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Them Gods Gonna Hurt You, Son.

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July, 2001

Aunt Rebecca and Uncle Tristan were the kinds of people who tried one way of fixing a problem, and if that didn’t work, then they simply thought they hadn’t tried hard enough. So, two years later, Arthur was still seeing Dr. Whitman on a weekly basis and, two years later, they’d gotten nowhere because Arthur and Merlin had been too busy trying to come up with every conversation but one that actually meant anything.

He hadn’t stopped being angry and he hadn’t stopped running away from home here and there. He wasn’t sure what their end goal was here, what they expected out of all these meetings. They had weekly goal lists, sure, and Dr. Whitman always tried to make sure the goals were specific and manageable, but they were always still open ended. “More communication,” Aunt Rebecca would say. Uncle Tristan never really had goals, he made stuff up, but he was quiet for most of the meetings and never looked directly at Arthur.

The meeting after Merlin had come back from his trip, Arthur sat on the too-squishy couch in Dr. Whitman’s office and looked at his fingers, knotted together on his lap.

“Uncle Tristan thinks I should have been a dom.”

It was probably the first thing he’d ever said on that couch that Merlin hadn’t approved of first. Merlin was good with words, when he wanted to be.

“Your Aunt stated that both she and your Uncle pinned your pre-gender-“

“No.” Arthur interrupted and cleared his throat. “No, I mean. Uncle Tristan still thinks I should be a dom. Or—or it bothers him that I’m a sub and don’t act more like it. ...He takes me to task about my manners a lot.” Arthur cleared his throat and looked out the window to the one lonely little tree in the car park. It wasn’t big enough to climb.

Dr. Whitman paused, interested. Dr. Whitman isn’t stupid, he must have known Arthur had been playing with him. Lying. Dr. Whitman had tried to play games with him, but Arthur had just rolled the dice and moved his piece and not cared a bit, not engaging in conversation. Merlin read the child and adolescent psychology books. He’d read them to Arthur. Arthur knew what was going on. And Dr. Whitman had to have known Arthur didn’t trust him. Why should he? He’s someone his Aunt and Uncle are using against Arthur, and Arthur isn’t going to pretend otherwise.

“That has to be frustrating.” Dr. Whitman said.

“No.” Arthur was used to it, sort of. The lessons had been... frustrating. The sudden change of expectations, how they never went to any of his matches and how suddenly his curfew was enforced. How his Aunt and Uncle watched Arthur’s teammates like they were going to... Arthur didn’t know—shove Arthur’s face into their living room carpet and ride him in front of them. But still, Uncle Tristan never liked Arthur. Uncle Tristan was the kind of disgustingly old guard sub who asked his dom what to wear in the morning, who kept the house clean and orderly as a badge of honour. Uncle Tristan, Arthur supposed, had lived his whole life wanting to be a good sub, had been doing his best to follow all the complicated, unspoken rules of the world, followed all of all the books of protocol and manners he still kept with him. And then he’d suddenly found himself with this messed up kid, born of his now dead sister. A kid that wasn’t an inch like her and refused to be tidied up, refused to fall into line, who still played.

“It’s not frustrating?” Dr. Whitman cocked his head.

“It’s just. That’s his problem, I can’t… I could turn into one of those subs off the telly, with the hair and the shoes and everything and he’d still be angry about it. But. Merlin is my only sub friend, really, all the other people on my team are doms. We used to have a few subs, but they all left this year, and they have to let me play on the dom team, because we don’t have enough subs for a separate one, and so yeah. All my mates at school are doms, and I get that there’s all kinds of ways to show your gender, but.” Arthur clenched his jaw and fisted his hands and remembered to breathe, okay? He knew how to breathe. You inhaled, you counted to four, and you exhaled. Enough people had told him that it’d been drummed into his stupid, thick skull. He didn’t need anymore breathing exercises, thanks.

Dr. Whitman let him just sit there silently for a bit without comment. He’d picked up on the fact that trying to get Arthur to talk when he didn’t want to was a good way to get Arthur to leave the room.

“I sometimes think I just. Came out wrong.” Arthur said, quiet, looking at his hands. If. If Dr. Whitman said something stupid here, Arthur was going to leave. He really was.

It sat there in the air and Dr. Whitman studied him. Arthur looked at the floor.

“Do you think you should have been a dom?” Dr. Whitman asked, quietly.

“Maybe. Maybe I was supposed to be and then it just.” Arthur sighed. “But they gave me all those books about the differences between subs and doms and I knew. I knew I was a sub. I could feel it. You look at me and see it, it’s just true. And then people think of those lists like their rules, and get angry with me more for not being more submissive and that has to be earned, you know? My Uncle has all these rules and they’re all bullshit, and he acts like it’s the end of goddamn civilization when I don’t duck my head and stay pretty and quiet. But people don’t get that, and that just makes me angry. And it happens all the time, so I’m angry all the time and it’s just like. If I had been a dom, then everything would be fine.”

Arthur kept looking at the floor, tense and waiting for what Dr. Whitman was going to do next. Say something stupid. Call Arthur crazy. Something.

“Arthur, I’m going to propose a theory. You can disagree with it, and it may be entirely wrong, but given what I know of you, and what you’ve just said, I think it’s something to think about, but first I’d like to give you my reasoning. You are submissive, you identify with that strongly, that is correct.”

Arthur nodded.

“I think this is a situation where verbal feedback would be beneficial. Can we do that, Arthur?”

“Yeah.” He’d gotten himself into this. He was going to see it through. He wasn’t a coward. The only reason he ever ran away was because that’s what everyone told him to do, when he gets green-monster furious. They shouldn’t get angry with him for doing what they’d told him to do. They shouldn’t follow him out especially. Not unless they were Merlin.

“So. You identify as a submissive, is that correct?”

“Yes.” Arthur did. He knew that was what he was, down deep under all of everything. But. Finding that down deep core part of himself was always hard, hard to rip through everything else. He just wondered if maybe he’d just gotten turned inside out, or something, along the way.

“And you participate in many dominant-centric activities, such as violent contact sports and woodworking and you avoid most common submissive ones, correct?”

“Yes.” Arthur had heard enough jokes coming from other teams about how all he was wanted was to be wrestled down and hurt. About how he was just looking for someone to take him home after the game and get some of the tension out...

The jokes didn’t stop just because he was good-- and he was good. He was one of the best players, but the coach never did anything about it. Coach was just waiting for Arthur to break a nail and leave, for him to start getting off with a dom and quit because playing wasn’t worth it anymore. For him to want a collar more than he wanted a win. He wasn’t a glutton for punishment; he got into scrums because he wanted the ball. He was the fastest runner, he was as aggressive as any of the doms on the team, if not the biggest and, in his opinion, he never got packed full of the muscle-brained moronicness that his teammates did. He could think when he was on the field instead of, as Merlin said, “going all Labrador Retriever on the thing. Bark! Barkbarkbark! I’m big! I’m big! I want the ball! I’m big!”

He was pretty sure that once he was older, the jokes were just going to get worse. Louder. Ruder. Right now they were only not-quite-quiet enough, barely heard, but every snickered comment was said like it was the funniest thing in the goddamn world. Being better than everyone isn’t good enough. He could probably be a superhuman and it still wouldn’t be enough. People would see a sub on the field and there’d be no impressing them. They’d never stop waiting for him to fall on his knees, for him to cry and crawl away. Even his own teammates.

“You also avoid most contact with other submissives, with the exception of Merlin, who you met before either of you identified, and your Aunt says you tend to take control of that relationship. Is that true?”

“He just needs to be guided a little.” Arthur didn’t know where this was going, but he had a feeling he wouldn’t like it. That this was a bad idea. Of course it was. Those are the only kind of ideas he has. Merlin was the one who thought of things. Arthur just chose the one he liked best. This was a bad idea. But he has to know if other people could see. If they. If they could just look at him and know that something was wrong. If he’s going to drag Merlin down with him. They cut the bonds of people who will never be sane again, figuring they could, at least, save one half a soul. He didn’t care if the entire world took to catcalling and insulting him, he could handle that. He could become a hermit or something. They needed to leave Merlin alone though, or he’d pound all of them into the ground.

“But would you say you take the lead in that relationship?” Dr Whitman was staring at him too intently. It was claustrophobic, being stared at like that. “From what your Aunt and Uncle can testify-“

“I don’t take the lead, it isn’t like that. We’re just friends. Uncle Tristan has never liked him, but I don’t take charge. We’re… friends.”

Dr. Whitman stared into that pause and Arthur looked at one of the meaningless nothing-paintings on the walls. He hated that paintings like that existed. At least the paintings in the museum, full of blocks of colour and splotches of paint—the ones everyone looked at and said “Well I could have done that—were made by someone trying to do something. Not... painting flowers in pastels and creams so as to be as inoffensive as possible. It’s a platitude in a picture frame. ‘Have a nice day’ with fucking... lilies or whatever those are.

“Look. Just leave Merlin out of this.” Arthur said, flatly.

“Alright, Arthur. We can do that if it makes you more comfortable, but, as we have established, you struggle with near constant feelings of aggression, frustration and anger, do you agree with that?”

“I. I’m angry and frustrated a lot, but I don’t do anything about it most of the time. I mean, I’m not throwing tantrums in the grocery store. Uncle Tristan thinks I have a bad attitude, but I’m not doing anything. I do the breathing exercises. I leave when I think I’ll do something stupid—”

“Your Aunt stated that you physically threatened her and threw something at her.”

“I was just. I left an argument, like I’m supposed to, and she followed me to my room. I didn’t.” Arthur shoves a breath through his nostrils. “If I leave somewhere because I realize I need to leave and calm down, and then they follow me until i feel trapped, I don’t.” Arthur inhales, counts to four, and exhales. “Did you talk to her about that? Ask her what she was doing? Or was it all I only walked into the room and he threw something at me?”

Dr. Whitman stares at him and Arthur tries not to grind his teeth.

“Maybe next time you should try telling her about how you’re feeling.”

“And maybe next time she should notice that I’m clearly angry and leave me alone.”

“Arthur don’t you think it’s problematic for you to blame the people you hurt?”

“It’s. She. She knows that. I was going to my room and she. I don’t. If I’m that angry I’m not. Thinking.”

“And what we’re working on is trying to find a way to let you know you’re going to have a melt-down” Hulk-out, the Merlin in his head corrected. “So that you can communicate it effectively. If something is upsetting you, you need to say something like ‘Aunt Rebecca, I understand that it’s important we talk about this, but I need to go cool-off.’ and she’ll respect that.”

“Who says that? Who talks like that? Have you ever been angry?” Arthur rolled up onto his feet and Dr. Whitman steeled himself. Arthur felt he should have been offended, but couldn’t be anything except angry. He walked to the window, kept moving. He. He couldn’t sit still when he was like this. That was one of the reasons why school was miserable and he did rugby.

“Arthur. I want you to understand something. There are millions of people with problems controlling their anger. Some people work on it and become functional members of society, and some people decide to blame the people that make them angry because they’ve decided they can’t be fixed. And they do hurt people, Arthur. They hurt people they love, because they decide that it’s the victims-”

“I didn’t hurt her.” Arthur interrupted. Because he hadn’t. He didn’t... he. Merlin.

“But you have done things, Arthur. You could do them again. This is a pre-emptive strike against that eventuality. You don’t want to harm anyone, do you?”

“No.” Arthur stared glumly out the window. “What were you getting at?”

“It is my current theory that the combination of internalizing your guardian’s wish for you to be a dominant, a long-held fear of what your father became after the death of your mothers and your distrust of your Uncle, means that you’ve lacked any positive submissive role-models, which means that you became attracted to dominant behaviour because you saw it as a safer option than the various ways submissive behaviour had been presented to you. However, you’ve resented your learned behaviours because you suspected, and now know, that you are, in fact, submissive. So you are fighting both with society and your natural urges, which causes you no end of frustration, and so you feed that frustration into your activities and feel better for a while. However these activities neglect the urges of your gender and so leave you frustrated once again.”

“So?”

“What I am saying is that you are denying a large part of who you are, Arthur. You’re hiding from yourself, and that is always going to cause feelings of frustration and anger. You cannot be happy and contented with yourself until you accept all of who you are.”

“I’m frustrated and angry because I like what I do but no one will let me do it.” Arthur spat through gritted teeth. He’d daydreamed about throwing a chair through the window and making a break for it, but the problematic “where do I go then?” always cut that particular fantasy short.

“There are plenty of active and competitive activities you could engage in that wouldn’t cause such… discord.” The chair squeaked as Dr. Whitman shifted. Arthur refused to look at him. “It would also give you a chance to talk with other submissives your age, find some common ground and achieve a larger support system.”

“So, what? Give up? Quit doing the things I actually enjoy and am good at like everyone expects me to and talk about doms and paint my nails all day?

“No. You’re an active person, Arthur. There’s nothing wrong with that. But what I might suggest—just for a trial period—is that you engage in more submissive-centric hobbies, just to get a feel for them and see if you find them relaxing.”

Arthur pressed his forehead against the window. “So I would… what? Act the good submissive and feel better about everything? That’s bullshit.”

“That isn’t what I said.” Dr. Whitman corrected, calmly. “I am simply suggesting that you might try connecting with your submissive qualities in order to feel more comfortable with them. I’m not suggesting you give up everything you love, but rather figure out what it is you love about them and attempt to find a more suitable activity that gives you the same things without you having to fight yourself. As you stated, you are submissive, and I can see that simply by looking at you, but you have to give yourself outlets for that instinct.”

Arthur fiddled with his hands, squeezing the base of his ring finger as subtly as possible and wished the tree outside was big enough to climb.

---


Creepycover

[Promotional shot from the independent psychological horror film Glass, featuring starring actor Kelly Stan as, potentially, both of her roles—Cinderella and the Stepsister—highlighting director and writer Howard Isen’s purposeful takedown of understood gender conventions in film.]

Interviewer: So what drew you to film?

Howard Isen: From the point when the first film was shown to people as a carnival trick, it has occupied a... a strange place in the public mind. On one hand, everything depicted is real, the train is rushing towards the screen and people duck, but the people... the people always feel fake because you can’t tell. You don’t know what they are. Like with the painting, you can look upon the human body and have it divorced entirely from sex, because you don’t know what it is. That woman on screen could be a dominant or a switch or non-orientated and you, as an audience member have no idea. And I find that an amazing opportunity. In a live theatre you can’t help but... uh. You have to notice that in this production Faust is a sub. Or that he’s a dom, and what does that mean this time? You go and read reviews and the entire review is talking about Hamlet being a sub in this version and what does that mean.

INT: But films usually let the audience know what each character is.

H.I.: Yes. There’s been this long evolution of visual shorthand for how to depict a submissive versus a dominant and how to make them feel that way to the audience. The lighting, the costuming, the cinematography all works together to manipulate you, the audience, into knowing a character is a sub or a dom. In film school we had entire classes about it. About who owns each scene. Who’s got the power.

INT: And in Glass you use that against the audience.

H.I.: Yeah. I mean, I try.

INT: Glass is a two woman film, where both Rachel Hans and Kelly Stan take their turns portraying Cinderella and her Evil Step-Sister respectively. What made you decide to keep the cast of characters so small?

H.I.: I like how constricted it made everything. They’re both marvellously talented actors, and the important part of the film is that you get to see their relationship. Kelly is a wickedly cruel stepsister, she just eats up the screen, and she’s very tall in real life, much taller than Rachel. Rachel is sort of a more manipulative, ah, sort. You’re always aware of where she is, and there’s this sort of... I guess ‘threat of violence’ that’s always just right out of the shot. She and Rachel play off each other so well, and that was the main thing. During casting we desperately needed two actors who had that real sense of chemistry.

INT: The film has gotten a lot of favourable reviews for how well they play off one another.

H.I: They’re both amazingly talented actors and I cannot stress how much I want them to do well after this. I couldn’t have done it without them. Sometimes it got so intense during shoots that everything would go quiet, and we’d all be staring at them. Like everyone would just be standing there and watching, and I’d be frantically trying to capture it all. Both Kelly and Rachel are subs, but when it was either of their turn to play the stepsister, they gathered this massive, intense aura around themselves. Your brain would normally be saying “she’s a sub, look, she’s a sub”, but you wouldn’t believe it. It was really incredible.

INT: You’ve essentially made a Cinderella story that isn’t a Cinderella story. Not to spoil the end of the movie for any of our readers, but you’ve cut out all the other figures. There’s no Prince, there’s no fairy Godmother, there’s not even an evil stepmother.

H.I.: The term Cinderella story has come to mean a rags-to-riches story characterized by the Cinderella character suffering years of abuse quietly and with good temper. She a sub who's essentially abused mercilessly until she gets to go to the ball and finds her soulmate, who protects her for happily ever after. People gloss over that first part to get to the second, because we care about the reward. We told young subs that it didn’t matter how much they had to work and struggle and fight, one day they’d find their dom and everything would be perfect. But that struggle does matter. It isn’t made better by her soulmate finding her. A happy ending doesn’t justify the tragic back-story.

INT: Some reviews have called Glass overly dark because of that.

H.I.: Perhaps, but the fact of the matter is that there are still submissive adolescents who are raised to suffer quietly, to put up with what amounts up to abuse in order to learn how to be good, or behave in society, and then they’re told stories like this in order to assure them that it’ll all turn out, because somewhere your dom is looking for you, but what we have, even now, is a forty-six percent chance of dying before meeting your soulmate, and, according to most world census data, over sixty percent of soulbonded couples don’t meet until one or both partners are over the age of thirty.

INT: Is that why you made this film?

H.I. In part.

INT: And the rest?

H.I.: I wanted that turning point. I wanted the scene that would shake everyone up. You’ve gotten comfortable with who these women are, you think you’ve got a tap on it, and then there’s the switch, something that can’t happen in real life. Suddenly the poor, abused sub is standing tall and pressing the previously strutting dom against the wall. With these two actors, and the world we put them in, it shakes your foundations. They’ve been calling it a psychological horror film, which it is, but not because a powerless sub is trapped in this dank, dungeon-like featureless room with a mentally unhinged dom. It’s because you, you the audience member, are cut off from this sense you’ve always had, and you’re now realizing that the film can manipulate you, it can change the game, it can lie, and you no longer know who has the power.

INT: I understand that you and Rachel Hans had a working relationship previous to Glass, which was why you chose her for one of the leading parts. However, previous to this film Kelly Stan had never acted in any professional production. What lead you to her?

H.I. Well she came to a casting call, and while she didn’t have anything in the way of a professional career in acting, her entire modelling career is based off of gender ambiguity. It isn’t just that she can switch between presenting as submissive and presenting as dominant, but she can present as something entirely other and you aren’t sure what you’re looking at. At one moment there’s something vulnerable about her positioning, and then you look again and it turns predatory. And that’s naturally unsettling, looking at a person and not knowing what they want from you. During her first reading with Rachel, the two of them just clicked. It was claustrophobic and erotic, dangerous, and we knew right away that we didn’t have any choice. At that time I’d been playing with the idea of possibly having another stepsister to add an unknown element, but once I had those two, I knew they could carry the movie by themselves.

---

January, 2002

The first kiss just sort of happened. Or, well, rather. It was inevitable, obviously. There had been pecks on cheeks and foreheads, holding hands when they were alone, but they hadn’t been brave enough to try anything more than that.

They’d just flopped on Arthur’s couch (his Aunt and Uncle were gone, and his entertainment system was far better than Merlin’s tiny little telly) curled up, Merlin under an afghan. Arthur was generally too warm, and Merlin was generally too cold, so Arthur kept the window open and Merlin stole all the blankets and became one with his burrito heritage. They had a plate of nachos on Arthur’s lap, organic blue corn chips, compromised by roughly enough cheese to kill eight moose, shredded beef, jalapeños, salsa, homemade guacamole, sour cream and tomatoes. They were picking them off, slowly, the chips long since soggy, and neither of them caring.

They’d been being normal for six months. Or as normal as possible. They’d been scared about touching too much. Or not touching enough. Or. Touching just... wrong somehow, giving it all away. Merlin had made an anthropological study of how frequently people at Arthur’s school made contact with one another, and they’d discovered the music teacher was dating one of his cellists and that was problematic information to have.

Arthur’s Aunt and Uncle took everything he did as wrong, and while his Aunt liked Merlin, she also frequently stated that Arthur should branch out and make some contacts. Merlin’s mum just let them be themselves, provided nothing valuable was broken in the process and they cleaned up afterwards, and didn’t care one lick if she came down and found Merlin sinking into Arthur’s side like a “heat seeking koala missile” as Lance had once said.

(“Is it seeking koala heat, or is the missile a koala?” “You’re a weaponized koala.” “I’m really okay with this.”)

Merlin had reached for a nacho and turned to say something snarky about the film they were watching (Arthur’s choice, which meant that it had depth and narrative and characterization, and thus Merlin was bored because there weren’t any characters to be mindlessly killed by some kind of overly intelligent but somehow disenfranchised serial killer, and so he had to make fun of everyone for the rest of the movie.)

Arthur turned to tell him to shut up and then they were there. Facing one another. Then they just… didn’t turn away for a long time, far too long to call it a stare. And since Arthur didn’t make a face and turn it into a contest, and Merlin didn’t do anything at all other than stare it just… went. And went.

Arthur thought one of them should say something. One of them always managed to say something. Except when they were stretched out in some grassy field and staring up at the stars, Arthur handing over a blanket when it started getting chilly. It wasn’t that they went to the field to stare at stars, it was just something that happened. Much like how the staring was just happening now.

Arthur’s head was tipped slightly to his left, eyes dragging over Merlin’s face. Merlin swallowed, his head tilted to the left and it looked like all he could do was swallow again and stare. They hadn’t exactly discussed this, but at night Arthur would go home and lie in his bed and he’d feel Merlin and Merlin would feel him and they’d both. Um. But. That. That wasn’t. Together. That could be. Um. Arthur watched as Merlin licked his lips.

Then Arthur moved, didn’t give the telly time to blare loudly and break them apart, for someone to knock on the door, or for the phone to ring. Arthur just attacked, pressed Merlin into the couch and kissed him, settled between his legs and cupped his face, needing the round bite of Merlin's cheekbones under his palms, to press his fingers into until Merlin’s ears were pressed to his skull.

“Your ears are ridiculous,” Arthur whispered, as he had before, being the only person with the right to. He’d ground plenty a face into the dirt for having said a single bad word about Merlin. Merlin was his to insult, and love, and kiss, apparently. Arthur didn’t know what they were doing. The slide of tongue felt weird and tasted like jalapeños, and maybe there was too much spit, but it still felt thrilling and, Arthur decided, they could get better. They had time. They could be the best kissers ever.

“Arthur,” Merlin began, lips shiny with spit and Arthur wanted to kiss him again.

Merlin looked at Arthur’s mouth and then did it for him, curling his arms over Arthur’s neck and slowly sucking on Arthur’s lip, like it was something he heard of, a hypothesis to test. A new project that wasn’t going to be abandoned halfway through, except Arthur pulled away. Frightened, suddenly, that he was making it real. Of course it was real, but It. He was fifteen. He wasn’t the smartest.

“We can make it work Arthur, I promise, come on. We’ll think of something. Come on. Please.” He smoothed his hands up Arthur’s sides.

Arthur cupped Merlin’s face, and he was witness to what made dominants do what they did, for a moment. Merlin was looking at him with a world of just let me make you happy. I will do anything to make you happy, when Arthur had always expected to see… see control and someone that had clear expectations of what Arthur could do for them. He had thought about seeing assessment, or, as time went on, fondness, but not… not this. Arthur felt his lungs go tight in his chest, the press of expectations and he suddenly didn’t know where to put his hands or where to look, so he pressed Merlin down into the couch, holding him down because that. That made more sense.

Merlin breathed under him, and Arthur kissed his neck. “Shh, we’ll figure out something. Just like you said. We’ll be perfect.”

Arthur kissed him and Merlin kissed back, pressed under Arthur and relaxed under his weight and Merlin grinned up at him and Arthur was helpless to do anything but grin back.

---


Beauty and The Beast

There was once a merchant with three beautiful daughters, and when they were still young, he doted on them extensively, bringing back lovely, expensive gifts from the lands he visited and making them the toast of their entire seaside village. And so it was that as his daughters grew up, the eldest two were submissives who combed their hair and talked of their soulmates, and asked their father to tell them of all his travels, and perhaps take them, so they might meet their future fiancés.

The youngest was the prettiest of the three, her skin soft and free of blemish, and her hair long and thick without snarl or tangle. Body strong with muscle from climbing and playing, running through the streets and exploring all the tiny nooks and crannies of their village. She came of age as a dominant, and the village was not surprised, but she was by far the most handsome, and the submissives in the town spent much time sighing to themselves over her.

Time passed and she did not have a soulbond, the place within herself remained vacant and empty, and soon it was that none of her father’s gifts, none of his presents or stories could cheer her. She took over running the house, quiet and empty as a broken church bell, and the village wondered at her, and so it was that it was eventually decided that she had no soul, and was a blemish upon her father’s house.

It was that same year that almost all of her father’s ships sank into the ocean in a terrible storm. He returned to land in his one battered little ship, with just enough cargo to purchase a horse on which to ride home. As he rode he thought of the great deal of red in his ledger, and how he had managed none of the gifts his daughters asked for, which he could have used to gentle the news of their tragedy.

His eldest had asked for a mirror. His middle has asked for hair combs. His youngest… ah his youngest, sad and still handsome, had smiled, taken his hand and said that she simply wanted some trinket, some tiny, fragile, beautiful thing to remind her that he, at least, loved her still. He had none of these, having sold the mirror and the hair combs along with his cargo, and having not found any trinket that would have, perhaps, brought a smile to his daughter’s face.

He rode through the unfamiliar woods, the trails switching back and forth as if they meant to lose him in their grips forever. Night fell with no place to set up camp, no inn to rest his weary head. Wolves howled, and in their song he found a deep and great fear for his life. Only when he thought he would be torn to bits by their slavering jaws did he find the castle.

With great relief he drew his horse inside the gate. He howled on the steps for sanctuary, and as if in response to his plea, the too-heavy door swung open without a sound. He turned his horse to pasture in the garden and entered the citadel. The hall stood: huge, opulent and empty of a single sound or soul.

He walked, wincing at the heavy beat of his own footsteps, and happened upon a lavish banquet hall, long enough to seat a hundred men at least, and with only a simple meal set before him. When he called out, there was no response. So he said his thank yous and his apologies, sat and ate. When he rose again he followed the hallway and climbed the wide, spiralling staircase up until a door opened before him. Inside he found a wardrobe with fresh, clean clothing. He called again and, once again, was greeted only by silence. So he said his thank yous and his apologies, and changed.

When he turned, as if by magic, he found a freshly turned down bed that smelled of sweet flowers and was piled thick with blankets. He called out once more, with no reply, and—tired beyond all reckoning—removed his new boots to climb onto the warm, soft mattress and he fell promptly asleep.

Upon waking he made the bed as best he was able, put on his boots and found another simple repast waiting for him. He ate with gratitude and did not wander the castle further, stating aloud that he had nothing to give, but if he had, he would do so with joy and thanks for this great kindness. The castle said nothing and the merchant, bolstered somewhat (although still fearing how his daughters would respond) went on his way. His two eldest preened over being so pretty and at having such nice things, and now he had nothing to give them. They would despair to hear of their family’s terrible fortune and his heart would break trying to rebuild it for them, but his youngest…

His poor, tragic youngest, with no hope, with no love at all. He had just wanted some little bit of something to make her smile like she used to: bold and fearless, happy as the sun was bright. He thought that if he could just find her something, then everything would be fine.

And there, like magic, at the end of the path were two beautiful rose bushes, thicker and fuller than any he’d ever seen, with roses so fat and plump with petals that looked as though angels used them for their beds. He bent carefully and inhaled their scent, and he knew that if he gave this rose to his youngest, she would be overcome with happiness, if, only for a moment.

Without thinking, he snipped the rose from the bush.

Only to have his very soul jostled by the aggrieved roar that followed his transgression.

“Who are you, that you think may steal my belongings?” A terrible voice thundered. “I have given you shelter, I have fed you, I have clothed you, and this is the thanks I am given?!”

“I am sorry!” The merchant cried, falling to his knees. “I did not mean to cause offence, I was only thinking of my daughters. I am a merchant and almost all I have in the world has been lost, and I do not know how to tell them of our sorrow. I had only hoped to give them a single moment of joy before they must live in poverty.”

“You say daughters, but you plucked one flower.” The voice seemed to echo up from the very ground, poured like rain did from the sky, like judgement. It was a terrible, seething, wretched wreck of a voice, hoarse and unnatural, as if stones had learned to talk. “Which daughter did you steal my rose for?”

“My youngest. She is my most beautiful child, and when she was young she could have ruled the world with her smile. But she is of age now, and has no soulbond to make her smile. The people in the village say she has no soul, but she is kind, and she is good and I only wished for her happiness. My eldest two have good marriage prospects and will survive, but no one will have her, for all her beauty.”

The voice was silent for many moments and then pelted from the highest tower and sank down into his bones. “You will go home, you will hug your daughters, and you will return here to me as my prisoner. In exchange I will make sure your family is cared for. If you do not return with my rose in a fortnight, wolves will come and rip your daughters apart, I will tear them limb from limb and roast their hearts upon my fire.”

“I will do as you say,” The merchant promised, and now the rose hung from his hand like a chain, for all that it was still lovely. He climbed onto horse and rode home.

When he arrived his eldest two daughters asked for their presents, and he bowed his head and said he had nothing to give them. They sulked and pouted and went to their rooms. His youngest held his wrist, asking what troubled him so. He gave her the rose, and, for a moment, she smiled. She inhaled the scent and brushed her thumb along the damp, plump petals that had not wilted at all during his frantic ride home.

She thanked him, and he brushed her hair from her eyes so he could kiss her forehead as he had done when she was younger. She gripped his wrist and asked again why he was so distraught.

He told her the entire sorry tale, of their financial ruin, the terrifying voice and the mysterious castle. He wept into her shoulder as she soothed him. Her sisters ran down upon hearing the news and wept and mourned for themselves and what would become of their beautiful house and their beautiful things.

His youngest and best child, being clever, asked him to say all he could as to where the castle was. When he and her sisters fell into slumber, she ventured out into the woods on her horse. She knew she would sacrifice herself instead of her father or sisters, because she had no soul. The other people in the village had whispered that she would, one day, bring doom to her father. Now that she had, it was her duty to atone.

---

March, 1999

Uncle Tristan was in his bedroom. Arthur paused at the doorway with his book bag and then slowly lowered it to the floor, because neither his Aunt nor his Uncle were comfortable with him holding things.

“It’s time for us to have a talk.” His Uncle stated, awkwardly. Arthur continued to stare at him because… they… didn’t talk. Aunt Rebecca was the one who talked to Arthur. They probably discussed him behind his back, sure, but he and his Uncle didn’t… talk.

“If you are going to be a sub, then it falls to me to... guide you.” His Uncle cleared his throat. “It is what your mother would have wanted.” He added.

Low blow.

When Arthur was younger he’d used to ask about his mum. She was in photo albums, the pictures had never told him anything of us. His Uncle never shared anything, never had quips or “your mother used to...” or... or anything. He’d told Arthur to leave him be, or to ask when he was older. So Arthur had learned to stop asking. He’d learned to keep his questions to himself.

He knew his mum had been a dom, that there had been a switch that had acted as surrogate mother and his father had tried to kill him, once. He knew that the switch had been mama and mum had been mum. He... he could almost remember them sometimes, if he smelled the right thing and stopped long enough to remember. He remembered them grabbing him by the wrists to swing him from giant step to giant step. He... he thinks he remembers other things, but Merlin had made up plenty of stories about his parents when they were kids, with the kind of details that Merlin thought up, so he didn’t... know.

He knew he took after his mother in colouring. He knew she was dead and that her gravestone had a Bible passage on it. He didn’t know if they’d been religious. where they had been driving. Or what his mum smelled like. Or who his dad was at all, really other than the psychological case study he was today. So he put the pieces he’d had together and tried to make something out of them.

Let Merlin make up stories.

“It is important for you to learn manners and decorum,” his Uncle continued. “As well as safety and health information.” He cleared his throat and gestured to books he’d left on Arthur’s desk. “That is the reading I would like for you to do. We can discuss each book as you’ve finished. These are the books my mother handed to me when I first identified and it is my hope you’ll find them as comforting as I eventually did.”

He stood and, after a pause, he clapped Arthur on the shoulder. “It is your responsibility now to begin to leave aside childish pursuits and conduct yourself in a more seemly manner.”

“What?”

“You’re growing up.” His Uncle cleared his throat again, like talking to Arthur made his throat swell up. “People. Society, that is…well, people are going to start to… expect… certain things from you. When you’re pre-gender, most adults allow children to explore themselves. But you’ve identified now, that is a sign of adulthood. As such you will have more freedoms, but also more expectations.”

“What freedoms?” Arthur sat in his desk chair and looked at the pile of old-looking tomes. A dog-eared and yellowed Lady Protocol’s Guide To Proper Social Interaction was on top, followed by the much thicker Learning To Give by F.G. Stipleton, the cover a stock photograph of a teenager, clearly submissive by the dress, staring down at her feet as someone stood over her.

“That is something that your Aunt and I will discuss.” His Uncle qualified and then looked over Arthur. “We can go… shopping, later for better clothing.” He offered a smile. “It will be nice to look presentable, won’t it?”

“Uh.” Arthur offered and looked down at himself.

His Uncle nodded, smoothing down his shirt. He always dressed like a Stepford house-partner, like there could be an emergency tea at any moment and he’d need to look perfect for it. It’s… Arthur still didn’t know what to do with himself (not that it mattered, as the shopping trip never actually happens).

“You’re growing up.” His Uncle patted his shoulder. “No dating until you’re sixteen.” He shook his finger. “Read those and then talk to me. Both your Aunt and I want you to grow up into a functional young sub to make us proud. Your body and attitude is going to go through a lot of… changes, right now. Most of them will be confusing or-“

“I got a sex talk at school. Please. Please stop.”

His Uncle sniffed. “They don’t cover protocol at school. It that damned Labour party that-- Well. I won’t stand for it in this house. If you’re a submissive, then you’re going to learn how to act like one. But I want you to do the reading first.” He gestured again. “After that we can cover proper manners.”

“Proper… manners?”

His Uncle straightened himself. “It’ll be a long process, growing up is confusing, but with guidance you’ll make your soulmate as proud as I strive to make your Aunt Rebecca.” need to make a few calls. Do your homework.”

Arthur stared at him and then down at the books, unsure of what, exactly, had just happened. Four paragraphs into the first one, he threw it across the room.

---


Introduction

It has, by now, become apparent to any newly identified sub, that there are quite a few new expectations of their behaviour that were not true when they were children. Hopefully your parents correctly raised you according to an accurate pre-gender identity, thus giving you a stable foundation to build off of. But even so, these expectations and manners may seem scary, or frustrating, at first, it is certainly a lot to learn, almost too quickly, and as you get older, the expectations will simply become stricter. However, this is simply a natural fear of change, and once you obtain a better understanding of your place in society and the household, you will feel a greater sense of security and wholeness. There have been generations of submissives before you that have managed to navigate the choppy water of social protocol, and with far less assistance than this little guide hopes to offer.

In this guide you can expect both a thorough overview of behaviours, manners, dress and postures that will be expected of you as you mature, as well as some helpful exercises and liturgies to help you learn and check your progress. This guide also strives to be a helpful pocket resource, available for you to fall back on when in a complicated social situation. It is this guide’s hope, of course it will make itself obsolete, as you mature and develop into a beautiful, well-mannered submissive, comfortable in all sort of occasions, genteel and securely, happily demure in all aspects of your lifestyle.

It may seem to you, right now, that your family and teachers, peers and elders are attempting to control you. And this is, at first, a frightening thing. But you must allow yourself to trust in their wisdom. submissives are, universally, happier in more controlled situations, ones where the social protocol is understood. You must understand that once you understand this social protocol it gives you the power. You will be able to ask and request with far more tact and success than you had when you were younger. It is when both dominants and submissives act in the proper way that society runs best and awkward, embarrassing situations and misunderstandings are avoided. So it falls to you, gentle reader, to trust in this framework until you to feel the comfort and safety society allows your gender. Do not allow yourself the selfish pleasure of frustration, or imbibe in the toxic languor of laziness. Work hard and respect your elders by doing as you have been taught, and the rewards will unfold before you.

The first chapter of this guide will be for physical shows of submission. It is easier to guide the mind where the body is already walking, giving you something physical upon which to focus. Do not worry, at this point, about proper modes of address, or the correct manner in which to broach your opinion. It is at this point of your development you should focus on how best to look. We will cover the proper forms of kneeling, how one should approach a bow, how to stand when at rest, how best to walk in public and the five most important things to remember about how you present your body to others in polite society. Following that we will cover proper modes of dress—with respect to changing fashion—and how a proper young sub goes about the delightful (but dangerous, as all things are, in excess) process of shopping for zerself. How you look is far more important at this stage than what your thoughts are, as you are still young, and a proper, good young sub is spending this vital time in zer life listening, and learning to read people rather than barging into conversations like a bull—

Lady Protocol’s Guide For Proper Social Interaction pg i-iii by Helena, Barbara

---

November, 2011
It was an unyielding truth that, by the end of any given social event, he would end up with Merlin in his lap as he explained— in the very careful enunciation of the quite pissed—everything he had learned his final year of undergraduate degree. Merlin had spent the majority of that year one degree or another of drunk. Being drunk meant that Merlin could settle down and focus on one thing at a time until it was done. When sober he didn’t much recall anything that happened that year with clarity, but the second he was the right level of drunk he could speak French about as well as the average Parisian six year old and talk about media globalization and folkloric constructs of so-called deviant sexuality like it was his job. And, of course, when drunk, Merlin talked about porn. It was just something that happened.

Sometimes he combined all of the aforementioned topics into one long monologue that no one really followed, besides Arthur.

“Look, as long as literature has existed there’s been these two-dom buddy-buddy shows and movies because people always write subs as these whiny, useless idiots who only ever do anything because they’re told and they scream a lot and mostly just get kidnapped and act as the romantic interest. Then we had Sherlock and Watson and they were different because Sherlock was a switch, because he can’t have a soulmate, because then there’d be a sub who could bring down the great Sherlock Holmes, but he’s sort of non-dynamic, really, when you think about it, and he’s certainly asexual, but the point!” Merlin pointed at the person who wasn’t paying any kind of attention anymore. “The point is that because this is a thing that happens one place, and it gets really successful, it’s going to happen in all the places because the media just likes re-doing good things. So. So.” He leans against Arthur’s chest. “What were we talking about?”

“They asked if you’d ever seen White Collar and then you went mental for about fifteen minutes.” Arthur answered, because he knew better than to rope Merlin into a conversation when he was this drunk. Unless it would end in Merlin doing something hilarious, in which case Arthur roped him into all the conversations. Because sometimes there was singing.

“Yes! The point is that we finally have this two-dom buddy-buddy show, except one of the doms is a switch who is shown as being submissive sometimes, but never in a bad way, and the other found his soulmate, but they’ve still got this chemistry and the switch isn’t either this unemotional, Zen brick of a person, or, like, ridiculously promiscuous and flighty. Like... he wants love. He doesn’t have a soulmate, and he wants to be loved for himself, and yeah, he’s a con man so he’s a little flighty, because, you know. Criminals. They flee. But he’s steady when it comes to any actual relationship he’s in, and they’ve had him in both roles and it’s the greatest thing. And there’s a non-dynamic monosexual as a main character who isn’t written like a stereotype and it’s so beautiful I want to die.”

The person Merlin was talking at sensed a chance to escape and did so. Wise soul. Merlin looked up at Arthur. “I just want them to make-out a little bit. There’s historical foundation for a soulmated pair taking on a switch. Your parents did and I’m not talking about that what. What. Look at that your glass is empty and no one is dead and it’s your birthday so continue being happy.”

He took Arthur’s cup and stumbled away with a song in his heart and one of his shoes gone. It had been used to illustrate a point. Arthur would find it later. He sprawled out over the couch. He wasn’t half as drunk as Merlin, but he felt lazy and generally content with the world, comfortable and looking forward to whatever it was that Merlin had planned for this evening.

One of the many nice things about having a soulbond, was that you always sort of knew when your fiancée was doing something dumb. Arthur opened his eyes and scanned the room, finding Merlin next to the drink table, clutching their cups and, oh right. Scarlet O’Hara was still here and Merlin is still a nutter.

Arthur slowly made his way to his feet and crossed the room to save Merlin from himself.

“-want me to quote the whole thing to prove it? I can quote the entire thing to prove it. Or. Well. The really bad bits. Which is all of it. So I can quote all of it because all of it was awful. Arthur. Arthur. Arthur, tell her about that thing that I have totally done.”

“Was that thing ‘get our drinks’? Because you have not done that.” Arthur took the cups from Merlin’s hands and began to mix what remained on the table. Merlin beamed at him as Arthur played bartender.

“Hi, I’m Arthur.” He held out his arm and the…far too fashionable woman carefully wrapped her fingers around his wrist, and he returned the favour. Her wrist was slight under his hand, but he could feel the flex of muscles in her forearm.

“Morgana.” She replied. Her lipstick didn’t smear at all when she took another pull of cider. It just stayed there, perfectly shiny and perfectly dark. Arthur sort of hated her a little bit, because he couldn’t even put on lipstick without it getting everywhere, and no matter what the Internet said, it always felt like the wrong colour.

Merlin had found him once, holding another failed attempt to make himself...pretty...and mentioned something about liners and foundation and whatnot. He’d sat Arthur on the toilet and applied it all himself, cupping his hand under Arthur’s chin and moving his face from side to side. Arthur had looked in the mirror and he... he’d scrubbed his towel over his face and all it had done was move the colour around, so Merlin had sat him down again and cleaned it off until Arthur knew who he was, again.

Merlin’s eyeliner was smeared all to hell, and Arthur’s lip-gloss had long since given up the ghost, but Morgana’s make-up was still as carefully and delicately put-together as if she had always existed so. But it was his birthday, and he refused to care if some ridiculously glamorous switch decided to hit on Merlin, Arthur was going to be the one bringing him home, and no one could stop him.

“No one has read that book.” Morgana continued, without missing a beat. “I highly suspect the author didn’t read that book.”

“I did!”

“He probably did.” Arthur said, drinking his black-and-tan as he leaned against the wall. “He viciously abused the inter-library loaning system. What book?”

Empty by Roger Hammond and it’s sequel Flipped.” Morgana informed him. “Apparently he set out to write a coming-of-age novel about a switch, but was not one himself, nor, do I think, he had ever met one or seen one except on telly.”

“Oh, oh.” Merlin snapped his fingers. “Here we go. I’ve got it.”

Merlin cleared his throat and steadied himself, as if about to make a speech, pressing a hand to his chest and tossing his head in the perfect parody of the drama student stereotype.

And like my dynamic’s namesake, I suddenly felt myself shifting, my shoulders drooping and my insides curling up. I wanted, suddenly, more than anything to be on my knees in front of this jade-green eyed, midnight-haired dom, whose hair was shorn and short, like the bristles of a brush that I could not help but want to be spanked by, whose very presence sent a thrill through my body like I had been pierced, or electrified: his muscles rippled under his shirt and he stood a full head taller than I: I was like a dog who had found zer better, and I wished to roll over and show my belly, even though moments before, I had felt like I could have owned the room.

There was a moment of contemplative silence before: “Where is this author and how many times can I punch them before I am stopped?”

“It gets worse. it gets worse so many times. She’s in a threesome at one point, and describes it like she’s a metal shaving trapped between two magnetic poles. Unable to decide who she should go to. It’s like he thinks switches are werewolves.” Merlin laughed, pleased and drunken and, of course, basking in being the centre of attention like a particularly starved houseplant.

“Why can you quote that off the top of your head?” Morgana asked, because she had never sat down and listened to Merlin reciting all of Stardust like he was an audio book, when they’d forgotten the mp3 player and neither of them had a book to read. Merlin would rest his head on Arthur shoulder and begin: “There was once a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire.” He’d keep reciting, voice rising and falling, acting out the exciting parts, even once they got off the bus, jumping over benches and swinging his arms around as he announced his favourite parts to the world like Gospel.

“I am very good at remembering things that I think should be remembered.” Merlin shrugged and grinned like nothing in the world could be wrong. “Do you want all of Gone With The Wind? I have both the movie and the book down solid. I can do impressions, everything. I will swoon into my own arms.”

Merlin demonstrated. Arthur picked him up off the floor.

Morgana looked at him like she wanted to ask him to prove it, but then thought better of it and cocked her head, studying him. Arthur wasn’t sure, exactly, if Merlin’s desire for Arthur’s birthday to be the greatest time ever would trump his O’Hara-induced-psychotic-break. Maybe Merlin would go home with her, if she wanted him to. Maybe he’d take her number. Or give her his.

Morgana looked ready to add to the conversation before something behind them caught her eye. She smiled and Merlin turned, because he always wanted to know what was going on.

Arthur did not have a “type” the same way that Merlin did. When he did think about a dom he’d actually let take him home, ze was generally smaller than him, and smart, and funny and—well, basically Merlin, but with the right inclination.

Not that he’d ever wished Merlin were different, but. Someone like Merlin. Someone who would use him like a tool in their arsenal. Someone who’d keep Merlin too and understand the two of them. Someone who would use Arthur to make Merlin go a little crazy and not focus on Arthur all too much and…

Basically every dom Merlin had ever designed for them.

The dom that joined them was immediately arresting, certainly. She was muscled, handsome, and Merlin looked a little overwhelmed by the both of them standing there. She didn’t look nearly as fussily glamorous as Morgana did, which Arthur liked. Her eyes fell on Arthur before Merlin, studying a moment and he studied her right back. Or at least stared, he wasn’t sure he was getting as much out of it as she was. At minimum he refused to blush and look at the floor.

“We match.” Merlin said, because he was Merlin and he tended to notice that sort of thing. Morgana looked between the four of them and laughed.

“Morgause, this is Merlin and Arthur,” Morgana paused with a smile and she gestured back to Morgause, “And this is Morgause, my sister.”

Merlin somehow refrained from comment, but Arthur could almost hear him saying something about their parents apparently liking them quite a bit if they wanted more of both of them. “Morgana. Get it? Leatherback turtles have spines lining their throat so they can keep their main prey, sea jellies, from escaping back up when they swallow.” Because Merlin usually followed up bad jokes with animal facts in order to distract predators.

“We match!” Merlin repeated instead, pointing it out. “Is yours a terrifying force of death? Mine is a terrifying force of death.”

“And you are pissed.” Arthur got him around the shoulders. “I would apologize for him, but he’s like this when sober.”

“I’m wonderful and you’d be lost without me.” Merlin assured Arthur and then nuzzled into the hold with a sigh. “I am pretty, oh so pretty, I am so pretty and witty and bri~ght.”

“You wouldn’t think that earlier we were having an engaging discussion of non-dynamic-normative sexualities with cited sources and academic quotes.” Morgana noted, offering Morgause her cider, which Morgause finished off and put to the side. “Merlin here is a folklorist.”

“Do you want me to quote my entire paper on mythical, legendary and contemporary switch/trickster characters and figures? Because I can do that.” Merlin acquiesced when Arthur covered his mouth with a hand and just smiled at them with his eyes. “It includes the Doctor. It is very exciting.”

It was a meandering sort of conversation that traded control between Merlin and Morgana, with Arthur occasionally helping Merlin remember something, or Morgause pointing out something, in a quiet, careful way of a large cat testing if a branch was sturdy enough for her weight. Merlin kept shooting glances between the two of them, and Arthur could feel a tenuous sort of interest blooming in the Merlin section of his mental topography, and, maybe, a little bit of his own. Maybe. He wasn’t going to admit to anything, but-

“-sometimes writes articles for Loose Ends which is pretty neat, but mostly he makes stuff. Like he made this.” Merlin lifted his necklace with his thumbs. “And he made the cuffs, and a lot of our furniture, and he sells it, so that helps, but mostly he teaches at a learning centre in uptown which pays pretty good. I make froofy coffee drinks for people who are mean to me.” Merlin fiddled with his necklace a little more, rubbing his fingers of the beads. “And sometimes people who are nice to me, and then sometimes people who are a little too nice to me.”

“You review clubs?” Morgause asked.

Arthur shrugged. “When they have someplace for me to go. We’re not exactly Las Vegas or New York over here, but we do alright. I also do websites, chatrooms, movies other newsletters.” Arthur shrugged and rubbed the lip of his cup with a thumb. “Whatever the editors think will attract readers.”

Loose Ends has a not insignificant following,” Morgause added, looking at Arthur thoughtfully.

“It’s a subscription for singles. More people turning 18 every day, more people dropping off the market too.” Arthur rubbed his lower lip with his teeth. Bit it a little. Her eyes followed the movement and then tracked back up to his eyes.

“Have you reviewed Vulgate yet, by chance?” Morgause asked, head tilted, like she knew the answer.

Which was, of course, that Arthur had never heard of it. “Is it new?”

“Extremely. And extremely exclusive, of course.” She smiled briefly, “They all are, at first, if you have the connections.”

“Do they?”

“They do,” she agreed. She took out her wallet and slid a business card free. “This is their number. And my number. Might make for a good article,” she offered, and he took it, mostly because she handed it to him instead of sliding it into one of his pockets. “Morgana and I must be going. Have a good night,” she offered and Morgana looked more than slightly amused and they left.

Merlin watched them and then took the business card from Arthur and looked at it. “She was so into you.”

“Is it an actual business card?”

“I’ll Google it later,” Merlin noted. “But for now, we’re going to get home and talk about the fact that she fancied you. She wanted to put you on a shelf because of how fancy you were and then take you down and get you all dirty. With fanciness.”

Merlin snuggled closer and then dragged Arthur out of the room to bid their goodbyes, Arthur getting handshakes and hugs as Merlin hauled him away to the coatroom, strung through with excitement and Arthur couldn’t help but smile at him like an idiot. He let Merlin stuff him into his jacket and tug him out the door, high off the twitch in Merlin’s hips, the skip in his step and the twirling, rushing madness of a night as one of Merlin’s projects.

---

March 2002

Merlin appointed himself head of the Research Department for the Organization of Arthur and Merlin Are So Fucked. Mainly, Merlin was just better at researching than Arthur was, because Merlin’s mum wasn’t the sort of person who wanted to read every single book he read in order to make sure it was a good influence. If not for Merlin, Arthur would have had to beg for the Harry Potter books, because his Uncle thought them too fanciful and full of rubbish thinking. His Aunt would ask him what any old paperback was about, and several she took back to the library because she thought them too trashy.

So. Merlin was head of the Research Department. Not that there was much to read just at the library about…them.

“If we could get into an academic database or a university library we’d be better off,” Merlin said, collating their pitiful research into a file folder. “I mean, there is stuff. I found three books about Group Connectivity Stress Syndrome and some more about Extreme Duress Defensive Bonding, especially the whole Annie Carter and Fisher Mulder thing, but most of those aren’t exactly research.” He held up a paperback pulp fiction thriller and then tossed it on the bed, leaning back in his chair and spinning while staring at the ceiling. “There’s a lot about non-dynamics, and switches and defective soulbonds, but nothing about…like us. Not. I mean. Not in any science books.”

Arthur fell back on the bed and covered his eyes with an arm. “So what, we’re freaks?”

“The Greeks used to have a thing where an older dom would teach a younger dom zer skills by sceneing together.” Merlin offered. “And inter-harem relationships were apparently a thing. And they don’t really understand soulbonds, at all, and, like, there are still loads of people who never meet their soulmate, so, you know, they could be same-dynamic and you’d never know.”

“What did the Internet turn up?”

Merlin rubbed the back of his neck and hunched in on himself. “Mostly the kinds of websites you need to have a credit card for. Um.” Merlin rubbed his face. “I had to clear my browser history like, four times before I felt better. And then I uninstalled it and reinstalled it.”

“You’ve never looked at Internet porn?” Arthur frowns.

“They need money!” Merlin defended, “I don’t have money. And don’t tell me you have because they need money and you don’t even get an allowance, much less have a credit card.”

“You can find it for free. You just have to be careful because if you click on the wrong thing you’re fucked.”

Merlin began going red and Arthur checked the lock on the door. “I could. Show you?” He offered carefully, feeling hot himself and Merlin just turned redder.

“Aren’t those mostly geared towards doms?” Merlin’s eyes flicked toward the computer screen and then back to Arthur. “I mean. You know. Tiny little subs getting abused by the beefiest doms they can find?” He cleared his throat and watched Arthur. Arthur reached forward and moved to connect to the Internet; no one was on the phone to cause problems

“Most of the stuff for money is. The videos and the pictures are. But I found something.” He typed in the URL that he’d quietly memorized from off the library computer.

“What is it?” Merlin asked as Arthur scrolled.

“So you know Phantom of the Opera?”

“The book, the musical, the-“

“All of them from what I can tell. People decided to write stories about it. Like... what happened next, or what if something had gone differently stories, or porn. Most of them include porn.”

“So like romance novels, but for free.” Merlin turned to the screen. “And about Eric and Christine.”

“And less ‘he thrust his manhood into her quivering opening, spreading a hand across the livid, crimson marks he’d left upon her back’ and more complete, straight-faced filth.”

“How much straight-up filth?” Merlin let Arthur dominate his computer and put his feet up on his desk.

“They actually use the word ‘cock’ for a prick. I mean, there’s the occasional ‘member’ and sometimes they work around it, but it’s far less purple prose.”

Merlin was bright red from the top of his head down to the neckline of his shirt, in huge, splotchy patches. Arthur hooked a finger in his shirt collar to see if it kept going, and there it was. Like a blushing giraffe. Arthur snorted and Merlin licked his lips, looking up at him.

“You maybe want to start practicing a little?” Merlin asked, glancing at the bed. That’s what they called it. Practicing. It felt less telling than…than whatever else they could call it. They weren’t getting off with one another, because they were both subs. They were practicing.

“You haven’t even read one yet.”

“Yeah, but…” Merlin gaze felt heavy on Arthur’s face, dripping down past his lips to his neck, Merlin pulling in a heavy breath and biting his lower lip in a long, teasing drag. “I mean. We could. After.” Merlin glanced at the bed again and then reached for Arthur’s hand. Arthur let him take it, and if one of them had been a dom their hands would join up perfectly, a dom’s left arm, to the sub’s right arm, loose and easy, swinging between them. But it was the right hand for both of them, a tiny swollen knot right at the base of the ring finger, their arms crossed awkwardly in front of them. But it still felt good.

Merlin smiled hopefully, rubbing their fingers together and Arthur pulled him up, relishing that he was tugging Merlin up by his hand instead of his wrist. Merlin went and licked his lips again, leading Arthur back to the bed, both of them navigating Merlin’s messy, project-laden floor. Arthur followed and then Merlin sat down on the edge of the bed, crab-walking backwards until he was at the headboard, Arthur crawling in after him.

Merlin hooked their ankles together and fiddled with the hem of Arthur’s shirt for a moment. “Mum and Lance went out for groceries, but it’ll probably take them awhile since. You know.” He snuck a few fingers under the fabric and rested them lightly against Arthur’s skin. “So we could. For a bit, I mean.” He crooked his fingers slightly and Arthur rested his head on his left arm, staring at Merlin.

Merlin watched him right back and then smoothed his fingers out until his entire hand was flush with Arthur’s stomach. “It’s just practicing.” He said again, scratching his fingers slightly and tilting his face up.

“Right,” Arthur agreed, squeezing Merlin’s hand, trapped under Merlin’s body and then between the two of them. “How long do we have?”

“Half an hour, maybe?” Merlin swallowed and Arthur nudged their noses together, loving the way arousal curled in his stomach, not knowing who was feeling what. Like they could blend together if they wanted to. Merlin slid slightly and his lips were pressed against Arthur’s, just a little bit. Nothing like on telly, or anything, where the dom pressed the sub to a wall and the music swelled in the background. Merlin’s lip was still wet from spit and Merlin retreated before pressing another kiss to the corner of Arthur’s mouth.

It tingled, a little, sent a trickle of happiness down the back of his neck. Merlin wiggled in place and Arthur pecked him on the nose, turned his head a little, shoved Merlin down onto the bed slightly. “Is this good?” He paused, pushing himself up on his elbow.

“Yeah.” Merlin pushed up and caught his mouth. “We’re going to be the best kissers in the world.” He wrapped his hand around the back of Arthur’s neck, squeezing tight. Arthur’s breath caught and he pressed Merlin more fully against the mattress, until his pupils were blown and he was sucking Arthur’s lip into his mouth, knowing immediately when something worked and when to try something else. Sucking on each other’s tongues felt weird, lightly scraping their teeth against each other’s lips was a good idea, bumping teeth made Merlin make a face.

“That is the same face you make when someone scratches their nails against rough fabric.” Arthur noted.

“It makes me feel weird.” Merlin continued to make his face and Arthur poked him in the cheek until he stopped and grinned up at him.

The door opened downstairs and Arthur almost injured himself getting out of the bed and Merlin snatched up a book from the covers and opened it up to a random page, quickly turning it right side up, because that was a rookie mistake. Arthur sat at the computer and shut off the Internet, opening up one of the Word documents Merlin had left on the desktop and scrolling down. They needn’t have hurried, it was a full five minutes before Hunith knocked on the door (and then actually waited until Merlin said she could come in) and poked her head in. “I bought crisps, don’t each them all in one sitting. How are you boys doing?”

Merlin shrugged. “Homework. Can I eat half of them in one sitting, get up and then eat the rest?”

“No.” Hunith pointed at him. “I bought vegetables. Eat some that aren’t deep-fried. It’ll be exciting.”

Lance poked in his head too and waved after she left. “I bought a second, secret package of crisps that you can totally eat in one sitting.” He tossed them inside and Merlin caught them. “This is not a bribe to get you to like me. Unless it works. Then it is.” Lance was, thank god, not, exactly, trying to be Merlin’s father. Nor was he trying to be Merlin’s friend. He offered support, drove them places, and let Hunith make all the major parenting decisions, because Hunith had raised Merlin without help for fourteen years and that wasn’t about to change now. But he was there, and he listened, and he was genuinely just nice. And, of course, Merlin could get along with a rotting log if he wanted to, so the house stayed as pleasant as it ever had been.

“I can be bribed.” Merlin opened the crisps.

“He really can.” Arthur spun in the computer chair and didn’t look at anyone.

---

Group Connectivity Stress Syndrome
“…times of war there are recorded cases of entire troops putting on the appearance of soulbonding with one another, reporting to be able to feel where the other members are, and what they are feeling, even if members were already soulbonded [39], non-dynamic, or even related to one another [40]. This is popularly referred to as “Soldier Ant Syndrome” by the popular culture. Diaries and letters from the time period mockingly pointed to GSCS as “The Lieutenant’s Harem” when it was first recorded in Napoleonic Wars [41] and it became a staple of printed pornography until the Great War where, as most historical account will attest, entire battles would cease due to instances of GSCS that stretched through foxholes and even across enemy lines, without which—many historians theorise—the Great War would have proven to be even more protracted than it was. However, it wasn’t until 1971 when Dr. Bernd H. Maier—later of the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research [42]—and his groundbreaking research gave GSCS its current clinical name.

A study done by Dr. Rogers, Lee et al at Columbia University shows that given enough time in a safe and welcoming environment [43], these “intense and uncontrollable feelings of unfettered kinship” can diminish [44] and even disappear [45]. Separation, however, according to the study of Casey, Holmes & et al, is not a feasible method of therapy given that is causes the participants “to retreat, mentally, into the comfort of their network rather than accept and deal with the rigors of everyday life on their own” [46]. While these group-connections do not cancel out already-present soulbonds, 80% of non-solider partners reported feeling “blocked out” [47] or “distanced” [48] from their partner while 20% reported they felt no such interference [49]. There are, as of this writing, no reported cases where the non-soldier soul-bonded partner was pulled into the group hive mind as well.

Contrary to the belief most popularized in the televised serial War Bonds (1977) there is not a single “lynchpin” mind that gathers the others to it [49]. Casey Holmes et al. reports that the bond is shared equally, and different from the traditional soulbond in that it does not respond to bond suppression drugs, nor does it come attached with any feelings of a need to dominate or a need to submit. In most reported cases these bonds are non-dynamic, even in the case of both submissive and dominants being in the bond. In all reported cases, the members have a good sense “for the presence and location of the other members of their unit, often to the point where they don’t need any sort of communication device to perform complicated assignments.”[50]

The bond, much like a more conventional soul bond, helps reduce the effects of depression, post-traumatic stress, and shock, along with improving physical [51] and emotional [52] well being of the entire unit. It is Unclear why one platoon would bond over another, as the phenomenon is equal through all branches of the military, across all sexes and genders, but current research shows that the length a unit has been together with no outside interference has some correlation with likelihood to bond.[50]

– Introduction to Psychology 7th Edition. Edited by Dr. Sandra Moreno, Dr. Joseph Fredrickson, Paul Quincy.

---

March-May, 1999

Arthur doesn’t want to talk about it.

He doesn’t. It’s over now. It’s been over for years. But he’s not going to talk about it. He won’t. He won’t talk about it. Doesn’t talk about it to Merlin. Merlin knows, of course. Arthur knows he knows. But they don’t talk about those months at all. Not once. Arthur barely gets to see Merlin for any of it.

It’s all about posture. Posture perfected to the marks of a ruler. This is the first formal kneel: Presenting. This is the second: Attentive. This is the third: At Rest. This is the fourth: Prostration. This is the fifth: Apologetic. Sixth: Worship, Seventh: The Martyr. Seventh: Forgiven.

Arthur learns all of them, because his Uncle won’t stand for anything else. His dom won’t want him, if he doesn’t and Arthur ... Arthur doesn’t argue. He learns how to kneel properly, when to press his head to the ground, when to present his hands, how to spread his knees for this one.

“Many young submissives think they can get away without learning manners.” His Uncle says, correcting the tilt of Arthur’s head. “It’s shameful, your generation. Even your Aunt learned to be lax, but it isn’t acceptable. It’s rude. You must honour your soulmate by knowing these things. Anything else is just wilful ignorance. I won’t have you wandering out there, loose and ignorant of the proper way to behave.”

This is how you stand at attention. This is how you stand at rest. This is how you follow in public. This is how you catch your dom’s attention and no one else’s. All the things he’d seen his Uncle do but had thought himself exempt from because Aunt Rebecca didn’t seem to care. But she didn’t care and Uncle Tristan did and Aunt Rebecca had, apparently, decided that since they were both subs, they were each other’s territory.

He didn’t learn how to dress (“You’re not dating until you’re older and are better mannered. Then we can worry more about clothing and make-up.”), and if he spoke at dinner his Uncle snapped out, his voice slapping down Arthur’s and Arthur would fist his hands and stare down at his plate and…

And feel that static around his head and. And swallowed it down. He wasn’t pretty, he knew that. He wasn’t smart, either, not really. He got through school with just-passing-enough marks. He didn’t have Merlin’s creativity. He was strong, though, he was strong, and he could learn how to behave, at least.

Hopefully they wouldn’t care. Merlin’s mum let Merlin run amok, and Uncle Tristan had a fair bit to say about that. But if he didn’t do a position right, then his Uncle would point out exactly how many failings Arthur had. About how he needed to get practice in, or he’d disappoint his dom. And who knew when he’d meet them, really. It could be decades, and they would have waited all that time for a idiotic fuck-up? How would he feel if his dom was spending all zer time playing video games and didn’t know how to control him.

Arthur didn’t want to talk about it. Doesn’t ever want to talk about it. The few doms he’s scened with have assumed… assumed he’s been… trained. By someone. Someone strict and.

But he can do the proper kneels. He knows how. He knows each implement and what they do. He knows how to formally request a favour, how to stay and wait for permission to…do…anything.

“Look at him.” His Uncle scoffed as Arthur practiced formal kneel Attentive, because his Uncle thinks it will help his marks, maybe. Wasting his life running in fields like an animal certainly hasn’t. What would his mum think, seeing Arthur grown half wild? He’s looking out at Merlin. “He’s an embarrassment. You really should choose better companionship, Arthur.”

Arthur tries not to clench his fists. It’s only been a few months. He’ll have to get used to this for the rest of his life. doms are going to want him to know how to this. He needs to be good at something.

“And you won’t meet them at your rugby team. It’s uncouth. I told your coach you’d dropped out.”

“What?”

“Quiet. A good sub listens. He absorbs, he learns. You are learning. You need better influences. So I took you off the rugby team. A dom wants to know all of the marks on zer sub belong to zer.” He looks out the window, planning.

But Arthur is still stuck on his Uncle taking him off the team. He. He can’t just.

“You can’t just do that.”

“A good sub is quiet. He obeys. He listens. Rugby is a terrible thing for you to be playing. But I talked to some of your teachers and-“

Arthur is on his feet.

“Arthur, don’t start this again. You need to grow up, these shows of temper are-“

“You can’t just... decide what I do with my life.” Arthur isn’t articulate. He isn’t. He never has been. When he gets angry he doesn’t have any cutting words to say. He wants to throw things at them. To punch them. To make them just…stop and he can’t.

“Yes I can. You are a young sub. You need direction.”

“I need direction, not someone driving for me.” Arthur works his teeth. “I. You aren’t my dom. You aren’t my father.”

“I am going to be your Protector-”

No.

Oh fuck no.

Arthur is not going to live here until his Uncle finds either a suitable replacement Protector or Arthur’s goddamn fiancée. He isn’t. He can’t. He’ll learn the stupid poses and the stupid rules because he can decide if he. If they help or not. But he isn’t. He isn’t staying here and learning needlepoint.

His Uncle sighs. “We let you have too much freedom and now you’re bucking against it. It’s for the best, and if I need to enforce-“

Arthur punches through the plaster right next to Uncle Tristan’s head.

---

cont.

She found the castle and climbed off her horse, sending it back home with a slap and standing at the gate, holding the rose and announcing herself for who she was. The gate swung open and a voice more terrible than even nightmares could mention echoes from all directions. “How is it that your father convinced you to come instead of him?”

“My father did nothing. I am here to save him and my family. You will honour your side of the bargain, and I will be your prisoner.”

And as she stood a carriage, pulled by four huge dogs, rolled passed her. As she glanced inside she gasped, staring at wonderful riches and exotic goods that would surely take care of her family for many years. She placed the rose in the cart and the dogs hauled their load out of the gate, which swung closed behind them. She stood and watched until they were out of sight and turned to the castle. “If I am to be kept here, I demand to see my jailer.”

“No. Not yet.” The voice scraped and grated, “Enter your new home and make what you will of it. I will come to you when you are more comfortable.”

“I demand to see you now. I would know my jailer. I would know the saviour of my family. I will not run. I am not afraid.”

“I am cursed. I will not have you see me while the sun is high. Go, you may have any of the rooms you can enter, and may do anything with them that you wish. I will come see you when the sun has sunk.”

“I am to live with you the rest of my days,” she argued. “We are to get to know each other well. If you are cursed, I will know about it now.”

“No.” The voice said and did not argue, and she entered the castle and explored all of the rooms that opened for her, and there were many wonders in the castle, far more luxuries than she had ever heard of or dreamt of before. She bathed and changed, picked a bedroom she liked best which looked out onto the rose garden, and for a moment she felt as light as child, exploring places she had never been or seen before, with no one’s eyes upon her, relishing in the beauty of the place and how it seemed to need her touch to come alive.

So it was that she passed her first day, but as night fell she wrapped herself up in a robe and stared at the fire, lonely as lonely could be, but used to the feeling, having grown up empty as an unused jar, her sisters talking to each other about their futures and frivolous things, and her father away much of the time.

“What troubles you?” The voice asked and she did not jump in fear, refusing to live the rest of her life terrified of her jailer.

“I am empty and broken. There is no one in the world for me at all, and I do not think I have a soul. So if you are cursed, then I am as well.”

“Your father spoke of this.” And the voice had a source, she turned to look and there, crouching the flickering shadows was a beast. Not any proper beast, not something natural, but a deformed chimera of demonic proportions, huge and hulking, moving as if doing so pained zer. She quelled her fear and gestured to the carpet next to her, as she did not believe such a huge and malformed beast could ever manage anything so simple as sitting in a chair.

“You are not frightened?” The beast asked, its voice a limping and ruined thing.

“I am not frightened.” She said and the Beast sat next to her, and they spoke the rest of the evening, though not about how the Beast came to be in such a way, nor about her lack of soul, and it was, in the end, one of the most pleasant evenings either of them had shared.

When morning came, after they had both retired, the beast continued to hide zerself. For all that ze had shown last night, ze had to still be drenched in shadow. She did not press, instead eating the food that was provided and spending her days fixing up the castle, which had fallen into a state of mournful disrepair in spirit, if not physical disorder. At night the Beast would come to her in the study, the two of them speaking of whatever they wished, and, eventually sitting in companionable silence, or perhaps her reading of his large library and giving them something greater to discuss.

“Do you have a family?” She asked on one such night and the beast did not answer for a long moment—as was his custom—before finally saying no. In turn ze asked if she missed hers.

“Yes.” She looked down at her hands. “They are all I have in the world. I have no fiancée, I have no hope of a future, and so they are whom I dedicated my life to. I worry about them so very much.”

The Beast did not reply that night, and they spoke of nothing else until they retired.

Though she had made herself a happy routine, the conversation reminded her of her family and how she hadn’t heard or seen them in months, when she had spent every day with, at least, her sisters. She knew the riches would provide for them, but they hadn’t ever done their own accounts, nor cared for the household. Maybe her sisters had been married and she would never see their children. She would never live off their happiness and she mourned for this, sitting out in the garden of roses and wanting to see them so badly all of her emptiness rang with it.

The beast watched this and stared helpless from zer tower where ze stared down and saw all that happened in zer castle. She was sad and ze ached to fix it, but ze was a beast and did not know how to approach her or fix it. Ze simply wished to keep her nearby because she filled some of the clanging emptiness of zer exile. Ze was a beast because ze had done beastly things, and ze’d been punished for it, but ze wished for hands to offer comfort and a soul which to give her so she would not mourn the lack of her own.

That night she was not in the study, nor the next or the next, and when she returned ze bent zer head and asked if there was not anything ze could do to lift her spirits.

“If I could just see my family once more, if I could see their happiness, I know I could find contentment.”

The Beast, not wishing to lose zer only friend, bowed zer head and told her that ze wished to show her something. When they reached zer tower ze showed her zer mirror. “It will look upon anything you wish most dearly to see.”

She sat and placed her hands to the frame and there was her father, curled up and ill in his bed, looking next to death and her sisters crying at his bedside. She gasped in horror and fell to put her arms around the beast’s neck. “Oh, my father is dying and I cannot venture to see him.” She cried and then gripped the beast by the ears, staring into zer eyes. “I must go see my father. I will not let him die without me.”

“But you will never return.” The beast mourned and she pulled and stood firm, repeating herself and the beast growled to try and cow her. But she was herself and would not back down, and repeated herself once more. The beast, at this, bent zer head. “If you will promise to come back in a fortnight.”

“I will.” She promised and the beast stood aside and did nothing to stop her from leaving, staring into zer mirror as she prepared and left for her journey, watching her travel and reach her father’s house, zer heart chipping away for every moment that she was away and ze could not feel her presence or know her mind.

November, 2011

They were beautiful boys.

She didn’t know their names. They were paying in cash and the tiny, brunette one with big blue eyes organized it all. Said to call him “Merlin” and to call his friend “Arthur,” had asked if she’d ever scened with two subs before. Asked. Asked with those big, sad, blue eyes for her to not ask any questions about it.

She doesn’t tend to. She doesn’t need to, not when two subs come in, looking at each other like that. When “Arthur”, in all his buff, blonde, blue-eyed (and oh, if she didn’t already have a soft spot for good, blue-eyed boys, she would have by the end of that), arms curled around “Merlin” like he could protect him from everything, looking at her like he doesn’t know…

She hadn’t needed to ask questions about that. That was clear as anything. She wondered how people didn’t just know, just sense it by looking at them. But then, that’s what she was here for, she was here to know things that, to her, were obvious and a cipher to everyone else.

“Merlin-“ The blonde said: swallowing, looking at her. “What-“

“Shh, it’s your birthday present.” ‘Merlin’ promised, leading ‘Arthur’ over to a easy chair. “It’ll be okay. She’s a professional. She won’t. Shhh.” ‘Merlin’ sat in ‘Arthur’s’ lap, stroked through his hair and soothed him. “

We can have this. I promise. Trust me?” ‘Merlin’ cupped his hands around his…friend, she’d say, his friend’s neck and hushed him again before he could open his mouth to say anything. “Both of us.” He promised, quietly, and she continued to wait, pretended not to listen to them and waited, sitting in her chair and drinking her ice water, waiting.

‘Merlin’ had given them all their likes, don’t likes, and don’t evers, had given her most of the scene, even told her that his friend might need a little settling, that he was hard up for it, that it’d take him a while to go down, but once he did he’d go down like he was free-falling. “If you can, I mean.” He’d said, apologetically. “Not that I doubt your skill. He’s just. He’s got a lot of.”

“I understand.” She’d said.

“I mean it,” ‘Merlin’ had said when they were talking it over, “He is like sub on expert mode. He doesn’t. It’ll help that I’m there, but he doesn’t.” He rubbed his mouth and looked away, frightened and unsettled and she couldn’t help but want to protect him from whatever monster was in his closet. “He doesn’t like letting go. But he needs to, and it hurts because he fights it and then hates that he’s fighting it, so fights harder and he’s. He’s.”

She’d taken note of all the things he hadn’t been saying. She hadn’t gone for full traditional dom gear, choosing instead to be a little more relaxed, a little less threatening and overwhelming. She was just here to facilitate them, and of that she was very aware. She won’t even be a centrepiece, just…a tool. And she was fine with that, that was her job. She was here to get the sub off, to let them have what it was that they really, actually, properly wanted and didn’t want to have to negotiate for or explain. If these two boys wanted her to put them down together, she would. Happily.

The fantasy itself was…simple, in a way. It was detailed, with more back story and universe details than she was used to outside of the sort of clients who wanted a very specific fantasy.

‘Merlin’s’ background information had the taste of a well-loved scenario, with the kind of world-building and character creation one would expect out of a pet-project mystery novel some house partner had been stewing over for the last few decades, every aspect planned and plotted and shaped. But the idea behind it was simple. They wanted to be cosseted, loved, controlled and cared for. And that she knew how to do. The rest was decoration that she was happy enough to apply until they were comfortable enough with the situation to let go a little.

‘Merlin’ gave her a back-story, character information, details upon details and she had read them. She wasn’t an actor, but it helped understand them. She was not an actor but she knew her job. This was a fantasy they’ve worn in; this was their old, comfortable robe. She doubted she really even needed to be there, but she would be. She would do the best that she could, because, of, well. One. Professional pride, she did her job and she did it well. Another was that they were…beautiful, beautiful boys and they looked. The way ‘Merlin’ held ‘Arthur’s’ face, the way ‘Arthur’ looked back was. Was not her business, and she wasn’t going to ask. She was expensive and they were not rich. Sometimes subs shared the fee.

Even if the way ‘Arthur’ looked at ‘Merlin’ was like a tortured man looking at his only possible saviour.

She’d read a lot of trashy, trashy books. She regretted nothing.

‘Arthur’ swallowed and looked at her and then away. “What. What are we doing here?”

“Shhh. Sophia. She’s going to be our Sophia for the night. Doesn’t she just look it?” ‘Merlin’ said rubbing his thumbs around the shell of ‘Arthur’s ears. “You remember Sophia. You don’t have to think, okay. So shut off your brain.”

They bared themselves for each other. They were beautiful, beautiful boys. Matched in that perfect level of opposites attract, that telly shows and trashy novels loved some much. One blonde haired Adonis for every dark haired willowy beauty.

She’d read a book once. A trashy terrible book, of course, of a dom and her two vicious, terrifying subs: one as bright as a gold coin, the second as smoothly shadowed as a pond at midnight. They had been her boys, her hounds, trained and vicious and broken in that way that was always so fascinatingly arousing in literature and so horrifically tragic in life. If life were different, she wouldn’t mind that.

‘Arthur’ looks body-shy, crossing his arms over his chest, but ‘Merlin’ stroked his friend’s collarbone, unashamed and kissing his throat. “Come on now, it’ll be okay.” ‘Merlin’ stood, nude but not naked. He dug into his handbag and retrieved two matching collars, both muscle car red and ‘Arthur’s’ breath hitched, his Adam’s apple bobbing forcefully as ‘Merlin’ buckled it around his neck. As he kissed the buckle.

“Put mine on?” He asked and his friend’s hands shook as he closed it around ‘Merlin’s’ slim throat, eyes fixated on those points of contact and it felt like she was there for something more than what she signed up for. They stood there a moment, breathing and then ‘Merlin’ looked at her, considering. “If you could go out and come back in for us to start the scene, that might delineate the scene better?”

She nodded and left. Some people liked a clear divide between collar on and collar off, and she could provide that. And a few moments to themselves.

She did like beautiful things.

~~~

Sophia did a stretch before opening the door to her house. It’d been one of those indefinably long days. One that stretched and stretched and stretched like it was a goddamn yogi—so unlike those beautiful once-in-a-while, solid-through-and-through days off that slipped by like they’d been greased, looking at the clock right after she woke up only to realize ten hours had passed in a breath.

And that, at least, was due in part to the only truly, brilliant, shining, good part of her day. The unrepentantly enjoyable bit was waiting inside the door and she just needed a moment to shed the day and go in with none of that bad energy.

The room was quiet as she walked in, but once her heels clicked on the tiles of the entry way and she’d puts her keys in the bowl, she could hear the scampering of feet and then there they were, Merlin sliding into the room, and stopping and grinning like it was the greatest thing ever, a magnificent magic trick, because she’d managed to come home again. Arthur followed more slowly, carefully, peering around, unsure and hesitant as he had been the day she’d folded him into her home like egg whites into waffle batter.

“You’re back!” Merlin exclaimed, jumping over the couch and sliding to his knees, pressing his face to her stomach. “I thought you were going to be gone forever.”

Arthur moved around the couch, and got to his knees more gingerly, kissing her knuckles formally, before looking down at his knees and Merlin looked up at her, packed full of excitement.

“What did you do with your day?” she asked, cupping Merlin’s face and rubbing along one cheekbone, grabbing Arthur by the hair until he was leaning more fully against her legs. He needed to be coaxed into affection, and he was tense for a long moment, before forcibly relaxing himself against her hip and she lets him keep the artifice, as if it were a real thing.

“We went back to bed and then we had breakfast and then we cleaned and then we played video games and then.” Merlin bounced and nuzzled her stomach. “We kissed a lot. And then it was lunch-“

Arthur’s ears turned red and Sophia pulled his head back by his hair and looked down at him. “Kissing, huh?”

Arthur looked everywhere but her eyes, settling on the floor.

Merlin grinned, unabashed and licked his lips and knelt up for a kiss, which she pressed onto his forehead, and then Arthur was carefully helping her get her shoes off, moving so she can put a hand on his shoulder and step out of the heels.

“Just kissing?”

Merlin turned red and then played with his fingers. “Ye~es.”

She grabbed him by the hair and lifted his head up to look him in the eye. “Merlin.”

“We may have done a little more.” Merlin hedged, looking up at her and then down. “But only a little bit, I promise. You were gone such a long time.” Merlin cupped a hand over her foot and pressed his forehead to her hipbones and nuzzled.

“Arthur?” She turned and Arthur was flushed, poking his fingers in the carpet then looked up at her and took Merlin’s arm, holding up his wrist where Arthur had left a rather impressive love bite. Merlin looked pleased as punch by it and smiled up at her, showing it off like a child with a drawing he’d done in class. She pressed her thumb into it and Merlin’s eyes went heavy and lidded, perfectly content.

“Arthur, you know you aren’t allowed to leave marks.” She scolded and Merlin’s face fell, trying to pull away, but she kept her grip firm. “I got you so Merlin would have someone to play with, but I made rules for you to follow.”

Arthur scuffed at the floor and hung his head. “But he wanted it.”

“Of course he did. Merlin is greedy.” She stroked through Merlin’s hair. “That’s why I made rules. Because he wants everything and you can’t give it to him, or you might hurt him.”

Arthur tucked in on himself more and made a low whining noise. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not a matter of sorry, Arthur. It’s a matter of rules. You follow them and when I come home, we have an enjoyable evening, we have fun. But if you don’t follow them, then I have to remind you of those rules. And I was very much looking forward to a nice, relaxing evening, Arthur.”

Arthur pressed his head to the floor and dug his fingers into the carpet. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“And Merlin. You shouldn’t have let this happen.”

Merlin looked wide-eyed and panic-y and then crawled over to Arthur and flopped over him like that would do something. “It’s my fault. It’s all my fault. I begged and begged because I wanted it and I missed you and we were kissing and I’m sorry.”

She sighed, they were good boys, mostly. Clean and well-kept and beautiful, but they couldn’t keep it in their heads for more than a week about the limitations she’d put down about how much they could touch while she was gone. Kissing was fine, of course. She liked coming home to two flushed, dark eyed boys with plump wet lips and a near desperation for somewhere to put their energy. They could cuddle and snuggle to their heart’s content. They could touch above the waist and below the knees as much as they desired. But no marks, and no orgasms, no matter how they tried to work around the particulars.

“No matter how long I’m gone, you have to follow the rules, boys. I have to be able to trust you to be good when I’m gone.” She cupped their faces. “You two want to be good for me, don’t you?”

Arthur nodded sedately, carefully, backing up into himself, shoulders hunched over, head dropping. Merlin nodded frantically, stepping forward. “Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.” Merlin shoved his face against her foot. Merlin had been with her longer, had come straight from the academy, bright as a new coin, shiny with happiness and eager to please. She’d gotten Arthur because she’d been promoted and had to leave Merlin alone for longer in the day. He could take care of himself, of course, but he needed companionship.

Arthur… was refurbished. Or rescued, maybe. Second hand, and he was…shy. Damaged? Reserved, in any case, beautiful. Strikingly beautiful, strong and deeply lovely and he’d been quiet, stared up at her in a way that couldn’t be ignored or forgotten. He’d seemed steady, calm, someone to balance out Merlin’s rambunctiousness, someone to reel him back when he got too excited and, say, tried to catch the pigeons off the balcony so he’d have friends. Except, of course, she’d introduced them, Arthur sitting down on the floor and warily looking around, careful and quiet. But Merlin had taken only a moment to circle the room, before tackling Arthur and nuzzling him until Arthur had responded in kind. He’d latched onto Merlin with a protective streak, guarding him when they went to the park from everyone else, but, equally, going along more often than not with Merlin’s schemes, provided it didn’t get him hurt.

“Arthur, you know I have the rules for a reason, don’t you?”

He nodded. “Don’t get angry at Merlin. I should have said no. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Arthur looked at Merlin and then back at the floor. “But he was so happy,” Arthur added and looked up at her and then down again, inhaling deeply. “I accept whatever punishment you determine for me.” He changed his bow into something more formal, a full prostration. Merlin stared up at her, eyes wide and bright and desperate.

“I have to, baby.” She cupped the side of his face and stroked his cheekbone. “Then we can get over this and have a good night. You want to be forgiven, don’t you?”

Merlin nodded and reached up to paw at her hip slightly. “But. But Arthur just did it because I wanted him to. You should teach me to know better. I want to kn0own better.”

She sat down and kissed his forehead. “Remember the time you two decided to eat all the cookies and Arthur got sick? You didn’t do that again, did you?” Merlin shook his head. “You didn’t want to see him get hurt, so you knew not to break that rule. Now you know. Now we just need to do that again. Shhh.” She stroked his hair. “Come on.”

Merlin’s lip quivered and he looked at his hands. “I don’t want him to get hurt. I don’t. I don’t want it. I want us to go to bed and have fun. Can we.” She put a finger over his mouth and he quieted.

It was always Arthur who took physical punishment. She had tried to cane Merlin and Arthur had nearly lost his mind over it, struggling so hard at his bonds (and she had needed to tie him back) that he’d made himself bleed, and once he was free, he’d covered Merlin with himself and refused to be moved. Arthur took punishment quietly, and while Merlin was overtly distressed by Arthur’s pain, he didn’t injure himself to stop it, instead comforting him once it was over, bringing them closer together and stopping Merlin from leading Arthur into that particular set of bad habits again.

And, of course, there was no such thing as an incident just involving one of them. If one of them was in trouble, the other had something to do with it.

Arthur followed her into the bedroom and then silently went to the end of the bed, putting his wrists down on the bedspread, kneeling on the carpet, staring down at the pattern. Merlin scampered behind him and shoved his face against Arthur’s hip. “Please don’t. Please?”

Arthur hushed him and Sophia pulled him away, gently put him in the manacles, and he whined, staring up at her. “Please don’t.”

“You need to learn.” She insisted, stroking through his hair. “You like being bitten, but Arthur won’t know when to stop. He could hurt you very badly. And how do you think Arthur would feel then?”

Merlin shook his head and stared at the manacles.

“And then all will be forgiven, okay?” She kissed his forehead. “Arthur will be forgiven and you can take care of him. You like taking care of him, don’t you?”

Merlin bowed his head and nodded.

She kissed him again and then got up. Arthur hadn’t moved an inch, back straight and body tense, wrists on the bedspread, hands clenched, head bowed. She stood behind him and cradled his head. He didn’t like to be coddled before a punishment, and she didn’t intend to prolong it. Whoever had first owned Arthur, they’d trained him to take a punishment without a sound, without compliant or movement. He just knelt at the end of the bed and waited, trying to look accepting of what was the come, and mostly failing, too tense and too nervous. But he had the position down and she rubbed the cords of his neck briefly. “Shh, darling. Now, we’re going to go with the switch. Nothing too drastic, but you’ll feel it for a few days. Stop you from trying anything else.”

Merlin’s eyes were on the switch, watching it as she gave it a few flicks in the air, testing the weight. Arthur shivered at the noise, but remained still, staring down at the bed, offering his entire back for her to work on, kneeling up and legs wide so she had access to his thighs, arse out and feet upwards. Only his chest was protected, shoulders curved in and pressed up against the footboard.

Sophia didn’t know what had happened, but Arthur’s chest was scattered in scars, all silvered and thin with age. They were old, but they’d been deep when he’d contracted them, left some of his skin puckered, trailed down to his belly. He must have had more, back when they’d been red and vivid and new, but it’d been years. His body had grown around them, stretched them out, and faded them down into his flesh.

He was shy about them, didn’t like them touched. He went quiet and nervous and looked away if she got close, if she paid them too much attention. But then, Arthur didn’t like attention. He liked for Merlin to get it, he liked helping Merlin get it, but he preferred to be a tool she utilized.

But his back was free and clear and when she laid a line down he only twitched, a small not-noise ribboning out of him. Merlin made a pained noise and she stroked down the thin, red mark.

She put down another stroke, measuring it carefully and Arthur stayed silent, body stiff and tense against strike three and four, the thin, sharp sound of the switch whistling through the air, the –thwack- of it hitting flesh and the way it took him a second to react to it. But Merlin. Merlin made noise right away, a pained little sound that made Arthur flinch, but he didn’t turn, just let the marks fall, mouth open, now, breathing heavily.

She knelt down and pressed her thumb against the thin red welt, following the sweet-sweat-slick skin and Arthur let out a breath that might, could be, may be a sob and Merlin is whining in tiny little bursts, as close to Arthur as possible, eyes wide and beautiful with need, Arthur’s body tight was as a coil and she knew she could figure out how to make him spring open, to fall like St. Sebastian into his martyrdom, every statue carved with ecstasy.

She’d learned long ago not to count. If she said fifteen lashes, if she said six, if she said eight hundred, he would hold onto the number. If it just went, with no definitive end that he could tell, he’d sink into it eventually. His pose would loosen at the joints, his back would curve up and he’d breathe into the strikes, eyelashes fluttering. Arthur was, at his heart, an algomist, yes, obviously. But he didn’t want to be, he didn’t think he should be, and he avoided pain more than any algomist she’d ever heard of. He didn’t seek out punishment, he didn’t ask to be spanked, and he didn’t wrestle for the bruises. So she punished him and he hated it and loved it and hated loving it and it was far more effective than just hating pain would have been.

Arthur began to break with small, low, whimpering noises, his back a flurry of red strikes and she could have eaten the noises right out of him, watching his body flush and it had to be complicated in his head. Merlin was simple, he was straining to save Arthur, wanting to comfort and hold and nuzzle, and Arthur had to hear the noises, but he didn’t respond. Just knelt and let her mark up his legs, the sharp nips of pain causing him to jerk forward into the bed.

He was always beautiful, but never quite so much as when his pose fell away and he just slumped forward, panting for air and flushed, hard, of course, dripping with it, but crying and clawing at the bed, Merlin straining to get closer. Once Arthur was sobbing into the bedspread she let Merlin go, opening the manacles and letting him scramble over to Arthur, pressing close to him—which just had to make the marks hurt worse, but Arthur made a noise of utter relief, twisting around and tucking Merlin against him, wrapping him up as Merlin kissed his face all over.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I won’t. I won’t make you. I won’t make you again. I’m sorry.” Merlin shuddered and kissed Arthur’s neck.

“Do you understand what you did wrong?” She asked, sitting down next to them, carding her fingers through Arthur’s hair.

“I should follow the rules.” Arthur curled around Merlin. ‘The rules are there to protect Merlin. I need to protect Merlin.” Arthur’s body began shaking and Merlin looked up at her.

“On the bed, come on. You’re forgiven, you won’t do it again. Let’s get you on the bed.” She and Merlin helped him up and he flopped down, Merlin snuggling up next to him and kissing his cheek repeatedly. “You suffered very well. It’s over now. Shhh.” She put his head in her lap and looked at Merlin, who had his hands on Arthur’s stomach, rubbing and making shushing noises. Arthur’s eyes were blown and his hands clumsy when he reached to touch Merlin.

“Merlin, I’m going to let you take care of him.” Sophia said. “I’ve had a long day, and I’d rather been hoping for something nice to look at.”

Merlin pressed his face to her knee. “I’m sorry we were trouble. I’m sorry.”

“Shh, you’re forgiven, it’s over now.”

Arthur stared at her like he didn’t believe her, and, of course, he never did. Even if she had never once held something over their heads once the punishment was over, he still didn’t trust her. Didn’t believe her, and that was fine. She would teach him. She would keep him and he would learn to relax. She put her hand over his eyes and snapped her fingers to get Merlin’s attention.

“Kiss him.” She ordered and Merlin did so immediately, ducking down and pressing their lips together with the ache of long practice, and this is what they did all day. They did their chores and then kissed, lying on top of one another, aching for more and knowing better than to try for anything. And she likes the thought, of them wanting and needing and knowing they need her to have it.

“Roll on top of him, make sure he knows you’re there.”

Merlin whines, but does as he’s told, his knees on the mattress, his hands on Arthur’s chest, kissing still, Arthur’s mouth sloppy and wet, wanting more and uncoordinated.

“He feels good.” Merlin looked up at her. “He’s gone all…fuzzy.” Merlin smiled down at Arthur, stroking his face. “He’s unhappy, sometimes.”

Sophia pulled Merlin closer by the collar and gave him a kiss, rubbing her thumb over the leather, and then bent to give Arthur the same treatment. His mouth was soft and hot, accepting of her casual invasion, and she removed her hand to look at him. He was still tracking, watching her, wary, but more relaxed for having Merlin wrapped up in his limbs and settled on top of him. She wondered if he was ever fully relaxed.

 

Arthur nodded and kept staring at her, his hands cupped around Merlin’s shoulders, thumbs stroking over the drop of his arm, inhaling his scent and practically purring with it.

“Merlin get up. Sit over there.” She directed and he moved slowly, peeling himself away from Arthur and kneeling next to him. “Don’t touch him. Put your hands behind your head.” Merlin whined but did as he was told, looking at her for further direction.

She slid of the bed and went to her tool chest, plucking out a short length of hemp rope—she tried to stick to natural things for Arthur, it felt like they matched— and tied one of Arthur’s hands to the headboard, stretching his body out, showing off the tight cords of muscle under his skin, shifting uncomfortably as the sheets rubbed against his marks, but he always liked to feel this sort of thing, liked to lie on his back, for Merlin to lie on top of him and press him down.

She cupped Merlin’s face and forced his attention to her. “You aren’t to touch. The longer you can resist, the more I’ll let you do. If you can wait until I say, I’ll let you have a treat.”

“How long?” His eyes wandered over Arthur’s body, his breath hitching, fingers digging into the back of his head.

“Fifteen minutes.” She held up her mobile and set up a timer. “Arthur, in that time, you’re to make yourself as pretty as possible.” She took his free hand and used it to stroke his chest, to grab his cock and he bit his lips and looked away. “Get yourself good and ready, touch yourself the way you want him to touch you. Do not take your hand off your body.”

“Yes ma’am.” Arthur stroked his prick in a slow, careful stutter, looking at Merlin.

Sophia nodded and then settled in behind Merlin, putting her hands on his hips, her legs bent alongside his. “That’s good, Arthur. Keep his attention.”

Merlin’s breath was laboured, his eyes trained on Arthur and Sophia rubbed her thumbs along Merlin’s undefended ribs. “Look at how red and wet his lips are.” She noted, “He keeps biting them. Do you bite them?”

Merlin whined and nodded, fingers spasming. “He. He liked it. But only a little bit of teeth, because of the rules. Never.” He swallows as Arthur squeezes his prick and rides up into it. Never as hard as they want to, she knows, or as the other wants them to.

She huffs a laugh and rubs a hand down between Merlin’s legs, petting the inside of his thighs, gathering up a good finger full of flesh and pinching.” Merlin’s hands fluttered and then re-gripped his hair, a gust of air punching out of him. She reached up and flicked his ear. “Keep them there. Good boy. Arthur get your cock wet. You’re hardly making a good showing.”

“Sorry, ma’am.” Arthur stroked his hands back up his torso and got his palm wet with spit, still staring at Merlin. Merlin whined.

“I want. I could.” Merlin cock was fully erect, pressed hard against his abdomen and she moved up his thigh and got enough good grip of skin to pinch and twist, a thin jet of pre-come dribbling down Merlin’s cock. Arthur’s dick spasmed in sympathy, both of them breathing in great, exhausted pants, and Arthur pinched a nipple, staring at where Sophia was making a pretty pebbled path of bruises along Merlin’s pale inner thigh.

“How many times have I come home and I couldn’t even breathe on his nipples without them hurting him?” She stroked the span of her nails over Merlin’s legs as Arthur cupped his sack, bound hand pulling at the rope. “You must spend hours on his lap, scraping your teeth over them, sucking and sucking and sucking, trying not to bite down.” She pinched hard there and Arthur cried out, Merlin struggling up and arching, noises trapped behind his clenched teeth. Arthur looked so hungry, starving for… something.

“I go out and the two of you just kiss each other until it hurts, and you keep doing it anyway. Staying hard, even though you know that if you do anything then I’ll keep your pretty little pricks locked up. Let you come once a week, maybe. Maybe stretch it out longer. Get you all full and desperate, but you’d still kiss each other.”

Merlin nodded and Arthur squeezed his prick a bit too hard, fisting it purple and rubbing his back against the sheets, eyes lidded but trained on Merlin.

“Ten more minutes, little darling. Your arms have to be getting sore. Fingers itching. If you just keep waiting I’ll let you do more than just kiss. Look at how hard he is for us.” She tickled up his abdomen and nuzzled his neck. “It would be cruel of you to make him have to sit there, aching and wrecked for it, with no chance at all to get off.”

Merlin nodded, his arms shivering and she cupped his elbows, squeezing briefly. “If I didn’t set limits, you wouldn’t do anything else. I’d come home and you’d be rubbing against one another constantly, until getting off hurt. But you need direction, little darling. Need to be hurt and know it’s for a reason. And that’s why I make the rules. But you two are so very lovely together. Especially when I let you suck one another off.”

“Yeah,” Merlin agreed, voice hoarse and his scalp had to hurt from how hard he was yanking his own hair. “We. When you go we try and wait.” He admits, scraping his teeth over his lip. “We do all the chores and eat lunch and we try to wait. We try, and. It’s hard,” he whispers, head bowing slightly. “I want to touch him. Please let me. Please just a little.”

Arthur rolled his hips up and kicked his feet against the sheets. “Merlin.” He gasped and Merlin’s hands jerked, shoving his head down.

“Seven more. What if I put one of you in mitts and a spreader, so the other would have to do everything for him?” She mused, settling her nails into Merlin’s skin enough to leave marks. “When I’m home for a day, I can just watch you go about your chores, helping one another, getting more excuses to touch and help and comfort. Do you like it when I’m mean, darling?” She reached forward and wrenched a hard twist at Arthur’s navel, Arthur cried out and Merlin nearly toppled himself over. “You like getting to comfort him after I’m so very cruel. But you like seeing me hurt him.”

Merlin sobbed and shifted from one knee to the other. “I want to make him better.”

“You want to save him with your bandages, after I make him bleed?”

“No. I.” Merlin scrambled a little, words lost to him and he ended up staring helplessly.

“Merlin. I like it. You.” Arthur swallowed. “It feels warm.” Arthur didn’t tend to talk much and he practically arched up for a kiss before remembering himself. “It makes everything good.”

“You’re so warm.” Merlin suddenly sounds drugged, shifting from side to side and his hands trailed down to his neck. “Please let me. I need to. He’s so warm and I’m. Please.”

“Shh. You can do it. It’ll be so good when you do. It’ll feel amazing. Like coming in from the cold and sinking into a pile of blankets. Let yourself shiver a little first. Feel the bite of it.”

Merlin did shiver and Arthur teased him, touched over his body as Merlin’s eyes followed, breath catching. His cock had to feel odd to him, given how little she allowed them to touch. She’d know if they came, she’d know, because they could never hide anything from her. They’re obvious, and beautiful and when the rest of the timer goes down, Merlin falls onto Arthur like he’ll just…vanish, otherwise, stroking and nuzzling and kissing because he needs to, Arthur continuing to rub his palm against his prick because she hasn’t told him to stop.

Merlin stops and looks up at her. “What do I do? Tell me what to do. I need to. I want.”

“Shhh. Shift up on your knees. There’s a good boy. Now just stay still, kiss him properly and let me work.”

Merlin nodded frantically and bent down, sucking Arthur’s tongue into his mouth, making desperately pleased and needy noises like they could just vibrate right out of him and fix the world.

She tugged on a glove and coated her fingers in lube, sliding two in with no warning, letting Merlin buck and whine, Arthur struggling to see what was happening. Merlin rolled his hips and Arthur was still stroking himself, leaking steadily and she removed his hand, put it in Merlin’s hair and neither of them cared what kinds of fluids they were getting all over one another.

“I think what I want most tonight is to direct how the two of you are going to fuck. How fast, how slow… it’ll be the loveliest thing in all the world. And of course you’d like to keep each other close, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes, yes, please.” Merlin’s hole clenched around her fingers and he looked at Arthur’s thick cock and whined. “Please. I don’t. I could go now. I could. Please, it looks good.”

“When I say.” She commands—

~~~

She might as well not be there once ‘Merlin’ climbs on top of his bound and desperate, ah, friend. She guides them, yes, keeps giving commands, keeps them under a sort of fuzzy-minded thrall, but she might as well not be there, the way they’re looking at each other.

She’s played with couples before, of course. Two-dom fantasies are fairly common among subs, wanting to be completely taken over and owned and loved, to crawl between two sets of boots, to kiss and lick and worship and be taken as far down as possible. She’s even worked with soul-bonded couples, and she’s not asking any questions here, she isn’t, but once ‘Merlin’ settles down, working his hips and she guides ‘Arthur’s’ cock in, she’s completely lost to them. She binds his hands back, tells ‘Arthur’ to keep it on the headboard, but they’re staring at one another like this is some kind of miracle.

She guides ‘Merlin’s’ hips, and he makes lovely, beautiful noises, staring down at ‘Arthur’, body shivering from the neck down, and ‘Arthur’ looks. Well, he’s a man in love. She gets off the bed and they don’t notice, caught up in their own story and she sits down, watches them move, comments, keeps them all low and loved and moving, a cycle of motion that she wants to continue as long as possible. ‘Merlin’, at least, is deep enough to not even think of coming, and someone has trained ‘Arthur’ to hold back pretty damn well, even if she wouldn’t trust his mindset, fully.

She lets them get good and drenched with sweat. Let’s ‘Merlin’s’ thighs give out, waits for him to flop on top of ‘Arthur’ gasping, ‘Arthur’ is pressing his cock closer with these tiny, precious little thrusts, comforting with his mouth and then, then they remember her.

“Please.” ‘Merlin’ begs again, “Please let him, please, please.”

They’re a lovely little tragedy, she thinks; watching them, listening to them beg for the other, work for each other. ‘Arthur’s’ abdomen has to hurt, but he keeps thrusting, keeps making delightful little consoling noises. On one hand their fantasy is a good one, for her, the idea of owning two delightful little pets. But it falls hard in one aspect. A dom wants two pets who are all about her, two lovely boys who just want to see her happy. Two boys who are beautiful together, yes, but not in love. Not this much in love. Not this self-consumed and she is re-arranging them, getting a little more out of them both. She doesn’t ask questions.

She ties the scene up in a tidy little bow, unties them both and lets them snuggle up on the bed, cleans them up because they’re exhausted, poor little darlings, and ‘Merlin’ is still shivering, curled up in ‘Arthur’ and refusing to budge, practically sobbing into his neck. They’re all up in knots and she puts bottles of water down, sits on the edge of the bed and isn’t sure she’s at all needed. ‘Merlin’, she suspects, drops hard, is already dropping hard.

“I’ve got him.” ‘Arthur’ says, not looking at her, massages ‘Merlin’s’ scalp and hums quietly. “Thank you.”

“Of course.” She kisses both of their temples, packs up, and leaves her business card, even if she knows she’ll never see hide or tail of them again. It’s fine if she suspects something. But they don’t want to be known, and she can see that as clearly as the marks still left on their skin.

---

Extreme Duress Defensive Bonding
In the second instance, known as Extreme Duress Defensive Bonding [EDDB] [51], hostages and their captors can feel a sudden, strong bond with one another (not to be confused with Stockholm syndrome when the hostage identifies with zer captor without any sort of mental or emotional bond [52]). As the name suggests, this bond is formed to protect the captive and force empathy from the captor. Though it is Unclear on how these bonds are formed, the conditions in which they normally occur include: the captor and captive being of opposite dynamic, the captive being young and unbonded, the threat of physical violence being fully and clearly present. [53] However, there are currently six reported and documented cases of same-dynamic EDDB, but all of them involve two-submissive bonding, and in all six cases, the captive bonded with a captor who was not immediately in charge of zer being taken hostage. [54]

 

Annie Carter and Fisher Mulder

While popular culture finds the topic fascinating [55], the condition is rare. It is difficult to study, as once the captive returns to a position of safety the bond diminishes, the bond only understood through the self-report of the two participants [56]. In the infamous case of Annie Carter and Fisher Mulder, the bond lasted past the point of separation, due to what is hypothesized the length and extent of their interaction. Mulder (32) kidnapped Carter (15) from her family home, in the fourth of similar, previously unsolved, kidnappings he had performed on submissives in the same age range [57], whose bodies Carter later helped locate [58]). Believing the EDDB to be a soulbond Mulder kept Carter captive for six years (1993-1999) and Carter reports to have believed Mulder “I knew that he’d kidnapped me, and I was scared of him, but I could feel him in my head and he was lonely and I thought he loved me, so I stayed.” [58] Carter has since published a book on Mulder, himself a submissive, entitled The Fisher, in 2000 which has been the source of several blockbuster Hollywood thrillers (Killer Eyes (2001), Looking For Annie (2002), Six Years (2002)) as well as the 2001 Oscar-winning, dramatic, eponymous biopic Mulder. [59]. It has also been a popular topic of countless spin-off novels, televised dramas, and horror movies since the book was released [60], and the source of -- according to soul bond specialist Dr. Spencer Overby --“endless misconceptions, fears and stereotypes about same-dynamic relationships. That it comes from fear, or mental illness. What happened to [Carter] was tragic, but entirely a product of Extreme Duress Defensive Bonding, which is a syndrome that is far more common among opposite-dynamic partners.” [70]

Carter lived with Mulder with no other kidnappings [71], until she went to the hospital, pregnant with their child in May 1999. “Suddenly I thought. ‘I have to get out of here. I have to protect my baby’ The thought consumed me. If it hadn’t been for that, I don’t think I would have ever managed to escape.” [72]. She went to the police, who contacted her family, and she returned home. Scientists had the opportunity to study her, up until Mulder killed himself in August of the same year, when Annie was prescribed bond suppression drugs, as the bond proved “uncharacteristically secure.” [73]

“And then he was gone. Just like that. It was like I could breathe again.” [74]. Annie Carter was monitored by leading deviant bond specialist Dr. Finnick Rosenberg and several independent physiologists: Dr. Abdi of the University of Michigan, Dr. Henry Smith of St. Catherine’s Mental Hospital and Laura Whiss, now of the Carter Project, then of the Foundation of submissive Health. And while she never reformed her natural soulbond (something she had reported to feeling previous to her capture), she also showed no signs of similar mental unwellness as Mulder. [75]

-Wikipedia “Same Dynamic Bonds”

---

November, 2011

Merlin waggled Morgause’s business card between his fingers and stared at the ceiling. “It’s a real place.”

Arthur looked up from inlaying wire into a wooden curving maple leaf that he intended to be a centrepiece of a new necklace and earring set. Merlin turned in his chair and stared at Arthur.

“Vulgate. The grand opening to the public is in December. Right in time for Christmas, right?” Merlin looked at the business card, ran his finger along the edge. “I bet Loose Ends would pay pretty well for a review of a place on its public opening.”

Arthur carefully bent the wire he was working with and slotted it into the indentation. “So you want to see them again?”

Merlin fiddled with the card. “Maybe.”

“Is it because of Gwaine?” Arthur asked, carefully, securing the wire and working the next tendril of wire into the leaf. Merlin kept spinning in his chair, not looking at Arthur. This isn’t something they talked about. Arthur had. He’d heard everything, held the phone tight to his ear and listened, barely daring to breathe because he didn’t want to miss anything. Up until last night he’d…he’d never gotten to be there for when. He’d get the start of it and the end of it but he’d never gotten to. See. Merlin would tell it to him when he got back, as he collapsed into Arthur’s lap, mouthing his neck and telling him everything, every single solitary detail.

But to actually hear it was an entirely different thing. He knew all of the sounds Merlin made when he was getting sucked down, the way he whined and gasped, and begged. But there had been someone there to hold down his hips and make him beg. Someone who would tease him, know how to make him work for it. Who made him hold it and…and to tie it all together, who said that he was sending Merlin home to Arthur. But…

But.

“He got.” Merlin rubbed the back of his neck. “He knew something was. Between us. And he hadn’t met you, and maybe he forgot you were submissive or. I don’t know.” Merlin dragged his hands through his hair and spun around a few times.

Arthur looked back down at his work. “Do you think he would have?”

“It one thing to have a two-sub fantasy but. He would have. I mean uh… Sophia was just there to direct us. We.” Merlin rubbed his mouth and looked at his computer. “We’re too focused on each other, and not in a playful, sexy kind of way. I mean. We’re.” Merlin made his hands into blinders and focused on Arthur. “They’d know. Sophia probably knew, but it isn’t her business to care, you know? ”

“Yeah,” Arthur said, licking his lips. “So, you’re looking for new sport?”

Merlin got up and sat next to Arthur, putting his head on Arthur’s shoulder and sighing. “Do you want me not to? We can try something else if this isn’t working for you.” He nuzzled at Arthur’s jaw and then dropped his head. “Did. We could keep hiring people?”

“We can’t afford that.” Arthur cupped the back of Merlin’s head. “I don’t mind. You know I don’t mind.” Arthur didn’t. Except sometimes he did mind, he minded that they needed someone else to do what they should be able to…no. No. That wasn’t it. He wasn’t jealous. It was impossible to be jealous when he was saturated with Merlin’s love, and pleasure, his submission and arousal. It was impossible. Merlin called them Research Missions, sometimes, so he could cannibalize each experience and make them again, make them better, for Arthur. Take the way this dom looked, and how this one sounded, and the nails off that one and the boots from the other and make Arthur a story. Or. Make both of them a story.

And it had to be Merlin. Not because Merlin was… not because he was the more obvious one, not because he could flirt better. But because he was better at getting Arthur all wrapped up in him than the other way around, Merlin could tell stories better, Merlin could get Arthur in the moment. Arthur had scened with doms. He'd had gone with Merlin’s love and pleasure ringing in his chest and he couldn’t. He hadn’t... They had all been fairly awful. He’d come home and felt oddly distant from his own body and he’d curled up around Merlin and hadn’t been able to make anything out of any of it. It had to be Merlin, because Arthur didn’t so much not go down without a fight, as the idea of going down, really and properly, the way Merlin described it, made him fight to stay in control like he was going to die.

But if he was in control, then Merlin could go down and share it a little, could open up every single iota of himself and just let Arthur… just give himself over to Arthur like it was the most natural thing in the world.

“Stop it.” Merlin squeezed his knee.

“I’m not doing anything.”

“I don’t know why, but I think you keep forgetting that I live right here.” Merlin knuckled him at the temple. “I don’t block you out.”

Arthur glanced at him from the corner of his eye and then down at his work. “I have a hard time believing that.”

“Because you’re dumb. I know you shove me away sometimes, because you need to just…be whatever you are for awhile.” Merlin sighed. “I get that. You know I do. But you’re always there for me.” Merlin crawled into Arthur’s lap and held on. “I never. I’m always listening, and not because I think you’re going to do something stupid but just... I like you there.”

Arthur wrapped his arms around Merlin, and shifted until he was leaning against the bed, trying to get Merlin’s ridiculously long limbs under some kind of control, tugging down a pillow so none of Merlin’s many, many bones dug into him.

“You never try and keep me out, either.” Merlin threw an arm over Arthur’s shoulders, rubbing his pectoral. “You didn’t notice?”

“No one does that.” Arthur looked at the floor. “Every single couple in the world blocks the other out sometimes. It’s…healthy…apparently.”

Merlin shrugged. “I like you there, even if you aren’t looking at me. I like knowing how you are. I always have. Arthur we’re... I didn’t have friends. In school, you know that. Like, you had your teammates, and yeah that was awkward sometimes, but you still went out for hamburgers after games and took the piss out of each other. I didn’t.” Merlin wrapped a hand around Arthur’s throat. “You know this.”

“Yeah.” Arthur said, because he’d known Merlin since he was five. He knew everything. Except apparently, that Merlin never blocked him out, but even that wasn’t really surprising. But he would have thought... During class, or homework, or…Arthur wanted to block himself out most of the time, frankly.

“But we were friends. And not just geographical convenience friends. And so I... I liked knowing how you were basically all the time because the idea of not being friends just sort of made me want to burn down your house like a crazy person.”

“You are a crazy person. You’re one tragic back story away from being Fisher Mulder.”

“I resent that.” Merlin rubbed his thumb along Arthur’s jugular. “I love you. I get that we don’t say it out loud very often because it’s right there, all the time. But.” Merlin squeezed lightly and Arthur arched his neck back, resting against the mattress and Merlin stroked down his throat with the backs of his knuckles. “This isn’t a thing. I promise this isn’t a thing. But I just. I like knowing how you are even if I can’t do anything about it. Even if you aren’t fine, even if you’re in. In one of those moods where you just fucking hate yourself, and you don’t let me do anything about it, I still want to be there. And sometimes I think that just. Years of obsessing about it, about being in your head and always being near you was why. I was a kid, it was innocent, but I just wanted to keep you so badly.”

“It wasn’t your fault.” Arthur started and Merlin put pressure on his throat and Arthur went quiet.

“It isn’t a fault. This isn’t. Arthur, don’t you get that I’m happy? You are in my head, at least most of the time. I am happy, and I’m not making the best of it. You are mine and if anyone tried to take you from me I would make your Hulk-Outs look like Bruce Banner kicking a chair, I swear to God.”

“I know.” Arthur said and Merlin straddled his lap, cupping his hands around Arthur’s face and staring at him.

“Then why do we keep having to have discussions like these?” Merlin rubbed his thumbs under Arthur’s jaw, tilting his face up. “Do I need to drown you in how much I love you every single morning? Like just…shove you in there until you stink of it? Because I can do that. I can’t. I can’t hold you down and bite you the right way and I can’t. Make you think this is okay.” Merlin rolled their foreheads together and Arthur laid his hands on Merlin’s hips, rubbing the side of his pointer fingers against Merlin’s stomach. “You know I love you. You have to. I basically shove your face in it constantly. I know you love me because you just.” Merlin ran his palms over Arthur’s shoulders. “But you would still love me even if I found someone else.”

Arthur stared up at him and didn’t say anything, because there wasn’t anything he really could say. It was the same as when they were kids, desperate and hard and confused as shit.

Merlin licks his lips and tugs Arthur’s head back by the hair and then bent and placed a single, careful bite on Arthur’s neck, digging his teeth in until Arthur jerked up against him. Merlin let go and he isn’t aroused, but he is pleased by the mark, hard and deep enough to bruise. “I. I can’t do the things you deserve in bed. I try. I do. But I just. You’d let me do anything to you and that doesn’t turn me on. That terrifies me. I want to see someone else tie you up and hit you because that’s what you want. But I’d. I can’t. I want someone to do the same thing to me. To hold me down and pinch and press and correct me when I do it wrong.”

“I want you to have that.”

And Merlin just tugs his hair, sharp, again, so Arthur closes his mouth, tucks his lips over his teeth and looks away. “But I want you here, more. I want to grow old and wrinkly and infirm with you. And you know that. You know that, so stop being dumb about it, and having these…sulks where you think I want anyone else like that. I want them so I can make you happy, so I can make something for you that gets us both off.”

He kissed Arthur, prying his mouth open with his tongue, wet and forceful, Arthur dragging him closer. Arthur nipped at Merlin’s lips, sliding his teeth over the plump, wet slip of his tongue, kneading at Merlin’s hips. If nothing else, they’d gotten very good at kissing. Long afternoons with no one home, the two of them practicing and keeping a pillow between their groins so nothing…nothing more permanent could happen, curling up on beds or couches, on floors or in trees, finding all those secret, quiet, nowhere places and pressing each other against walls, kissing until every part of them ached, then breathing, lips wet and bruised, finger shaped bruises on their hips and wrists, fingers aching from how hard they held each other’s hands.

Merlin snapped away with a gasp, a string of saliva connecting them until he wiped it away. “I would leave everyone in the world and become a crazy hermit in the woods with you without a problem, except then we’d need to figure out how to make food from animals and plants and shelter and whatever. I know you know that, but do you get that? I’d follow you into every single battle and I’d make sure you got out even if I had to do something terrible and…” Merlin finished with a sigh stroking his fingers everywhere they wanted. “I just want you to be happy.”

“I am happy.”

“With yourself.” Merlin corrected and Arthur dropped his head, resting it against Merlin’s sternum. “Every time I feel how much you love me I can’t help but see all those good things in myself. But when I do it for you, you just.” Merlin sighed and kissed the top of his head. “Do you want me to see Morgana?”

Arthur nodded, stroking with his fingers. “I like when you come back to me.” And he doesn’t just mean hard. He doesn’t just mean under. He means at all. But that doesn’t change the fact that he likes it, no matter how good the dom is, no matter how many of Merlin’s buttons they press, Merlin always wants to come home to Arthur, and no one can take that from him.

“What should I do? What do you want to hear about?” Just like he always asks.

Arthur licks his lips and tells him.

---

December, 2011

Arthur had written, to date, forty-six articles for Loose Ends. Not all of them were printed, but the paper did pay a holding fee for keeping an article for later. If they did use it, they’d pay the rest of the fee, or, if six months had passed without publishing, they’d return the rights back to you and you could try to publish it elsewhere. He’d had twenty-nine articles published, most of them well received and it’s better than what, he imagines, a lot of people manage. He hasn’t ever talked to any other freelancers, nor as he tried to get anything else published elsewhere, because it feels…dishonest? And he’s not a writer. He just has opinions about things and Merlin helps make those opinions sound authoritative.

Vulgate was a far fancier looking establishment than ever they’ve been to. It was in a much nicer part of town, the sort of street that had restaurants that didn’t even bother to list their prices, and the waitstaff was dressed better than he would ever be. The line outside sprawled, even this early in the night, and Merlin worked his lip between his teeth, staring at it.

“Should we try and get past the bouncer?” Merlin asked, looking at the long weave of people, standing and waiting to get inside, while others just walked up to the door and were allowed in.

Arthur had no idea. “Do they know our names? I don’t think we can be on the list if they don’t have our names. And no one ever believes us when we say our names are Arthur and Merlin, even though we are.” Merlin pulled out his ID. “It says it. It says it in words.”

“Stop being nervous.”

“It is six billion times fancier than we are.” Merlin pointed. “That is more fanciness than we are ever going to accomplish. That dress? That sequined monstrosity right there? Cost more than our rent.” Merlin pointed to a sub longing near the door with her friends, laughing and rubbing the toe of her sandal against the back of her calf. Arthur looked down at his pair of good jeans, looked at Merlin who’d gotten himself done and proper tarted up and sighed.

Merlin rubbed his shoulder. “Your arse looks better in those jeans than all of the yoga-trained arses in all the designer tight pants in all the world.”

“We can see if we’re on the list. And if not, we can just go to the Hangman again. They like us there.” Arthur sighed. “I need to write a review of something. Sophia sort of…wiped us out.”

“I told you, I’d take care of it.” Merlin fussed at Arthur with the appearance of fixing his hair. “I picked up some more shifts since people are out sick, we’ll cover rent. No problem.” Merlin paused. “I mean. You thought it was worth it, right? I.” Merlin fixed his necklace and smoothed his shirt collar. “I didn’t want to get someone super cheap, and I pulled a whole bunch of shifts, but it wasn’t enough before…but we’ll be fine. I promise we’ll be fine.”

Arthur flapped his hands away and caught him around the wrists. “Yes, and then you work too much and you’re exhausted and miserable. An extra article in the magazine wouldn’t hurt. It won’t make or break us, but I don’t like when we’re down to shuffling through the laundry to see if we’ve got a few quid hiding somewhere to at least split a bagel, somewhere.” And that’s happened before, desperately scavenging for loose coin since they finished all the pasta, rice and beans in a big starch-y pot. But that hadn’t happened so recently, Arthur tried to make sure they always had, at least, a hundred pound padding between them and scrambling under the couch for some pence.

So they tried the door, Arthur talking because he was the official part-of-the-press-sort-of-fellow, and the bouncer looked at his ID and then called it in while checking the list, which, really, was better than he’d thought he’d get to begin with.

“The owner wants to see the both of you.” The bouncer said, letting them in and Merlin smiles and bounces in, Arthur following not…sure how that worked.

“Are we trapped in your brain?”

“Maybe?” Merlin offered, giving their coats over to the nice looking coat-check man and going over to the bracelet counter which had the usual assortment of coded-coded and labelled charms for a bracelet, which Arthur took three and Merlin took five, because Merlin might actually do something with himself tonight. They were well organized, which was nice, and didn’t try and instil a fancier, confusing system. There was a bracelet for whether you wanted to play or not, there were charms to say what you were into, so people could know at a glance what you wanted out of a back-room encounter. "This seems like something my brain would do.”

Arthur nodded.

“And here you go.” The attended held out another cuff for each of them. “Return those at the end of the night to get your deposit back, put them on whatever wrist you like, with the buckle side facing downward. And sign these.” She pushed two clipboards over. “Safety waiver and club rules. There’s a room to read those over there, but they’re pretty standardized except for the damper.”

Arthur had already signed his, Merlin followed and then they looked at the new bracelets and Merlin shrugged and put it on. It felt…weird. Oddly heavy and Arthur looked back at Merlin, who shrugged and felt unconcerned, so Arthur went along and they went upstairs.

There was a raised bar area, of course, with close, secreted little booths, the dance floor in a spiral pit in the middle, like a gladiator arena with pressing bodies so tight that gender was completely lost, much less distinguishing features. The music was aimed at the dance floor, so outside of it wasn’t ear-splittingly loud. At the bar it was reasonable, something heard, but not the dominating force.

“Good acoustics.” Arthur noted. “Wonder what they specialize in.”

Every single nightclub opened in the last five years had to have some kind of specific focus. You couldn’t just have a place for young, attractive, generally rich people to dance and fuck one another, you had to have a place where young, attractive, generally rich, harem-fetish role players to dance and fuck one another, or for young, attractive, not at all rich people to dance and fuck. Or just for people who were not young, attractive or rich to dance and fuck. This one wasn’t readily apparent by the décor, like country western, faux-Asian or Daddy/baby-kink places were.

Spiral staircases ran up over the dance floor like DNA helixes, the walls pelting down with waterfall fountains, heavy bolts of cloth sweeping from the ceiling. Merlin tugged him up one, the stairs steep and sharp, but as they got up to the next floor he saw less dangerous and exposed flights hidden in the shadows.

There was only about a quarter of the downstairs floor space present in the current area, all in couches and pillows, chairs and blankets, heavy bolts of cloth draping from the ceiling people lounging about in various states of dress, kissing lazily mindless and indolent.

“Can I help the both of you?” A uniformed woman asked. Arthur blinked and frowned. She was a woman. She…was wearing flats, yes, but also a belt, a necklace and wide cut trousers. He looked to Merlin who cocked his head and rubbed his head.

“Um.” Merlin began and then looked at his bracelet. “Dampening, she said.”

“You hadn’t heard.” She cocked out one hip, studying them, before leading them “Vulgate is a gender neutral establishment.”

“How?” Merlin asked and she pulled a pamphlet out of her belt and handed it to him with a smile. “Your ability to tell gender will only be impaired temporarily after you leave. It’s disorientating but a lot of people find it…freeing.”

Arthur looked around the room. He couldn’t tell who anyone was, he could guess from outfits, but.... but if he took off his necklace and his…people might think. And then he and Merlin could.

“Thanks.” Merlin smiled and she nodded, checking to make sure that was all, and moving through the room, checking up on people and fading into the crowd. Arthur looked at Merlin and his breath caught.

“You can’t. I mean. I can’t.” Merlin took him by the wrists and led him down into an overstuffed chair, somehow twisting so he ended up sprawled all over Arthur. Arthur looked Merlin all over, and, well. He looked like a sub, of course. He was like a picture of one, with his earrings and lipstick, but he didn’t know. He was like a kid playing dress up or…or something. He didn’t know.

“This is so weird.” Merlin wrinkled his nose, but kept petting Arthur’s hair. “I know who you are, I know, but you don’t…you don’t feel like a dom either, but…” Merlin rubbed Arthur’s chest. “Fuck, I forget how hard you dress dom when I am taking all of you in as a whole.” Merlin unhooked Arthur’s necklace and slug it around his own throat. It didn’t match, but he didn’t stop Merlin from taking the cuffs too. Merlin laughed, rubbing his hands over Arthur’s arms. “Look at you. It hasn’t been like this since we were kids.”

“Interesting isn’t it?” Morgana asked from over Arthur’s shoulder and Merlin looked up and lost the plot a little bit. Arthur turned and sighed, shoving Merlin’s face into the back of the chair.

“He’s going to be like this every time he sees you in green. You could wear an exact replica of any other Scarlet O’Hara dress and he’d be fine. It’s just the green.”

“Here’s to the shiniest girl I ever knew:
who abandoned me like a favourite
toy in some suddenly rain-stormed pit
stop. Forgotten until too-many-napped-away miles
leaving me to sink deep
into the topography of a lost bit of nothing
on Highway 64.” Merlin quoted, like it helped at all.

“Does having a lot of Cynthia Lawrence memorized help much in life?” Morgana asked, the long spill of her hair trailing down her shoulder like an oil slick. Arthur put his hand over Merlin’s eyes so he could focus like a normal human being. “Win you a lot of arguments?”

Morgana smiled and moved to sit across from them, the picture of straddling gender barriers, long, black, buckled boots encasing her thighs with pin-point vicious heels, augmented by liquid purple eyeliner nails long and painted, hair curled—

She smiled, adjusting her waistcoat with a smug little tug a and gestured to their bracelets. “They’ve been working on it for a few years. It’s not perfect, obviously. Not transportable, for one. But it’s been approved of as safe in temporary doses.” She pointed to the smoky air, the subtle scent of vanilla and burning books. “Artificial chemical trails confuse the subconscious ability to detect pheromones, combined with mechanics in those little darlings,” She tapped the bracelets and the sheer amount of people means…” She gestured to the room with an expression of victory. “Anyone could be anything.”

“But you still have the bracelets.” Arthur pointed out and she look at the bands of coloured rubber dangling off her wrist. She smiled and fiddled with a donalgist charm. “Won’t that give it away?”

“Some doms are algomists. Some subs are donalgists. Some doms want to be tied up for awhile, some subs want to put them there. Sexuality is complicated, and by forcing people to enact one certain aspect of who they are because of their gender, you limit the beauty of it all. This.” She spread her hands to encompass the room, “this frees people from those expectations.”

“But what happens when people leave the club and realize they’ve…” Arthur swallowed. “I mean, they didn’t know they slept…same-dynamic, or…something.”

She looked into the mass of people. “People like the thrill. The taboo nature of it all. You could be lying with someone completely non-dynamic and you wouldn’t know. You find someone who wants to do what you want done to you, you find someone you find attractive, interesting or mysterious and you talk. Whatever happens, happens. You don’t know who they were, just that you had a good night.” Morgana fiddled with her necklace. “The chemicals make it all feel unreal doesn’t it? Like a dream,” she mused, watching a man and woman who could have been anything, dancing to the music, half-naked and gleeful.

Merlin looks ready to hurt himself he’s so excited. “How long do the effects last?”

“Anywhere from fifteen minutes to three hours leaving but no longer than a day except in isolated cases.” She picked up Merlin’s wrist and fiddled with the charms on his bracelet. “You got the pamphlet, it explains the science, and we’re not the first club to do this. But we are the first one which is semi open to the public.” She smiled and looked between the two of them. “It was Morgause’s idea, and I’m just the face for it.”

“So it’s entirely focused on mutual interests.” Merlin’s eyes were trained on how her fingers cradled his palm. “But mostly it’s for rich kids who want to shock their parents, but not enough to lose their trust funds, or people whose whole shtick is the transgressive.” Merlin looked back up at her. “Gotten a lot of bad press for it?”

“We will.” She stroked her thumb along the edge of one of his nails. “I don’t pretend it will help people understand what it’s like for me, or for same-dynamic, or non-dynamic partners, but it gets the conversation going, which is better than it’s been in the past.”

“So you’re an activist?” Arthur wanted to slide his hand around the back of Merlin’s neck. Make a claim, in some small way, but that would be more than entirely foolish, what with the current line of conversation, and the way Morgana was looking at them both, like they could be conquered, if she wanted.

Arthur wasn’t the sort to be conquered.

“No.” Morgana allowed her eyes to slide away, look off elsewhere. “I am in the business of making money, not ideological changes. But I’m also fond of multi-tasking.” She could have made it an innuendo with a glance, but didn’t. “I open a club where no one can immediately assume anything about you because of your gender, because people don’t know. They’ll still guess. You’re looking around right now, trying to pick people apart by the way they stand and what they’re wearing. But without knowing it becomes like a film. Anyone could be anything. It’s not perfect, of course. Gender is hardwired into our social contracts, and it’s a hard habit to break. But for an evening. For a night.” She gestured. “Well, you can tell me that you’ve never wanted to see what it’s like on the other side of the whip—literal or metaphorical—but I don’t think I’d believe you.”

Morgause came up behind her half sister and spoke something into her ear. Morgana listened and nodded. “Business to attend to.” She plucked two charms from her pocket and handed them in turn. “VIP passes, it’ll let you in wherever you want. Give you a proper idea of the place.” She stood and then took Merlin hand again, pressing her lips to his knuckles. “Enjoy yourselves.”

Merlin grinned and flicked her nose and she smiled before the two sisters walked off, leaving them alone on the couch, Merlin watching them go and Arthur watching him.

---

Title I Was In The Coal Mine Picking Up Diamonds
Summary “When dealing with switches, it’s important to remember that while it’s modern convention’s preference to refer to them as ‘complete unto themselves’, just so was it previous modern convention to refer to them as empty.” –Marcus Halvsie.
Rating PG
Author Kettle_Panda
Relationship Peter/Neal/El
Warnings None.
BETA Wrappedscallion
Notes Title from Diane Cluck’s Easy To Be Around, written for ’s prompt challenge of the same song.

***

“Neal,” Peter said when he found Neal sitting at the edge of his bed (you needed to be direct with Peter, sometimes. El had, apparently, just grabbed his hand in public, kissed him on the mouth and said “Don’t keep me waiting so long next time, okay sweetie?”) “What are you doing?”

Neal had made a study of switches for most of his life. He loved art because it could be many things. It could mean many things. He’d pressed his hands to priceless marble figures because they too could be any gender at all, and he’d fallen in love with figure painting after figure painting, because whoever they were, he would be able to love them somehow.

Neal didn’t strike a provocative pose. Peter had, mostly, proved to be mostly immune to most of Neal’s best and greatest submissive wiles, only ever showing his attraction (albeit subconsciously) when Neal proved… objectively intelligent, morally good, consciously brave. Not when he shown bright and cold as a diamond, studied and manipulative. Instead he smiled, hands between his knees and looked up at Peter, throat bare and wrists showing. “Hi, Peter.”

Peter put his briefcase down and moved to take off his coat, but Neal was already there, easily sliding it down his arms, swinging it around and slipping it onto a waiting hanger.

“Neal, what is this?”

Neal hung the jacket up in its usual space and then looked at Peter. “What do you think it is?”

“I think it’s you about to make a very poor choice, Neal.” Peter eyes Neal’s tie, his closed-cuff shirt, the cut of his trousers. Peter doesn’t know suits, but he knows Neal, and that’s close enough for kissing. “This can’t happen.”

“Of course it can.” Neal sinks to his knees and begins to unlace Peter’s barely-heeled shoes. Just enough there to give a full break to his pants, enough to follow social convention. Peter doesn’t like heels, they make his feet hurt and he can’t run in them. But he also doesn’t like his suit, really, so. “I’d say it was inevitable.”

Peter grips him by the shoulder and carefully pushed him away, sitting down to remove his own shoes. “I don’t need a butler.”

“But I make such a good one.” Neal stayed on his knees, watching Peter. “I make a good anything.”

“I don’t know what your goal is, here, but this—” Peter gestured between the two of them, “This cannot happen.”

“No, of course not.” Neal agreed, still on his knees, not in any particular formal kneel, but closet to Presentation and Peter can’t help but notice. Sometimes Neal subscribes to formal submissive protocol, especially when he’s trying to convince someone else at the Bureau that Peter has him under control. The worst is when people fall for it. Anyone who knew Neal, even a little knew better than to pay particular attention when he landed on either side of the dynamic fence, but strangers…strangers found it comforting and thus fell for the lie.

(“If I act more submissive around a dom who wants to control me, ze think ze’s already succeeded.” Neal had said once, after a particular case. “People don’t like switches, really. People like to think they fixed me. Put me in my place.”)

“The two of us. Never going to happen.”

Neal nodded, and he had nothing. Like he’d come up out of mineshaft, holding nothing, dirty and no diamonds worth having, and he was smiling like he’d won something.

“The three of us, however.” El comes in from the bathroom, hair up in a knot and the nice, silk bathrobe tied around her waist. “That is going to happen.”

“No, no-” Peter looks between the two of them and Neal smiles wider. He sighs. “What is this about?”

El doesn’t kneel, but she does sit next to Neal and rests her head on his shoulder. “It’s about me knowing you, Peter.”

And she does. She does, of course she does.

About how sometimes Peter thinks that maybe, maybe if he let this happen then he could well and truly…ah, not fix Neal. Not reform him. Neal is never going to see the law as anything but something to be slipped around and under. He’s not a bad person, he just…falls in love. No soulbond, nothing to guide him except his own variable nature and that. That is where he’s dangerous. When he falls in love with some piece, when he falls in love with a con, when he falls in love with submissives who want to be the Clyde to his Bonnie, when he… and sometimes, Peter thinks if he just let Neal be in love with them, he could curb most of the worst of his problems.

(“He wants a soulbond.” Peter had confided in El one night. “It’s. He isn’t happy by himself. Maybe he should be, but he isn’t. He needs people. He needs someone to love.”)

“El.” he tries and she clicks her tongue, rubbing Neal’s hair and Neal nuzzles down next to her. “If the Bureau found out, my objectivity would be questioned.”

“It already is.” Neal replies, staring at him. “They trust you to keep me under control—to an extent—they trust that you won’t let me step out of line of the law. But if push came to shove, you’d back me. And they know that.”

Peter pinches the bridge of his nose. “And so the two of you thought to gang up on me.”

“Well it wouldn’t have worked otherwise.” El sighs. “I love you, Peter. But sometimes you want to control a little too much.”

“If you for one second think I’m going to let you use sex to…distract me when you need me distracted-“ Peter points at Neal and Neal looks cowed, head down and smile gone. “Just. If you ever do that to me. To us. If you use sex to help you in a lie, or because you think it’ll help you do something you know I won’t like. Then that’s it.”

Neal looks up. “I’ll try.”

“Neal-“

“I don’t always.” Neal considers himself a moment. “I mean, I wouldn’t do it on purpose, but I know that I wouldn’t want you…angry with me. And it’d make perfect sense. At the time.” Neal looks conflicted a moment, before it smoothes out and goes away.

Neal can convince himself of a lot of things, Peter thinks. Neal…it is so tempting. Between the two of them, between Peter and El, they could get Neal well and truly trapped. They could make him lock himself up, to bow for Peter, to push for El, to get all the parts of him that are real. All those truths he makes for himself. About how he’s never really submissive and he’s never really dominant, he’s just both, at once, all the time.

El gets up and presses herself against Peter. “You need this.”

“I-”

“You need this.” She repeats, knitting their fingers together. “You’ve needed it for a long time, and you’ve just begun to want it too. I am here to make sure you get what you need.”

“I thought it was my job.”

She pouts a little and kisses his cheek. “Oh, honey.”

Neal is still on his knees, head down and looking at his hands.

“And imagine how hard it was for him to come to me instead of just trying to seduce you.” El rubs their ring fingers together and Peter feels his inside just…give.

Neal…needs. Neal needs more than anyone Peter had ever met, and Peter…loves him for it. Loves how he thinks he can fill him up, and what spaces don’t fit him, El can take care of. They can overwhelm him. They can sew him into their marriage and keep him there until he’s well and truly grafted.

“And you want this.” Peter looks to El and she quirks an eyebrow at him until he pays attention and can feel her wanting it. Not necessarily wanting a triad, but wanting to uncover all those bright and sparkling parts of Neal that he never seems to know how to best utilize.

“Of course I do.” She curls her arms around his waist. “And not just for the shallow, sexy reasons of being able to have two doms completely doting over me, or getting to double team you sometime, though I will admit it helps.” She shoots Neal a teasing look and he just smiles at her like she’s the best thing that could never be forged. “I want it because you two need each other, and I’m not the kind of person who steps between that. The truth of the matter is, Peter, that choosing someone to love is terrifying, but that you chose to love Neal a long time ago, and that isn’t going to change now.”

“How did I get someone so smart for my wife?”

“You were very, very good.” She kissed his cheek again and pressed her hand there to follow. She moved over and went on her knees in front of Neal, cupping his face and kissing him like the best sort of bond-com ending and Peter wants to watch them forever.

“Neal?”

“Yeah?” He says, hand on El’s hip and head on her shoulder, staring up at Peter.

“You are 100% sure about this?”

“You already have me.” Neal nuzzles El’s neck. “You caught me. All I want is for you to keep me.”

Peter looks at Neal. At all the things he’s not ever going to say or confess to. At how he’s the shiniest boy Peter ever knew, and he wraps himself up in lies so no one can ever see it. About how he’ll forge them priceless artwork to not hang on their walls, drink wine with El and lie with his head in Peter’s lap during baseball.

About how Neal just wants to love until he falls apart from it, and if Peter gives him the chance to, he’ll be all theirs, without flinching.

“We can do that.” Peter agrees.

A/N
Apparently I’m trying to single handedly fill out every song prompt ever for the meme. Not that I really do them well. But. Eh.

---

April, 2010

Apples-To-Apples (“And dust-to-dust” Gwen tended to intone solemnly) was one of three games in all of existence that Freya was not read as the automatic winner. The other two were Yahtzee (she tended to win, yes, but sometimes you just got shit dice rolls and no matter how terrifying you looked, you couldn’t change that.) and Monopoly, because they’d yet to finish a game, ever.

“I have accepted he gets Arthur’s cards. I have accepted this. But I am ashamed of the rest of you.” Freya grumped over her five cards (Cheap, Luxurious, Goopy, Friendly, Charming) as Merlin got “Filthy” because he’d put down “Your Mom.” And it was true. Merlin systemically always made Arthur laugh, ergo, he always got Arthur’s green card. Which meant that he automatically got one sixth of the green cards and from that basis, could build his adjective empire.

Freya looked at Elyan accusingly and Elyan held up his hands defensively. “He played meat-and-potatoes, you know how I feel about meat-and-potatoes.” Elyan had one green card (Strong) from Freya, because he’d played coffee and she’d said “It’d better be, damn it.”

“Leon?”

“He played the A-bomb for Effulgent. What was I supposed to do? That’s terrible.” Leon had three green cards (fast, hot, needy, all of them from Merlin because Leon had Merlin’s number, apparently.)

“Gwen is the only person I like right now.” Freya patted Gwen’s arm. Gwen had no cards. Freya was a gracious winner, once her win was secured over you.

Merlin shrugged. Merlin had sixteen cards. Joyous, Effulgent, Deadly, Delicious, Shaky, Filthy, Rude, Hospitable, Soft, Quiet, Glossy, and Petulant. “I can’t help that I’m hilarious. When the hilarious card comes up, I’m going to put myself down. I can do that. There is card with my name on it. And Arthur’s.”

Arthur’s card was much coveted, and was played with any number of charming adjectives and then he could expect a good thirty minutes of teasing to follow. (“It’s only because it’s precious when you go all stuffy and posh about it.” Freya had consoled him once. “Merlin rolls in compliments like a pig in mud, so he’s no fun.”)

“I demand satisfaction. I will duel you.” She pointed.

“Fine, the field of battle is Apples-To-Apples and oh look, I am the most winner.” Merlin fanned out his cards. “Gwen, it’s your turn.”

She sighed and picked up Boring. “Don’t anyone put down Gone With The Wind again. I can’t.”

Gone With The Wind is perfection except for all the parts that glorify racism and the White Man’s Burden and the confederacy, which shouldn’t be romanticized, but if everyone just outright stopped liking problematic things, than there would be nothing else to like, so as long as you acknowledge it as problematic it’s fine. Also it is perfection.” Merlin grumbled.

“Oh, Merlin, think of it this way. The more green cards I have, the more like Scarlet O’Hara I am.” Freya tried and Merlin considered this a moment.

“Scarlet would get her own cards.” Merlin stroked his cards.

“Also he wants to be Scarlet, so that doesn’t really work.” Arthur took a drink of his lager and defended it from Merlin, who didn’t even like lager and thus shouldn’t steal Arthur’s.

“Elyan, why do they know each other better than us?” Freya asked, and Elyan kissed her cheek. “Are they just actually the same person with a time turner and an incredible ability to disguise themselves? Are you? No! You’re actually telepathic. Like, full on.”

Merlin looked smug as he stole Gwen’s flavoured malt drink and Gwen, in turn, stole a few bites of Merlin’s Pad Si Ew because Merlin was always the last to finish food because he spent more time talking than putting it in his face. Arthur looked down at his cards and slid Calculus over because he couldn’t think of anything cleverer. Arthur was not terrifically good at board or card games. Or drinking games. But they weren’t allowed to do drinking games, because Merlin could, and had, gotten drunk off a single wine cooler, and that was just silly. You couldn’t play a drinking game with that, if for no other reason than Merlin would start trying to have an anthropological conversation about fan-culture and reclaiming sub sexuality as a force, rather than a response, and how they’re very liberal with dynamic-changes, but would have wank over who was changed into what, and they didn’t get along at all with the people who just left two doms as two doms, and then murmuring to himself about how hard he’d shag Captain America all over the place. (“I’m fairly sure that’s treason.” “I will be his Peggy. Oh God, my favourite is that he’s this tiny little dom. He’s like a pocket dom. He is the wee-est of all the doms, oh, oh, oh, I cannot. I cannot. I want to keep tiny Steve Rogers in my pocket and he can bumble his way through trying to dom me and then getting nervous and needing a lie down until I broke him in. And also big Steve Rogers. I would break them both in and it would be the most beautiful.” “Breathe.”)

“If we’d been friends since we were five, we would be as disgustingly precious as they are.” Elyan promised, patting her arm. “But not, as we would have soulbonded when we were kids and no one would have let us hang out.”

“Unless you hid it.” Merlin replied as Gwen looked over the choices, biting her thumbnail and considering.

“How do you hide that?” Freya asked. “Like. You go crazy for at least…two months?”

“Minimum.” Elyan agreed and Gwen was debating between Calculus and Granola.

“But once you identified it’d been hell to try and get any time alone anyways.” Leon pointed out, “Before dating was allowed, I remember, not a single dom or sub talked to each other, because every adult near us would shove us away again, so it just became a thing. And then you just came up with excuses why you didn’t even want to talk with them anyways, until it became okay to start dating. Soulbonding that young would have been terrible. Great, in a way, but frustrating.”

“Not knowing what to do.” Freya agreed.

“Not knowing what you liked, and not being able to do anything about it. Always having a chaperone around in case you just went batshit right there. And kids would treat you differently, you know? Or it’d just…be different. Knowing who your soulmate was while everyone else was making shit up. Saying it’s any old single celebrity they can come up with.” Elyan put his head in his hand. “Gwen, sometime today, maybe?”

“I’m thinking.” She tapped her lip. “Granola can have fruit in it, which is exciting. But some people really like Calculus, so my own opinion shouldn’t be the only thing taken into account. And I guess long car rides are also sort of boring.” She hesitated over that card and hummed to herself. Gwen routinely took forever to make a choice and nothing would rush her.

“And I guess finding your fiancée early would be better than late, or, you know, never.” Leon shuffled his hand absently. “I mean, it’d be nice to really know you were loved.”

“Unless it was one of your teachers.” Freya tapped her fingers against the table. “That’s happened. Some poor little thirteen year old, newly identified dom finds his thirty-year-old soulmate in his art classroom? People panic about that sort of thing. On one hand they’re soulmates, on the other hand thirteen. What the fuck do you have in common at that point?”

“That’s the thing isn’t it?” Gwen asked, holding the two green cards to the light. “People are different at different points in their lives. When is your soulmate supposed to be all you need or want in a person?”

The table goes quiet and she looks up. “Oh stop it. I’m just saying. It’s. People are complicated. You don’t just meet your soulmate and feel complete. It’s. You’ve got to be all you are before you can deal with adding them on. I guess.”

“But if you’re young enough you build around each other.” Leon adds, thinks, considers. “You guys have gone disturbingly quiet.”

“I want granola now.” Merlin said, staring at the cards. “She said fruit and granola and now that is the only food that I want to eat in all the universe.”

They did build around each other though. Or grow around each other. Into each other, maybe. Arthur isn’t a poet. He’s a man who can chop a banana, put it on a bowl of granola and cover it in the last of Freya and Elyan’s two percent milk and carefully rinses the bottle out before putting it into the bin.

And yet they are still waiting. Not…for a soulmate. They have each other, and it’s. He can’t imagine having not had Merlin there, sitting tandem to his life. He can’t imagine how that would have even been feasible with some stranger. Some somebody that he didn’t know who just got all his anger and his need and his greed and resented him for it. Blocked him out.

The cereal would get soggy. Spoon. He needed a spoon.

Someone who thought shoving him out of his head was the only solution to his problems. Arthur can’t… the thing with soulmates, he thinks, is that yes: it takes work. It isn’t a perfect little ending to some trite little story. It’s. Hard. And weird. And a series of compromises, like when Merlin gets sick and they have actual fights about how much of that misery Arthur is allowed to carry for him. Or about how Arthur will shut himself down whenever he gets a bad cut, or bruise or bump or whatever because Merlin shouldn’t have any of that. But. The trick is that you know how they feel about you that entire time. No guesswork. No feeling unloved or under-appreciated because they are right there, and that is what makes it work. Maybe.

Napkin. Merlin is terrible with spoons.

But mostly he can’t imagine needing anyone but Merlin.

“Pick an obvious landmark and if they are past that landmark, you hold the door open, if they are not, you just go in. Like if they’re on a certain step, or have cleared the stairs, you hold the door open, if they’re at the bottom of the stairs, just go in.” Leon was explaining.

“Unless they’re carrying an armload of things.” Elyan interjected.

“Or if you can see that there’s someone in that awkward do-I-don’t-I distance in the reflection of the door, you can slow down.” Merlin was shuffling his green cards. He’d won the last round, apparently, with “Taxes”, though Gwen had dismissed it originally because she said it was more frustrating than boring. “But what I hate is the people who hold it open from a ridiculously far point away and then are like ‘Oh don’t hurry’ and you’re like ‘It will take me over a minute to get there otherwise

“Or if you hold the door open for someone and they aren’t even going in that door, but they don’t say anything.” Gwen added.

Freya was glaring at Gwen, because she had committed the unforgivable sin of giving Merlin another card.

“I don’t hold open the door unless they are right behind me and holding a live jaguar.” Arthur sat down and looked at the new green card on the table. “Even then I mostly bump it open after me.”

“That’s because manners scare you, since your Uncle was the absolute worst.” Merlin rubbed his arm, because Freya had punched him for committing the unforgivable sin of getting another card.

“People have the ability to open doors. Or if they don’t, they have the ability to ask me to hold the door open, which I will do. I hate when someone opens the door and insists you go first, even if you don’t want to. Be polite, yes, don’t be an asshole about it, though.”

Freya snorted as Merlin crunched his cereal and then looked down at it mournfully. “I don’t like granola, do I?”

“You don’t.”

“But I really wanted it.”

“Yes, you did.”

Merlin makes an unhappy noise and stares into his bowl helplessly before Arthur takes it from him and starts eating. It’s too sweet, some sort of banana-nut granola, but Arthur kept going, while Merlin stole nut clusters from the bowl and then making faces once they were in his mouth.

Stop eating things you don’t like.” Arthur tugged the bowl away and swallowed as much down as possible. “This is like the goat cheese again.”

“That was unbearable.” Leon rubs his face and plays a red card down for Freya’s “Fragrant” card. “That was completely unbearable.”

“It was the worst thing I ever put in my mouth.” Merlin looked at his hand mournfully.

“But you kept putting it in your mouth.” Leon continued, “And making really distressed noises.”

“They were kind of hot.” Freya put her head in her hand and Elyan patted her shoulder. “What? In an abstract way. Not in a ‘I want to tie Merlin down and feed him goat cheese until he cries for mercy’ kind of way.”

““Not the oddest thing I’ve ever done.” Merlin rounded out the routine with a gesture and there was laughter and then back to the game until Merlin eventually won his most glorious victory, “I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with a glorious purpose to win all the apples. How do you like them, Freya? How do you like them apples? Are they sour and delicious in pie? I suspect so.”

“If I tackle him and hold him down for a while will you get angry at me?” Freya turned to Elyan. Elyan made a permissive gesture and Merlin scrambled behind Arthur.

“My champion, defend me!” Merlin scrambled onto his back like a spider monkey and clung. “Oh, Oh, Arthur is totally Thor. He’s so Thor it hurts me. Like. When he’s being an arsehole, you just have to tell him and he immediately stops and makes you a hot English breakfast.”

“But I’m adopted.” Arthur wrapped his arms under Merlin’s thighs so he could perch more comfortably. “Also I’m not an arrogant sod.”

“You are a little.” Merlin nuzzled his shoulder in apology. “But in an endearing, Warrior Of Asgard kind of way. Oh. Oh. Lady Sif and Freya are the same person. They are one.”

“She was a brunette in green.” Freya lead them all to the living room so they could flop on the couch and Elyan could turn the game console on. “You did go a little batshit over her.”

“Her wave to Thor in the window was so dorky I wanted to worship her knees forever.” Merlin smashed his face to Arthur shoulder and Arthur dumped him in a chair and then sat on the floor, given that there was limited seating, and rested his head against Merlin’s knee.

“Remember when we talked about things besides Marvel characters?” Arthur asked.

“Yes. We talked about Harry Potter. It was beautiful.” Merlin moved to start giving him a neck rub, his affection felt warm in Arthur’s gut, suffusing him and he relaxed against the chair, ducking his head forward so Merlin’s hand could work on the knots. Work them exactly right because Merlin could tell how his touches felt, could fell the knots in his own back and what his own ministrations were doing to release them. It was…weird to get touched by anyone else, when they didn’t just know how to do it.

“And part of me wants to write six billion papers about Voldemort soul’s bit making a Harry a switch until he killed it good and killed, because that’s a little too close to the whole ‘switches are good souls who had a demon possess them, we must save them. We must burn them to save them’ thing. That happens.”
“Also, are you seriously telling me that no other parent, in all the parents that Voldemort killed, didn’t try and die for their kid? Not one?” Leon asked.

“I’m going with they were out fighting him and not hiding in their homes so the baby wasn’t…present? Or Voldemort’s Death Eaters killed them and they aren’t all Horocrux-y?”

Merlin moved rolled his forearms over Arthur’s shoulders in a near-continuous slide of pressure and friction to try and get his neck to calm down.

“Is there a queue we can get in for that, or…?” Freya asks, head in her hands. “I have this crick right under my skull that won’t quit.”

“I got this cramp from reading over Merlin’s Ode To Comma Abuse.”

“My paper on the complexities of human sexuality in storytelling as perceived as deviant by popular culture as presented by the White Collar fan community is brilliant and you can suck on your semi-colons. You can suck on them until they rot right off.” Merlin dug his thumb in hard and didn’t let up the pressure for anything. “Ask Elyan to do it.”

“Nooooo.” Both Freya and Gwen reply and Elyan makes faces at them both, before running Luigi right off a rainbow bridge and thus making a face at the telly.

“Why not?” Merlin rolled his thumb up the tight cords along Arthur’s spine and Arthur keeps his groan of pleasure trapped in his stomach where it belongs. “He’s your soulmate. He should know how to do that shit.”

“Yeah, we’re not so great at physical sensation.” Freya rubbed her upper lip. “We think it’s because we’re both such physical people that we have a hard time…detaching enough to share the information, but.” She picked up Elyan’s dropped controller, and then leaned back so her head was in his lap. “It sort of freaks us out when we feel things we don’t remember doing?”

Merlin hummed and leaned Arthur’s head back so he could work under and around his jaw, letting Arthur rest his skull full weight in his hands so his neck could have a break. “Focus on one part at a time. The whole body is complicated and too much information, but if you just think this is how my little finger feels right now, then it gets communicated better.”

Elyan and Freya looked at him.

“I don’t know why I have to keep saying this, but I do a lot of reading.” Merlin cradled Arthur’s head with one hand and kneaded at the base of his neck with the other. “Do I need to quote things again? I can quote things again. Do you want me to quote things?” Merlin’s fingers trailed subtly against Arthur’s back before he settled into giving his head scratches. Arthur hummed in satisfaction and settled in with Merlin’s fingers worked quietly and carefully over his scalp, scratching where it itched and lingering where it felt especially good.

“You’re going to blow your dom’s head off.” Freya stretched her fingers and settled in for a good race.

Merlin hummed and continued working on Arthur’s head until he was warm and collected, too tupped to bother taking up his turn, and Merlin felt all warm and pleased next to him, so he wasn’t about to stop either, the two of them drowsing in each other’s presence under the pretence of a long day and good food, and all four of the others used to them flopping over each other utterly, as comfortable with each other as themselves, and since they’d always been this way, there was nothing odd about it.

People were very willing to put a lot down to one’s idiosyncrasies and long acquaintance. Merlin would give just about anyone a hand massage if they sat next to him long enough, and he’d crawl into any of his friends’ laps without a second thought. Clearly Arthur was just used to him.

Arthur closed his eyes and if they were home Merlin would kiss him about now, when they were both as soft and soaked with contentment as if it were something you could bathe in. He’d just lean down and press his soft lips against Arthur’s—upside down, of course—moving slow and easy, fingers brushing down Arthur’s throat neither of them moving for more…

They used to kiss a lot. Every spare moment, once they start practicing… well. Merlin had always had an endless list of isolated places that no one but them would care to explore, places perfect for spreading out an old, stained blanket and…practicing, laying side by side and trying not to touch too much because it didn’t count if they didn’t actually touch except for kissing.

He opens his eyes and Merlin is staring down at him, smiling, and Arthur smiles back. Freya throws a pillow at them.

---

cont.

When she returned to her family they rejoiced to see her, and told her of the good fortune they’d had while she was away. Her sisters had helped their father rebuild his empire, for two of his ships thought lost at sea had returned, and with them both of her sister’s soulmates, and they were now happily married. But seeing his two daughters share such joy, while his final beloved daughter was denied it had sent her dear father into a decline and he’d gone to bed and not gotten up for many weeks.

She took his wrists in her hands and kissed his forehead. “Dear father, I am well, and it hurts me so to see you like this. I am allowed a fortnight, and we should spend it in joy.”

And so it was that she nursed him back to health, and she visited her sister’s households, and there was a very merry time had. But as the deadline approached her family mourned and pleaded, asking her to stay just a bit longer, and while her heart was softened to their cries, she said she had made a promise and promises must be kept.

“But we miss you so, and ze is a terrible beast. Surely you miss us, dear sister!” Her sisters cried. “Stay with us for just a few days more, to see our households and partners. They would like so to see you.”

“I have made a promise, and I intend to keep it. If I keep this one, then the beast will trust me to visit again.” She kissed their foreheads and bid them farewell.

“My darling daughter, it breaks me so to have you away. I am well now, but how I will suffer for you leaving.”

“Trust that I am well, and I am watching you. I am happy and I have responsibilities to attend to. It would bring my happiness to see your happiness. I have made a promise and I intend to keep it. I will not break that trust.”

And so she left, hardened herself to her family’s tears, because she was not the kind to break her word, no matter what the cost. She returned to the beast’s castle and when ze did not greet her, she searched the castle and could not find zer. Finally she went out into the rose garden and found the beast, in full daylight, that much more hideous and monstrous than she could have even imagined. Zer body looked tortured out of shape, the joints mismatched, skin and fur and scales and feather fighting for space, too many legs and not enough fingers and worst…worst of all, was that mixed in with any number of strange creatures, she could see human eyes staring up at her, desperate and deranged.

And still she sat beside the beast and put zer head in her lap and stroked zer head. “I came as I promised, why do you mourn?”

“I could not bear for you to leave.” The beast’s voice thrummed out in a piteous whine, zer claws and talons scraping at the ground, zer breathing laboured and harsh. “But I wanted your happiness, and decided my suffering was worth it. If you had not come back when you promised, I would have died here.”

She soothed zer as best she could. “I will always keep my promises, but you must tell me when you will suffer so.” She pressed her lips to his flaking and ruined forehead. “If you will not take care of yourself, it falls to me to do it for you.”

The beast then looked up at her and then bowed zer head. “I accept.”

It was by this token that the beast’s body began to roll like the ocean, and thus freed the animals that had been sewn to the beast’s soul were freed, snakes and rabbits fleeing, a bear loping back into the woods, fish flopping on the ground, birds flocking to the air, dogs romping through the rose garden, and leaving only the submissive princess of the castle to lie, panting and desperate.

The merchant’s daughter gasped, at once feeling all the empty, aching spaces inside her filling with love and fear, so thick and fierce it caught her breath and she pressed her hands to her soulmate’s face and kissed her. “My darling, how I have waited for you. What happened that we should have been parted?”

“You have broken the curse, my dearest.” The princess said. “For I behaved as a beast, and a witch said I should be one with them if I was to act so, until someone came to teach me how to love properly, and you have. You have saved me, and to you I give my submission.”

And so it was that they lived in joy together, surrounded by family and friends, and neither of them were lonely for the rest of their days.