks and stare, and try to memorise this moment forever.
"Merlin, Merlin, Merlin," Arthur murmured his name like a song, riding him hard, throwing his head back and shivering with pleasure. His muscled thighs strained against Merlin's sides, and Merlin gave in and groped Arthur's perfect arse, feeling for the place where their flesh joined, where everything was hot and slick and tender.
Arthur grabbed his hand and curled Merlin's fingers over his cock, and Merlin babbled something stupid and sappy and stroked him, thumbing at his heavy, tight balls, wishing he was limber enough to put his mouth there. Arthur's warm spunk hit his chest, and Merlin came hard, grinding up into the tight hold of Arthur's body.
They kissed for what felt like hours; Merlin held Arthur close and kept rocking into him till his dick softened and slipped out. He wanted to put his fingers there instead, just to keep feeling how warm and slick Arthur was on the inside, but Arthur sighed and pulled away.
"I should call my parents," he muttered and promptly fell asleep.
Merlin lay by his side till his heart stopped hammering, and then carefully slipped off the bunk. Arthur slept soundly, sprawled on his back. The shadowed place between his spread thighs was reddened with friction, streaked with their come.
"Shit, shit, what have I done?" Merlin moaned, shakily getting dressed. He pulled a blanket over Arthur's naked body and went to the tactical.
Everybody was there - the ship was travelling through hyperspace on autopilot. Morgana was braiding Leon's hair; they both giggled as he came in. They must have heard everything. Merlin had forgotten how tiny and echoing the ship was.
"I see you got your reward," Morgana said. "Just don't forget about ours. We still would prefer money."
Gaius gave him a disapproving eyebrow wriggle, rummaged through the medikit and silently handed him a hypo and two vials. Merlin took them, unable to meet the old man's eyes.
The golden robot was humming a tune, swivelling in a chair.
"Why so glum, young warlock?" it asked. "You've been united with your destiny!"
"What are you even talking about? Fuck, Arthur is going to hate me."
"A half cannot hate that which makes it whole," the robot said.
"I think you're malfunctioning," said Merlin maliciously. "I'll have you serviced at the first stop."
He went back into the sleeping quarters and gave himself a hypo shot. He sat at the bedside, watching Arthur sleep, wondering if he should wake him yet. Arthur looked exhausted, pale and drawn, his skin sheened with sweat; he must have needed rest badly.
Hypo shots barely hurt, after all. Merlin pressed the tip to Arthur's arm and thumbed the button, and got a fierce kick to the side. While he gasped and swayed Arthur surged up and grabbed him by the throat. He halted, blinking away sleep, and his grip went slack.
"Merlin," he said. "But you're Merlin, you saved me, you... Why are you... Were you trying to drug me?"
He must have fought like that every time his jailers came to give him more drugs, even though he had to know it was futile. That explained the bruises and the sloppy, ugly injection marks.
"This is an antiviral shot," Merlin said. "Because – um. Do you remember what we did?"
"Of course I do, I'm not amnesiac," Arthur said and wrapped himself in a blanket as if he just noticed he was naked. "Why - are you sick?"
"No, I'm clean. But it's still a good idea to have a shot after you had sex with someone from another planet, because they might be carrying something endemic that's benign for them but you won't have immunity to..."
Arthur wrinkled his nose.
"You do this a lot, then?" he asked in stilted voice. "You seem very knowledgeable on the subject of fucking around."
"My mom is a doctor, dickhead. Here, do it yourself if you don't want me to."
Arthur pushed the hypo away as if it was poisonous.
"I think I'll risk fleas or nerf flu or whatever you have," he said. "Don't want any more injections right now."
Merlin looked at his bruised arms and nodded.
"The drugs - what did they give you?" he asked.
"You know, it's weird, they forgot to show me the labels!"
"I'm wondering if you're going into detox right now," said Merlin patiently.
"Ah," said Arthur, slightly deflating. "No. Just a bad hangover."
"I'll make you mineral replacements," said Merlin, relieved, and went to mix the powder with drinking water. Arthur watched him from the bed, still wrapped in the blanket like in a cape.
"I don't normally do this," he said. "What we did. That's not how I normally do things."
"Yeah, sure," said Merlin as lightly as he could. He'd seen this coming.
"I guess this is unusual for you, too."
"Well, not really. I grew up in a farming community. There wasn't much to do. Me and my friends would get together and get high, and then someone would inevitably wake up with their best mate's pubes stuck in their teeth. That's just, you know, stuff happens when you're high. Whatever. I promise things won't get weird."
He handed Arthur the mineral drink and gave him a cheerful smile, hoping they'd be able to laugh it off. Arthur's face was stony, and he didn't seem at all amused or relieved.
"Okay," he said. "You may leave."
As Merlin stepped out and shut the door he heard a muttered curse and then the sound of the metal cup hitting the door from inside.
Things were definitely going to get weird.
Merlin moped around the ship for a few hours and then went to the tactical to call his mum.
Comm unit was busy. Arthur was talking to a middle-aged couple, a man and a woman. They were holding hands and smiling through tears. Arthur had showered and put on the spare clothes Merlin left out for him. He looked well-rested, bright-eyed, sober and healthy, gorgeous.
"Mum, dad, come on, you know he wouldn't really hurt me - "
"I'll come back," Merlin said, but Arthur's parents had already noticed him.
"Is that Merlin?" asked the woman. "Is this your Warlock Knight, Arthur?"
"He's not a knight," Arthur mumbled uneasily.
"Well," said the man. "Now that the Order is gone and no one can give you the rites and knight you properly, knighthood has become a state of mind, I would say. You certainly live by the code of honour, from what I've heard."
"Uh, thanks," said Merlin, twitching guiltily. "Your Majesties – is that right, is that how I'm supposed to..."
They both laughed light-heartedly.
"We're not royals," the woman said. "Arthur is our adopted son, his title comes from his biological parents. We're just as common as you, Merlin."
"Dad has a spaceship wharf," Arthur said proudly. "And mum was a senator for three terms!"
"Arthur wanted to follow in her footsteps since he was four," said the man and kissed his wife's cheek.
"You must come to dinner, Merlin," the woman said. "Whenever you're in our sector, you're always welcome. We'd love to meet you properly."
They said their goodbyes, and Arthur signed off. He drummed his fingers on the console and gave Merlin a weird, wary glance. Merlin's shirt was tight across his broad chest and shoulders, and the sleeves were a bit long, bunching at his wrists. Merlin stared at his hands and remembered the way Arthur touched him and kissed him, sweetly and urgently like it meant something, like it wasn't just because he was high and horny.
"Sorry about your parents," Merlin said. "Biological parents, I mean. What happened to them? Did you know them at all?"
"My mother died giving birth to me," Arthur said softly. "And my father... he went a bit mad after that. He was in an accident, and then there was dark magic – lots of bad stuff happened. So mum and dad raised me from the start."
"Do you ever see him?"
"Sometimes. It's not... It's never pleasant."
Merlin nodded, imagining Arthur's father, a scarred raving man, locked up in a hospital somewhere. He probably didn't even know who Arthur was when he came to visit.
"I've never met my dad," he said. "Mum wouldn't talk about him. But I think I actually prefer that. I can imagine he's amazing, some kind of great hero or something. Stupid, I know."
"No," said Arthur. "I get it. Sometimes I miss the time when I didn't know mine. Awful thing to say about your own father, but..."
He sighed and his shoulders sagged under the thin fabric of Merlin's shirt. Merlin wanted to put his palms on the tense knots of muscle on Arthur's back and rub and knead till Arthur was relaxed and pliant like he had been in bed, before he passed out in Merlin's arms.
"I wanted to talk to you," Arthur said abruptly. "When we get to Albion... I want you to stay."
"You want me to stay," Merlin echoed, suddenly feeling hot all over. Arthur's eyes were very blue, wide and honest.
"Yes. I need you. I mean, Albion needs people like you. I want to give people with magic a shelter from the Empire, an alternative, an opportunity to fight for their freedom. I think we should restore the order of Warlock Knights. The Republic could really use your help with that."
"You need me," Merlin said. Everything Arthur said skidded over the surface of his mind apart from those words.
Arthur stared at him, slowly turning red. His face flushed so dark his eyebrows looked white.
"What?" he said. "Do you actually think I want to jump on your cock again? No, Merlin, I'm not some glue sniffing farm slut like you and your friends. I bet you can't wait to brag to them that you fucked a senator. You're going to tell them all about it at your next little orgy, aren't you? How I was just begging you for it."
Merlin exhaled slowly, trying to rein in his magic. It prickled at his skin from inside, like it always did when he was this angry.
"I don't think you're a slut," he said. "I think you're a stuck-up, self-absorbed, arrogant prick. Now that I know you I'm sorry I even touched you. That's really nothing to brag about."
"You can't talk to me like that."
"Oh, why not? Because you're a senator? Do you think because some idiots voted for you it makes you somehow superior?"
They glared at each other; Arthur seemed tense, coiled up, as if he expected Merlin to throw a punch at him. Maybe Merlin looked like he was about to. He certainly felt tempted.
"So," Arthur said gruffly. "Are you going to stay or what?"
"Of course I'm going to stay! I want to fight the Empire, and I don't need your invitation. Or your permission, in fact."
Arthur pressed his lips together and nodded.
"Fine. Let's go get some food. I hope it's not all nerf jerky and dry rations."
Even in hyperspace, travel between sectors took a long time. Merlin played board games with Leon, took turns with Morgana monitoring their course in the cockpit, and slept on the floor next to Gaius's bunk.
Arthur spent most of his time downloading and reading news reports: Imperial, Republican and independent, catching up on everything that happened while he was held captive. He worked out relentlessly, doing push-ups on the floor of the tactical room, trying to regain his strength. He ate dry rations with the rest of them, cringing at the taste, and still managed pleasant table talk. He was cordial with Leon, respectful with Gaius, and a total bitch to Morgana for some reason. She gave as good as she got; it seemed that they really liked each other, but couldn’t stop exchanging jabs and insults.
"I don't know," Morgana laughed when Merlin asked her about it. "He's great, really, just annoying as hell. Most of the time I want to punch his stupid face in. But I'm glad I met him. We might sign up for a few months with the Republican army. Could be fun, and Arthur needs someone to keep him on his toes."
Things between Merlin and Arthur didn't get any less weird. Merlin couldn't stop watching him, could barely tear his eyes away from Arthur's perfect face, and almost every time he tried to sneak a glance Arthur would be looking at him with dark unreadable eyes, and he had to turn away, ashamed, blushing. Whenever they stood close, the memory of touching Arthur's naked skin was too vivid, distracting, and Merlin kept seeing himself leaning over to press his lips to Arthur's neck, so clearly it was as if he was already doing it. He couldn't trust himself not to give in, and he tried to keep a distance.
He was horny all day just from being in the same room with Arthur, and then at night he'd dream an endless string of sex dreams. In those Arthur crawled into bed with him again, wanting him, shameless and languid like he was when he was high, and Merlin woke up on the cusp of coming in his underwear, shaking with disappointment. Sometimes he had to leave the room and tiptoe to the shower. Sometimes he would see the lights on in the tactical, which meant Arthur couldn't sleep.
Arthur often couldn't sleep, which was pretty understandable after what he'd been through. A wank and a cold ionic blast settled Merlin down, and then he’d join Arthur to keep him company and fix him something hot to drink.
They didn't talk much, but the silence was strangely cosy. Arthur read, or just reclined in a chair thinking senatorial thoughts, and Merlin stared at the back of his head and remembered how soft and sleek his blond hair was to the touch.
"Are you the youngest senator ever?" he asked once. Arthur looked about twenty-five, if not younger.
"No, something like fourth," Arthur smiled. "In the first days of the Republic, when the free worlds were joining up to fight the Empire, a lot of Resistance commanders were elected to the senate. They were mostly young. It's less common now."
"I guess your whole world voted for you, since you're their prince," Merlin said to make himself sound less soppy. "Not really a proper democratic process, is it."
"My home world isn't in the Republic. Deiar is my world, that's where I grew up, and I'm not a prince there. It's never been a monarchy. And could you stop bringing up my title every five minutes?"
"Because it doesn't mean anything, and I don't like people to even know about it. I don't believe in birthright. It's all about what kind of man you are."
Merlin's chest felt tight, full of something warm and fluttery, the way it did every time Arthur said something cool and noble or looked especially hot. Arthur glanced at him through the fall of his fringe, and this time Merlin couldn't look away.
"I never thanked you," Arthur said quietly.
Merlin sincerely thought that awesome sex had been thanks enough, even if it had led to all the weirdness. It was a lot more than he’d dared to hope for when he set off on that rescue mission. Though sometimes he believed he would give up the memory of that ill-advised tumble if he and Arthur could be close instead, at ease in each other's company.
He and Will had managed to pull through the weirdness after they’d woken up together one morning - hungover, naked and sticky. But they'd both been wasted when that happened, so there was no real embarrassment or resentment. And they had been friends before. Merlin wasn't sure if he and Arthur could become friends now.
"Oh, yeah, that's all right," he mumbled.
"It's not, really, is it? You saved more than my life. And the only reward you're getting for your bravery is being conscripted into the shooting war and put in more danger. Hardly fair. If there's anything you want - "
"I grew up on a farm. It was very safe and incredibly boring. If there's one thing I've always wanted, it's adventure," Merlin confessed. "And I'm probably about to get more adventure than I can handle, so, honestly. Can't think of a better reward."
It got worse once they arrived in the capital city. Arthur snapped right back into senator mode, and in his own element he was breathtaking, impossible not to admire, impossible not to want. Merlin had no idea how so many men and women worked beside Arthur every day without turning into gibbering horny fools.
Arthur was effortlessly imposing, commanding attention wherever they went. He knew the name of every person they spoke to, even though they’d met hundreds on the very first day alone: senators, military people, service personnel who served their meals in the senate canteen.
"I'll be busy for a while, so you're on your own," he told them after the general commotion around his miraculous rescue had settled down a bit. "I'll make sure you're given quarters and everything you might need."
"Are you going to see your boyfriend?" said Merlin. It was the clumsiest approach possible, but he couldn't stand it any longer. If he knew Arthur was unavailable, maybe the stupid fantasies and longing would stop.
"I don't have a boyfriend," said Arthur, looking him straight in the eye. "If I did, do you think I'd have cheated on him with you?"
"Well, you were drugged..."
"Exactly, drugged. Not magically transformed into an utter bastard. No, I'll be in meetings all day. We need to discuss the intelligence I brought."
He walked away, and Merlin stared after him, at his strong back and pert arse, and ached, and wanted.
"Close your mouth before you swallow a bug," said Morgana. "Oh, you got it bad, girlfriend."
"Don't fight your desires, Merlin," chirped the golden robot. It'd been trailing after Merlin wherever he went, offering its opinions on everything, and Merlin was seriously considering selling it for scrap.
Gaius went back to Ealdor, saying that he’d had a bit too much excitement for a man his age. Morgana and Leon dragged Merlin around the city, taking in the sights.
When the emergency meeting was called with the whole of the senate and military command, they were all invited as well. Merlin sat in the back row of the magnificent hall and watched Arthur present the plan of attack, calm and unflinching with thousands of eyes upon him, his clear voice easily filling the huge space.
"This is very bold, of course," said one of the older senators when Arthur finished talking. "But if we're to commit to an attack on such a scale, we need more than blind faith in our pilots' skill. The key manoeuvre you're proposing is nearly impossible to perform."
Merlin pushed to his feet.
"Actually," he said. His voice didn't carry, got lost in the enormous room. The people around him fiddled with the buttons at their seats, and he was beckoned to a microphone.
"Actually," he said again, and cringed at how loud it was. Everyone turned toward him, a sea of faces, politicians and war veterans, and he blushed painfully at being on display. "Eh. I was going to say. It would be pretty easy with magic. I'm sure I can do it."
Arthur smiled at him from the podium in the centre, and his eyes shone with pride, and Merlin would happily fight the whole of the Imperial fleet alone if Arthur would just keep looking at him like that.
The next day they were on a battle cruiser, hurtling through hyperspace to the main Imperial stronghold.
Merlin wandered the pristine metal corridors, sleepless, shaky. He ended up in the empty mess hall and sat at a table in the dark, trying not to think about tomorrow.
Arthur came in and sat next to him, as if they were still on a tiny cargo ship, just the two of them awake in the blackness of space, light years away from civilisation.
"It's okay to be scared, you know," he said.
"I'm not really. More nervous. If I mess it up tomorrow..."
"Are you not scared at all?"
"I've been in plenty of battles. It's just," he crossed his arms on the table top and pillowed his head on them. The collar of his shirt rode down, exposing the soft curve of his nape, and Merlin wanted to brush away the ends of his hair and press a kiss there. "People will die tomorrow. Maybe it will be us, maybe someone else. But."
"If we both survive..."
Arthur sighed and shrugged.
"Eh, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
They stayed there, dozing at the table till the wake up call, and then forced breakfast down their throats and went to the launch area.
All the pilots were stripping in the same room, helping each other change into fighting gear: men and women, old scarred veterans and kids that looked younger than Merlin, in their teens. Merlin took off his clothes, trying not to feel self-conscious about being naked in a crowd of people, and only then realised that Arthur was naked too, right next to him, strapping himself into the flight suit.
"What are you doing?" he asked, unable to decide where to point his eyes. He'd seen all this before, but now, exposed for everyone to see, Arthur's nudity seemed even more tantalising, obscene. "You're a senator. Shouldn't you be somewhere safe?"
"Nowhere is safe," said Arthur and helped him tighten up the buckles, his hands sure and clinical on Merlin's body. "If we lose this battle, the cruiser is toast, and the home world is next."
"I volunteered to watch your back. You know. To make sure you don't mess it up."
The battle was a mess of light and movement, and for most of it Merlin had no idea what was happening, so he grit his teeth against rising panic and focused on his task. His escort was supposed to keep him alive while he flew into position, and he didn't really know how they were doing that, how could they see the threats and pick their targets in that constantly shifting chaos. Arthur was somewhere out there, cutting a safe path for Merlin to follow, all his trust and hopes pinned on Merlin's magic, on his conviction that Merlin would pull through, wouldn't flinch at the last moment.
When he finally saw the target, it was easy. His magic unfolded readily and shot through the frozen vacuum of space, and just like that the battle was done, the stronghold was crippled, victory was theirs.
He started shaking on the way back, completely botched the landing and crawled out of the cockpit practically on all fours, weak and sweating. The landing bay was full of people, laughing, hugging. There were losses, of course there were. But the time to grieve would be later. Now they were celebrating.
Arthur glowed with satisfaction and a little sweat. His hair was all mussed from the helmet, fluffy and sweet, and he was talking to Morgana, praising her battle skills and asking her to stay on as a flight instructor.
"Admit it, you just don't want to let my gorgeous self out of your sight," she teased.
"Well, I guess you don't know everything about me yet," he said and turned to Merlin, cupped his face with both hands and kissed him.
Merlin dropped his helmet and leaned into the kiss, chasing Arthur's lips. All the want and affection he’d desperately tried not to feel for the last few days uncoiled in his chest at once, and he moaned stupidly into Arthur's mouth, rocking against him, losing his breath at every stroke of Arthur's lips.
Then it ended, and he was standing in the middle of the hangar with his lips wet and his hard cock pressing painfully against the strap of his flight suit. Everyone was looking at them; hundreds of pilots stared, laughed, applauded. He was a spectacle, a joke, his love-sick desperation cruelly put on display. Maybe it was some stupid game between Arthur and Morgana, maybe Arthur just wanted to humiliate him as payback for the time Merlin took advantage of his doped-up state.
Merlin tried to say something, but could only wave a finger in Arthur's face and make stupid whining sounds.
Then he turned and ran.
He stomped through the cruiser for hours, composing an angry speech, and when it sounded cutting enough in his head he went to Arthur's quarters.
The door was ajar, and Arthur wasn't alone. He was talking to someone, rambling in broken sentences – he never spoke like that. He was articulate and eloquent even when on drugs, even half-conscious with fatigue.
"When I first saw him in that cell – I mean, he came to save me. A real life warlock, with magic and his eyes and his mouth, he came to save me, and he stood there, and it was, that one moment, that was the hottest thing that ever happened in my life. And I thought, god. I need to impress him. I'm not some damsel in distress, I'm a politician, a military commander. I was going to woo him and then we'd be – and then I ruined everything. Like an idiot, I did and said just the wrong thing every damn time. And today, in the landing bay – I thought it would be a grand romantic gesture, it would fix everything, I thought he'd like it. And he just walked off and left me there, in front on my men, and I stood there like a jilted buffoon, and everyone felt sorry for me. How am I even supposed to – I don't know. What do I do now?"
"Well," said a familiar synthesised voice. "You need to ask yourself what is more important – your pride or Merlin?"
"Merlin," said Arthur without a pause. Merlin wanted to stay and listen, because he knew he'd never hear Arthur like this again, so open and vulnerable, but it wasn't fair. He wasn't even meant to have heard this much.
He loudly knocked on the door and entered without waiting for an invitation.
Arthur lay on the couch with his palms folded on his chest. Merlin's robot sat in a chair next to his bedside, and the display in its hull blinked, recording the conversation.
"Why are you even talking to this thing?" Merlin asked.
"It has a counsellor module," Arthur said, sitting up.
"A pervert module, maybe! I swear it wants to tape us having sex and then sell the recordings!"
"I would never do that," said the robot. "Who could put a price on something like that?"
"Get lost, creepodroid," Merlin ordered.
"Of course, master Merlin, I shall leave the two of you to talk this out," the robot said and clunked out of the room. Merlin was grateful that its face wasn't articulated; the last thing he needed right now was to see an android leering at them.
"We do need to talk," said Arthur. "Listen - "
"No, you listen," said Merlin and crossed the room, threw his arms around Arthur's warm broad shoulders and kissed him just like he'd always wanted, not holding anything back, putting all of himself into it.
It turned out they didn't need to talk after all. It was perfect just as it was, everything. Even when Arthur left Merlin on that couch, with his lips throbbing from kisses and his cock leaving wet smears on the hem of his tunic, and ran into the bathroom to find something slick, hopping out of his pants, one sock still on – even that was perfect. Even when he pushed into Merlin's body, and at first there was just sting and pain and Merlin could barely breathe with his thighs pinned to his chest – that was perfect, too, because of the sounds Arthur was making, because of the look of pure wonder on his face.
And then they slotted together just right, and it was better than perfect, so good Merlin could cry, and then there was just tingling pleasure and the slow, relentless pumping of Arthur's hips against him, every thrust making something inside him melt and coil at the same time. He pulled Arthur closer and kissed him, biting his lips, leaving marks on his jaw and neck, because everyone knew, Arthur wanted everyone to know, they were together. Arthur was his.
"I'm going to give you a medal," said Arthur later. They’d moved from the come-splattered couch to the bed and messed that up too, and now lay together on the damp sheets, listening to the distant hum of the ship's engines. "I'll push the papers through first thing tomorrow."
"What? Oh, you mean for fighting and stuff."
"Of course for fighting and stuff. For this you're only getting an oral commendation."
He turned and slid down to nuzzle into the crease of Merlin's thigh. His smooth skin gleamed in the harsh lights, the bruises Merlin put on him already purpling, standing out like messy body art.
"I don't want a medal," Merlin gasped when Arthur blew cool air on his soft, exhausted cock, and it twitched right away, straining toward Arthur's lips.
"Yeah, nobody cares. We have to honour our heroes, it's good for morale."
He dipped his head and started licking Merlin's inner thighs with broad swipes of his tongue, slowly inching toward Merlin's balls. Merlin put his hands in Arthur's soft hair, and felt almost like he was floating, bursting with happiness and love.
And then it happened, like waking up from a dream of falling, like catching a distant echo of thunder just on the edge of his hearing. He flinched against a sudden heaviness in his chest, his breath catching, his palms sweaty, his magic thrumming restlessly in his veins.
"I have a bad feeling about this," he said.
"You have a bad feeling about getting a blowjob from me?" asked Arthur, pouting with his swollen lips, but Merlin couldn't even laugh at the joke.
"This is too good. Everything is too good. I think something awful is about to happen."
"We're at war, Merlin. Something awful is always about to happen. But with the victory we scored today – maybe things will change soon."
And Merlin let Arthur ease him back on the bed, and soon he forgot all about that premonition.
Uther Pendragon had always been a remarkable man: ambitious, strong, a ruthless, fierce leader. His wife was nothing special, just a simpering girl he’d adored with inexplicable devotion. How ironic that because of her, that meek creature, the fate of the Galaxy had changed forever.
The Empress still remembered the first vision that came to her when Ygraine's belly was just starting to visibly swell. The queen's barren body was forced into an unnatural pregnancy by potent magic, and she was too weak to sustain the power coursing through her, wouldn't survive the labour.
The vision showed her what was going to happen. Uther would blame his wife's death on magic, and would turn on them all, would hunt them down. She saw blood, rivers of it, whole worlds purged and scorched to assuage the king's guilt. She’d been forced to act, to change that future, and she had.
She used the last months of the queen's life to put everything in place, to blame the inevitable death on a conspiracy of the free worlds, to channel the king's anger into conquest. She made Uther believe the free worlds had poisoned the queen in the hope of killing her unborn child, the only heir, to weaken Camelot's rule.
The order of Warlock Knights rebelled against her decision. The close-minded fools only cared about their honour, and would rather die than let her bend the truth a little.
She obliged, and made sure they wouldn't be an obstacle. There were bigger things at stake. Not just their lives, but the fate of magic itself, the future of the Old Religion.
And in the end what had started as a desperate ruse turned into something glorious, unprecedented. Fuelled by her magic and Uther's unrelenting rage, Camelot rose from a humble kingdom to a powerful Empire, and swept across the stars in an unstoppable march, swallowing sector after sector. She became the Empress, no longer standing beside the queen's throne, but a ruler in her own right, and even Uther feared her now. He knew that without her his Empire would fold like an oversized house of cards.
The dark visions wouldn't stop, however. Over and over she saw herself slain by one of her own kind, and the betrayal pained her more than the thought of death. Everything she did was to keep her people safe, and one of them was going to turn on her, just like the Warlock Knights had done. She couldn't abide that, and she worked to bring everyone with magic into the fold, to train them and teach them right from wrong, to put them to work for the Empire and watch them closely, and make sure none would ever think of harming her.
Some were stubborn, and there had to be sacrifices. But that was better than letting one black sheep ruin everything she'd built.
But just when everything seemed to be under control, in perfect balance, another threat emerged. Uther was slipping away from her, slowly but surely. In the beginning she’d used magic to keep his mind on the right track, but no enchantment could hold a man for decades. Her hold on his heart had waned a long time ago. After a disastrous injury in one of the early battles, his body was now half-machine, and there was only so long you could lead a man around by his dick if he didn't have one.
He was getting older, coming to terms with his own mortality, and his thoughts were desperately focused on that child, the last of his bloodline, and it was putting everything at risk.
"You have to give up on him, Uther," she said again. "He will never come around. You've been trying for years to bring him home, and every time you have failed. His mind has been poisoned by the people who stole him from you. They've corrupted him to the core. He will never love you. You will never be able to trust him. It was because of your weakness that the plans of our fortress fell into the rebels' hands, and now they're on the offensive."
"We will recover," he said stubbornly. "And we cannot give up on Arthur. We need him, Nimueh. We need an heir. Don't you understand? Unless we have an heir apparent, a child of the Pendragon bloodline, the throne will be disputed after I'm gone. The old kingdoms will fight each other for succession, and they will tear the Empire apart. The rebels know that. That's why they're still resisting. They think they only need to hold on as long as I'm alive. Only if we crown an heir will the rebels know that the Empire will persist forever, and they will surrender."
It was the truth, but Arthur was a lost cause. She’d seen him the last time Uther had him in custody; he had been drugged, strapped to a chair in the interrogation room, his mind split apart by the mental probe, and still there wasn't a single crack in his conviction, not a single weak spot they could use to make him theirs.
But while she’d been there, on that base, she had felt something else: a surge of untrained, crudely handled power, laced through with familiar notes, the unmistakable echoes of Uther's strength. A child of the Pendragon bloodline, with magic singing in their veins. Someone untainted by the spectre of the dead queen, a lost lamb, someone who could be both hers and Uther's child, someone she could teach, guide, maybe even love.
"Arthur is my only child," Uther said. "That boy is our only hope."
"No," said Nimueh. "There is another."