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Them Gods Gonna Hurt You, Son.

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January 2012

The padded, automatic handcuffs broke suddenly on one of those almost-too-perfect days that just begged for something terrible to happen.

They were careful. They were careful with everything in Master’s room. Arthur could dare someone to find a set of sex toys that was as well maintained and tended as what they had in the lockbox, except then people would know they had their own dungeon—albeit an unconventional one—just to themselves, and... They always made sure the timer and the remote had batteries, they checked that both were working before using them. Both timers worked. The button, when pressed, caused all four bracelets to click open. They’d stripped naked, Merlin just leaving his clothing on the floor where they fell, Arthur folding his and putting them on the chair, and then picking up Merlin’s too. Tripping hazard.

There hadn’t been a hitch, not like the toy they’d gotten when they were teenagers, and found a decent looking sex shop. They’d been too poor to afford anything, really, and they’d wanted something small, something easily hidden, and something quiet. So they’d gotten this tiny little two-speed battery powered, bullet vibrator with a waterproof battery casing attached by a cord to the thing itself. It had tickled against Merlin’s nose when he’d tried it, but it looked like something you might get a hardware store, black and grey and shiny steel, not the brightly coloured dildos or the rabbit and giraffe shaped vibrators, or the other, limited selection of fuzzy handcuffs and tiny rubber whips, dice sex games, and row after row of pornographic videos and DVDs. They’d bought it and played with it, figuring out where to put the rounded tip to the greatest effect (right up against the slit of Merlin’s prick, up against his arse, all around the base of his dick. Arthur liked it under his scrotum, and maybe pressed to the head of his prick, but never for long), which of the two speeds they liked (Arthur liked the faster one, Merlin liked the slow thrum of the slower one when it was running out of battery) for how long (Arthur in short, tactical strikes, Merlin for a long teasing glide, until Arthur’s fingers were numb from holding it and Merlin had leaked everywhere). It had spent a good two months dying, starting up and winding down all at once, speeding up when twisted this way and falling silent when twisted another. They’d made do, Merlin had even enjoyed the spontaneity, because it would stop just as he was right there and he’d cool off while Arthur fiddled with it to get it to work again, until, one day, it just wouldn’t turn on at all.

Which was a shame, given they’d sort of imprinted on it—it being their only toy—and just seeing the shiny metal of the bullet would get one or both of them hard. Arthur had gotten used to the quiet whirling buzz of it, and holding it just so to get Merlin to arch right off the bed. It didn’t count if it was a toy. It didn’t count if it was something you could do to yourself.

The handcuffs just stopped working. They’d set them for thirty minutes, Arthur had the panic button and Merlin was next to the phone. Merlin had looked at him, sleepy and dark and Arthur had wanted to just…keep all of him. Merlin had been working on his thesis and so Arthur had offered to think of a story for the night, so Merlin could relax. Merlin was terrible at relaxing.

A simple little night, nothing fancy, nothing special, just the two of them and being just far apart enough to make it difficult.

“So?” Merlin asked, sliding his leg along Arthur’s, nuzzling his head into the pillow. Arthur stretched to kiss him and Merlin tilted his head and let him, mouth sloppy-soft and hot, not really participating, but still making hushed noises of enjoyment, humming against Arthur’s lips.

“Right.” Arthur looked at him, but Arthur never had to think of stories except when Merlin was exhausted and just needed a little bit to relax, so fell back on one of the old favourites. “I could be a Prince, and you could be…be my whipping boy.” Arthur caught Merlin’s ankle between his legs, dragging him closer.

“Do we get on, or do you like seeing your tutors hurt me?” Merlin asked and Arthur thought about it a moment. “I wouldn’t have liked you at first.”

Merlin pouted and Arthur kicked him, lightly. “My story, my rules. It isn’t suitable to whip a Prince, but I was a terrible brat, so they gave you to me. And I didn’t like you at all, until I did something horrible and they actually whipped you.”

Merlin bit his lip and his toes trailed up Arthur’s calf. “Did it leave welts?”

“Of course it did. Bright red welts and your trousers around your ankles, and you’d have cried, I think, getting that beating for something you didn’t even do. And eventually we’d be friends, and I’d want to see them. I’d put cool cloths on your poor, abused backside.”

Merlin hummed, eyelashes fluttering and stretching himself out so his arms pulled behind him, long and narrow. “And eventually you stopped being such a terrible brat?”

“Eventually.” Arthur agreed and shifted so Merlin could tug them closer, with a long, pale leg wrapped over Arthur’s hip.

“So I would have done something terrible, but I didn’t mean to. I’d know if I did something, anything, wrong then my tutor would hurt you, and even if I sort of liked the noises you made when the cane fell, or the way you just let me take care of you when you were in pain...well. Even if I kind of wanted to know how it felt like. I’d press the welts, when she was done.” Arthur slid his cock along Merlin’s thigh.

Merlin shuddered and licked his lips. “You liked them? All those long, red lines over me? Wanted some for yourself. Did you scratch yourself, trying to figure out what it’d be like?”

“Yeah.” Arthur agreed, their pricks nudging one another as they set a slow, easy pace. “But that was my business. I’d grown to like you. Your attitude, your ears, the way you’d warm my up on a cold night. Castles didn’t have heating, you know. Bed warming was a very necessary job.”

“Mmm,” Merlin agreed. “Especially during those long winter nights. Me in your bed, your hand down my trousers, everyone just bunked down, sleeping through half the day.”

“Note that down for later.” Arthur said, wanted to put his hands all over Merlin’s sweaty-chilled body, hiding under the covers like the rest of the world was toxic.

“So I would have done something wretched, and it would be you who’d have to get punished. And you, who would be sitting right next to me, head in my lap as I did my lessons, because you’d keep me calm. You, poor little wretch, would be dragged to your feet. And she would tell you to drop your trousers and I’d plead for you not to have to. I would, I’d demand and ask and beg.” He lipped Merlin’s ear, “But she’d do it anyways. She toss you down on the table, and spank you, strap you maybe. Cane you?”

“Strap.” Merlin said, pressing down against the thigh Arthur had worked between his legs, “She’d use a…a strap she’d keep on her belt just for…just for me.” Merlin gasped, his chest thrown forward, and Arthur stretched until he could sink his teeth against Merlin’s neck. Merlin, thrust up against his thigh, neck arched for him. Arthur rotated his wrists in the cuffs, liking how they bit through the padding, held strong and held him back, let him relax into their grip.

“And she would hit you, and I wouldn’t be able to do anything to stop her. Your arse would be full of these red stripes and I would notice you were hard. You would be hard, wouldn’t you? You’d love it. Too many years being my whipping boy, and me trying to make it all better afterwards. Got into your head as we grew up, if you suffer just right, I’d take good care of you.”

Merlin just panted and Arthur wanted to touch him. He wanted so badly to scoop him up, but he didn’t have permission. He wasn’t allowed; for all that Merlin’s body was begging to be touched. “And I would make it better. She’d put all those marks on you, marks you’d suffer for me, so the second she was gone I’d lick each and every one of those stripes, rub them with salve until it cooled them down, and half wanting them for myself, a little. Partly so you wouldn’t suffer, partly because you moan just right when the strap falls, I’d put you on your side and suck you off.”

“Would you touch them?” Merlin asked, cock smearing pre-come all over Arthur’s leg and Arthur. “Press down on them? Ask how it felt?”

“I don’t want to hurt you.” Arthur rested his head against the pillow, bucking against the restraints. “But I would. I’d want to feel how hot they are, how sensitive. Would you complain?”

Merlin shook his head. “I’d like them. I would. I’d be suffering for you. And you’d be so good to me afterwards.” Merlin gasped into the pillow, nipples high and tight on his chest, skin coming up goose-pimples in the cool air, stripped of all his jumpers and blankets that he’d bundle himself into at the first sign of cold weather. Arthur could probably spin this out. He could get Merlin caught up in that little world, but they were both tired, and it was late, and he wanted to tuck Merlin into his arms and keep him there for a good eight hours. Merlin had an early shift the next day.

“I’d trail my fingers over them, let you fuck my mouth all loose and sloppy. Choke me a little bit to try and make up for it.” Arthur promised, nudging at Merlin’s cock with his knee. “Come on, fuck up against my leg.”

“Oh, you’d feel so guilty.” Merlin grinned, thrusting in earnest, eyes trailing over Arthur. “You’d know it was your fault and you’d want me to hurt you a little, to feel better about yourself.”

Arthur’s cock jerked a little, where it stayed: hot and hard. Merlin adjusted them, so he could jerk up against Arthur’s thigh, while Arthur rode his calf. “You’d want me to shove in, but I wouldn’t. I’d just let you go.” Merlin panted a moment and wiggled his thin hips forward. ‘I’d just let you go at your own pace. Suck on it as slow and careful. Never shove your head down. Never make you choke on it a little. Never tell you what to do.” Merlin gave it up easily-- splattering over Arthur’s leg and stomach with a groan.

Arthur pressed the button. He didn’t particularly want to get off on Merlin’s leg while Merlin was half-asleep. The main point had been for Merlin to relax, and humping his leg wouldn’t, exactly, assist in that endeavour.

The handcuffs didn’t budge.

“Merlin, can you get out?” Arthur asked and Merlin tugged on his arms and shook his head, nuzzling down into the bed, in the full assurance, for whatever reason, that Arthur would take complete care of it. Arthur pressed the button harder and neither set moved. He banged the thing a few times before he lost his grip and it was on the carpet. He looked at the timer. Another five minutes, they could wait. He rolled his hips and Merlin blinked his eyes open and watched him, muggily confused.

“The button isn’t working, so we’ll just run down the timer.”

“It was working before.” Merlin grumbled. “We got a lifetime warranty on those suckers, didn’t we? We’ll take it in. If nothing else we’ve got my keys.” Merlin looks down and then frowns. “Where are they?”

Arthur really should have noticed the lack of keys earlier, but Merlin was tired and needed relaxing, and Arthur was thus tired and in need of relaxing.

“I left them in my pocket.” Merlin turned to try and get off the bed and retrieve his trousers, but, of course, Arthur had put them on the chair, clear across the room, thinking about getting Merlin back to their room in one piece. Arthur sighed. “The timer should open it.”

It was a tense next couple of minutes. Merlin rolled his wrists and rubbed his nose against the pillow. The come on Arthur went cold against his belly, ran down in large, gooey drops onto the sheets and he sighed. The handcuffs beeped that they were done, but the rings didn’t open. He pulled. Still locked tight.

Merlin tugged. “How. How did they both break?” He tugged harder and then relaxed, took a deep breath and sort of...shoved his calm onto Arthur. “Okay. We’ll just get the lead off the tie points and then go get the keys. We have safety scissors around here.”

The tie points were under the bed and Merlin can quite get to his except to fumble at it ineffectually. The scissors were supposed to be in reach, but far enough away to avoid one of them getting stabbed, except Arthur could quite get them, even stretching forward with his leg. They must have knocked them off the table or. Or something else equally stupid. He tried his tie point, and he could get to the knot, but he couldn’t move it anywhere or get it free. Certainly couldn’t untie it, seeing as they’d been knotted under there so long. Stupid. Stupid.

“Is this something we’re going to laugh about later?” Merlin asked from his side of the bed. Arthur looked at the screw end of the tie-hook and tries to get his thumb in it enough to crank it free.

It was another indefinite length of eternity before Merlin was frustratedly trying to hook his arms under his legs while Arthur was shoving the mattress and boxspring up with his shoulder to get to the tie point from there.

He couldn’t quite get enough leverage, can’t get them to move high enough before he gets his hands under. “Merlin, get on the other side and lift. If we can get this off I’ll get the leads off, we’ll get the keys and I will yell at somebody about this.”

“Sure, just give me a--fuck.”

There was a sharp wrench of pain in Arthur’s shoulder, followed by a fresh stab of panic. No, no, no not.

“Merlin?” Arthur called out. “Merlin are you okay?”

Distress rang in his gut. Arthur scrambled over the bed to look down, stuck from going any farther and Merlin, breathless, tried to get out a: “I’m fine.” Except he wasn’t, and Arthur knew he wants.

And it was like any other time that Merlin had been hurt, or worried, or scared. Arthur stopped being sensible and just... not lost it. He lost it when he’d bashed a dom’s head into the bar, and he’d lost it when he’d chased down a thief, and he’d lost it...

But he did panic.

In another situation, they would have reached the scissors by using something else, cut themselves free and gotten very angry at the shop they’d gotten the handcuffs from. Or they would have both managed the mattress and the boxspring, unhooking the knot and then getting very angry at the shop they’d gotten handcuffs from. But Merlin was in pain and Arthur scrambled for the mobile with his foot, got it up and before he knew it, he had it ringing.

Oh God.

---

From: AEigyrson@loose.threads.com
To: WTunnsdottier@loose.threads.com
Subject: Glass Review

Wanda,

I’m almost finished with my review of the Vulgate grand opening and should be sending it Tuesday, but I know you’re still looking to replace Film Freddie, so I thought I’d try my hand at more film reviews, since Yesteryear was received favourably. Given our large non-dynamic or dynamic-queer readership, and given the nature of Vulgate’s niche, I thought this film might tie in well. Let me know.

Arthur Eigyrson

Attached File (glassreview.doc)
Glass comes from Norwegian-born director and writer Howard Isen, and it’s his first film to grab anything resembling mainstream acclaim and critical mention. While he has over thirty films in his filmography, none of them are over thirty minutes long, and while many of them have a weird, aching kind of memorability to them, Glass is his only film so far to gain attention outside of film festivals.

Glass is a short film coming in at a little over an hour. However, Howard Isen is a strong believer that films shouldn’t be any longer than they need to be. There are no extraneous scenes, every single shot set up to convey as much mood and information as possible without completely overloading the audience member.

It’s labelled as a psychological horror movie, and it focuses on that first part far more than any others in its genre have in a long time. It’s not just trying to scare you, it isn’t relying on blood and jump cuts and monsters. The tension of not knowing what is safe and who to trust carries a lot of the feeling of being unsettled.

The moment the film opens it begins setting up expectations. It’s a horror movie that has seen other horror movies, and not in a snarky sideways Scream kind of way. Isen is a man who knows his genre conventions, knows what you’re expecting and he plays very carefully about when to give you what you think should be there, and when to take it away. It’s a horror movie fan’s horror movie. Rachel Hans opens as Cinderella, a perfect horror movie, fairy-tale heroine. She’s almost painfully sweet, an open book of the good virtuous daughter without a lick of sarcasm. She’s the picture of every Cinderella we’ve ever grown up to hate. Innocent and sweet, hard-working to the point of psychotic, with that oh-so-charming bone deep need to just be loved, and Kelly Stan takes her turn as the evil step-sister, cruel and capricious for no real reason, and…

If this sounds like the same old story, you’re right. For the first fifteen minutes of the movie it’s so predictable it hurts. It’s beautifully shot, the dialogue is carefully scripted and never sounds clunky or forced, and both actresses are brilliant in their parts, but you sit there, smug in the theatre thinking I know these people. I know how this goes., and even after that, when Cinderella and her stepsister get some depth, you’re still not sure what the movie is about.

And then the turn happens. And it doesn’t just happen. It isn’t as if one half of the movie is one way and the other half is another. They bounce off each other, and the chaos and confusion in the middle is what makes this movie worth the ticket price. It is unsettling, because for a good twenty minutes, you don’t know who is what. You don’t know who has the power and who is the victim, and, after a bit, you start to feel like you are the one locked in that basement. And you get why this tiny little independent film is getting so much traction. There are no monsters, there are no murders, but it is terrifying. It’s terrifying, in part, because you realize you are being lied to. That films have always lied to you, they’ve manipulated you into believing the world is one way, when it could not be. It could be anything. And this is the first time someone wants to say something about it.

The entire movie is claustrophobic, it feels trapped and frenetic and monstrous. The entire movie was shot on a single set in a basement that looks like the entire building could collapse at any moment. There are two actors, and if either of them were even slightly less talented the entire film would fall apart (and they are both marvellous, at points they’re both playing each role and in those moments the entire theatre goes quiet and you cannot even fathom who will break first.) By the end of the movie you just want them to get out of that basement, to feel any breeze of fresh air, to get out of that room and run away. And by the end they do. And in that scene, which I will not ruin for you (and you should watch this movie before someone else does) you aren’t sure you wanted them out after all.

You aren’t really sure of anything.

---
July, 2001

Arthur’s uncle signed him up for a scrapbooking class. He had silently surveyed Dr. Whitman’s list of suggested activities, crossing several off with long, grim lines for being too expensive (musical instruments, gardening, painting), or too dangerous (cooking, knitting (?), clothing design), not practical (singing, drama, dancing). He’d almost crossed off scrapbooking, except then he got to thinking about all those boxes of photographs, letters and bits and bobs that they had stored away in the loft, and how it might be nice to have someone be the family archivist. He’d also kept “typist.”

Merlin signed up for it shortly thereafter, thus Tuesday finding the both of them surrounded by cardstock and vellum, looking through magazines for “inspiration” and mostly just making fun of the ads (“Mulberry paper in a cardstock weight? Watch the kids honey, I’m going to go crop!”) and aimlessly cut out paper in long spirals and glued them to the scrapbooking page.

“Let it be a book, not only to remember events, but how you felt about them. Capture the entire moment.” The teacher said. “Find things besides photographs and movie stubs to keep with you. It’s scraps of your life, the bits that you’re free to cut away and make a quilt out of.” She didn’t really look at any of their pages and Arthur imagined you’d have to be pretty bored, or pretty boring, to teach scrapbooking. There were stamps and stickers, glitter and sequins, thread and fabric samples, strange-edged scissors, four different sorts of tape, glues, markers, crayons, pencils and rulers. Merlin started them on making a scrapbook for the survivors of some terrible, unnamed world-ending event, carefully cropping magazine ads and putting various headlines together like a jigsaw ransom note for the world.

Arthur was helping.

“Does this look balanced to you?” Merlin asked, holding up the two pages. “It’s a nice showcase of death, I think.”

Someone to the left was doing a page to their dog, someone else held up a page to a birthday party. Arthur hunched closer to Merlin and away from the pre-teens and the house-partners, not a single soul his age, and no one who looked even slightly interesting, at all. Merlin had worn a sundress to better fit in with the crowd, and also because it was hot and he’d just gotten a proper sunhat from the charity shop. One with a, as Merlin put it, “proper amount of ribbons. Which is all of them.” Arthur stayed firmly in his shapeless trousers and baggy t-shirt, because he didn’t want to be here. Some of the activities had sounded…fine… but none of the ones his uncle had approved of, and this. This was agonizing.

Scrapbooking wasn’t even a real art. It was just... it was like being a magpie of memories.

(“Memories are our most cherished possession,” the teacher had said, “they make us who we are. They create us. And scrapbooking is one of the best ways to hold on to and share those memories. We can’t ever let someone live our lives through us, but through this we can hopefully make it a little more clear what these things meant to us. It is representative and interpretative art combined together. It is the life lived and the life we wished we’d lived.”

“Or,” Merlin had said on the end of a breath, “we could put that effort into making a time machine.”

Someone had shushed them.)

“Can you cut me some black ribbon to border our cheerful memorial to untold amount of death?” Merlin asked, hunched over the paper with some glue and a snippet of something. Merlin would be deeply invested in this for one or two days, but then lose interest and the two of them would spend the rest of the three-week course poking each other and shuffling through class until this experiment was over with.

Arthur measured the length of ribbon and handed to Merlin, before putting his head in his hand and watching Merlin carefully smear a line of glue along the length of the ribbon before placing it down gently next to a carefully cropped and coloured picture of what had been a fashion model, probably, sure, maybe. He pressed his once-perfectly glossed lips together and considered the layout. “This side looks unbalanced, compared to the bloodstain over here. What do you think?”

Arthur stared at him and Merlin tugged at his ear. The teacher finally found her way to their corner, smiling at Merlin’s hat and he beamed up at her, all sunshine and…like…fucking poppies, or something. Good poppies, not Wizard of Oz poppies. She barely glanced at Arthur. “Now what do you have here, pumpkin?”

“Oh just a little speculative memory. Since I didn’t have any of my own photos or scraps I decided to make up something, so I—“

The teacher was scowling at them and put their layout down. “What is this?”

“Scrapbooking the apocalypse. I’m thinking a world plague, maybe. Or—“

“This isn’t a joke. Scrapbooking is something personal. It’s a way to collect what makes you the person you are.” She took their pages away and handed them new ones. “Don’t be afraid of yourselves. Don’t hide behind jokes. This is a chance to really get to know yourselves.”

She looked over Arthur again. “I want you to make separate pages, now. Show me something real, here. It doesn’t have to be personal, but something real. Okay? Can you do that for me?”

“I don’t have any scraps.” Merlin gestured.

“Then make the page and put the memorabilia on when you get home.” She said, raising an eyebrow. “You get out what you put in, if you put in nonsense, that’ll all you’ll go home with, okay?”

Arthur stared at her, and when she turned, he pasted some perfectly cut squares of cardstock over other coloured squares of cardstock, like he was making a poster for school. Merlin was scowling over his blank pages, because Merlin was really, actually, rubbish at being half-hearted. He was either all chips in, or folded out entirely. Arthur made the background a terrible looking rugby field, cut out some awful-lopsided rugby balls, and put the title “My First Game” on the top in ugly block letters. Merlin continued to scowl at his blank pages.

“Just make up something.”

Merlin looked at him from the corner of his eye and continued tapping the pattern-scissors. “It isn’t memory, it’s sterilization.” Merlin had his legs crossed at the ankle, he was sitting straight. Merlin slumped sometimes, when he wanted to appear smaller, or weaker, for whatever reason. Merlin had an appropriate amount of make-up on, and his hair might have been short, yes, but the one time he’d tried to grow it out, the being known as 2 AM Merlin (who was responsible for many terrible, terrible life choices) had shaved it all off and then Merlin had climbed in Arthur’s window to cry about it.

2 AM Merlin tended to make rash decisions, but equally had no ability to deal with them.

Merlin looked like a proper sub, he looked like he could fit in here, and most of the time that made Arthur feel. Well. The point was Merlin looked like he could fit in, but he did that because he liked to. He liked wearing sundresses, and he liked eyeliner, and he liked sun hats with ribbons. The problem was when people took in Merlin’s appearance and assumed his insides matched. And the inner workings of Merlin were not sunhats and rainbow stickers.

“Memory is hazy and messy and brutalized and we change it to adapt our environment. We make up stories to make memory make sense, and the stories are lies, but they’re real.” Merlin gestured disgustedly at someone painstakingly cutting out little flowers for the border of her page. “I can get how this could be a good thing. Like. Reminders to yourself to tell a good narrative, but it’s just…piecemeal. The good bits and none of the weird, strange parts that give it context.”

Merlin looked at his blank pages and when the time came—after Arthur had just gotten an absent nod and empty praise for his work— Merlin lifted his chin and showed them to the teacher, who stared him down.

“It’s okay if you need time to access yourself. Look through your memorabilia box, see what inspires you. I look forward to your contribution next time. Access yourself. Tap into what you really want.”

Merlin’s anger had a very different flavour to it than Arthur’s own did. There was a control to it, a sense of purpose, like a fire in a forge, rather than just…gone mad. Taking the whole house down. Merlin didn’t get angry often (or…at least Arthur didn’t think so, but he couldn’t really properly gauge that sort of thing.) but it was never…impotent. It wasn’t for long, ever. It was quickly submitted into what Arthur…it was…well. Plotting. Hard to explain how it felt on the inside, but it looked like a particular kind of calculation follow by Merlin going to his desk, fiddling with something or other and thinking.

Thinking of whether the anger was worth his time or not.

Thinking of what to do if it was.

Arthur’s anger flared up made him… shove over shelves and punch walls and scream and go quiet and…nothing ever was solved by it. Merlin’s anger was quickly taken up as a new Project. Arthur broke coloured pencils and shoved people’s faces into mud. Merlin would lay in wait, passing a ball from hand to hand, clicking through Internet pages, until had a typed out plan with an itemized list of supplies, diagrams, reconnaissance photographs and fuck knew what else. And then he’d think if it was worth putting into action. Thus far he had six folders in his file cabinet and none of them had been put into action.

He smiled at the teacher, sweet as pudding, and nodded, he and Arthur left, grabbing their bikes and Merlin fiddled with the lock for a bit too long, considering, before he took a deep breath and the anger just…slid out of him. Gone.

“How do you do that?” Arthur asked, holding onto his own bike. Merlin looked up and then back at his lock.

“I had it right there.” Merlin put the lock in his bag, sitting in that particular way he’d mastered just for biking in a dress. “One sentence. Just. One little sentence. She’s older, she is unbonded, she’s still teaching at a place like that, she’s up for several other classes. The page she showed us for an example was from six years ago.” Merlin tapped the bicycle handlebars and stared at nothing. “She’s passionate about this. It isn’t rote. When she talks about it, she cares. She has a memorabilia box. She thinks other people should care like she does.”

“And?”

Merlin kicked the pedal so it spun. “I can stop being angry when I know how I can hurt them. I don’t. I don’t need to do it. She isn’t a bad person. She just…cares, and we don’t. Nothing wrong with that. So I let it go.”

“And?”

Merlin looked at him and sighed. “I would have just said something. It’s nothing. Come on, we have time until we need to get back and I need something I can condense into a scrapbook page.”

“Said?”

Merlin made a face, looking up at Arthur, then down at his own feet. “You wouldn’t have such a fetish for making your life look interesting if you’d done anything worth actually remembering.”

Arthur sucked a breath through his teeth and Merlin shrugged and pushed off. “It’s easy, for me, to stop being angry once you know you could hurt them. The important part is to not do it.”

Arthur caught up with him with a few hard pushes and then glided forward. “Trying to tell me something?”

“Your anger is different. It isn’t.” Merlin thought for a bit as they turned a hard corner and veered around a man tying his shoe. “When I get angry it makes me think about how to get even, you know? I want to hurt them, and once I know I can, I’m fine. Your anger just kind…turns you into a grunting caveman?” Merlin smiled and shoved a bubble of affection at him so Arthur wouldn’t take it personally. “They’re Hulk-outs, like we’ve always said. You go from mild mannered Arthur Eigyrson to a great big giant red rage monster.”

“Red?”

“If you can name a single day in the last, like, five years when you haven’t worn something red, I will buy you an ice cream with flake.”

Arthur looked down at himself. He did own a lot of red.

“Anyways, Hulk doesn’t stop being angry. He smashes stuff until he tires himself out, or, like, Betty shows up and Bruce Banner comes back. It’s this big, huge, gamma-irradiated monster that just wants to destroy all the things, and it doesn’t stop until all the things are gone and he gets tired and goes down for a nap.”

They waited at the crossroad.

Merlin punched Arthur’s shoulder. “Betty could calm down Bruce, but she wasn’t his soulmate.” He said and Arthur looked over. Merlin smiled, crooked, lovely and perfectly familiar. Arthur punched his arm back and they raced home.

---
“The thematic similarities between The Girl Who Could Not Laugh and La Belle et La Bete is of course the fact that their modus operandi, their central conflict, centers around humankind’s essential nature—zer being which elevates zer above the Beasts is broken. This theme—corresponding with Arne-Thompson motif 46B—Transformation (physical or metaphysical) into the beastial.

With the Bete in La Belle et La Bete this transformation is both physical and metaphysical, the Bete is made to take on the beastial outer form to match zer inner nature. The fairy—here clearly an allegory for society—condemns the submissive the Beast once was for her transgressive sexuality. In many such stories, the beastial is a stand in for non-dynamic-normative relations. The rose motif in many adaptations of this story is in fact a representation of Belle herself—a stand in for zer soul mate. The Bete guards zer roses jealousy, but has no use for them zerself, an example of what the Bete needs, but is too animalistic to properly receive. Belle is similarly unbalanced—since the Beast is effectively ‘blocking’ their bond by being inhuman, a symbol, of course, of his non-dynamic tendencies, and thus it is up to her to act as a guiding force for what is right and correct in terms of their, eventually shared, sexuality. La Belle et La Bete is thus about Belle’s struggle to conquer her own transgressive nature (that is of a person with no soulmate, and thus being an abject persona from society) and the Bete’s inhuman wildness and implicit degradation of proper and safe sexuality and—in demanding the Bete’s submission, and proving the worth of her own dominance, she brings about the Bete’s return to humanity and order.

Similarly in The Girl Who Could Not Laugh the Princess’s ability to laugh stands in for her dynamism. She cannot laugh—a basic human impulse—she cannot access her own sexuality, and thus, needs to be guided into adulthood. Here, rather than a beastial wildness, non-dynamism is represented as a form of death or dearth; this association is more common in primitive cultures, who give far more credence to animalistic qualities than Western culture, which favors the bestial identity as a demonstration of the monstrous. The boy who made the girl laugh by parading in front of her tower with a goose on his head and a parade of beings attached to him was in fact her soulmate, bringing with him the part of herself she was missing, performing for her so she would correct her transgressive behaviour—”
William Wattson “Non-Dynamism And Transgressive Sexuality As Exemplified In Western And Non-Western Fairy Tales” in The New Princeton Folklore Review.

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September, 2011
Merlin threw the book he was reading across the room. Percy’s dog leapt from Percy’s lap and scurried across the floor to bark at it, hopping on her little, stumpy legs around the spread book. Percy was the biggest human being Arthur had ever met, and he owned the absolutely tiniest dog, because his second cousin’s new flat didn’t allow dogs, and Percy was the kind of man who would take his second cousin’s corgidoodle…thing… without a second thought, and carry her in the same bedazzled carrier she’d always rode around in, because he “doesn’t want to upset her.”

Percy was the kind of human being who would help you move into your new flat even if you’d moved six times that year, the new place didn’t have a lift, and it’s on the top floor, without even asking for pizza or anything. Percy had once been in a bank robbery and talked the robbers out of a hostage situation by just being himself, and then hugged them until the police arrived. True story.

Percy was a disturbingly nice fellow, but he was still the biggest bloke since the beginning of time and Merlin sort of…found reasons to sit in his lap and squeeze his muscles a little sometimes.

Arthur had told Merlin to date Percy, because Percy was exactly Merlin’s preference of Big, and—possibly—the nicest person on earth (Percy had, in real life, nursed a bag of near-drowned, unweaned kittens back to health. He’d stayed up all night, feeding them milk in tiny little drips from his finger, kept them warm and told them bedtime stories until they could eat kitten food, then he’d worn out his shoe leather for six weeks. Which had been decently easy for Percy because he had a lot of friends. True, goddamn, fucking story.) Merlin had kind of scrambled at the sheets a lot and come everywhere. They might have been having sex at the time.

But Merlin didn’t, because Arthur might actually get jealous of Percy (even if his name was actually Percival Jerome Damian William Evan Kinsley Witticker The III, of those Wittickers and his family was so posh it hurt to look at them.)

“Terrible?” Arthur asked from where he and Freya were once again trying to destroy each other in Mario Kart.

So terrible.” Merlin buried his face in his hands. “I couldn’t even get through the first three paragraphs and I read academic articles for fun. He switches languages for no reason, and he calls non-Western cultures ‘primitive’ and, like, non-objective judgement is just dripping from every word.” Merlin scrubbed his face. “A folklorist’s place isn’t to judge, it is to collect, correlate, study, synthesize and present. No folklore is objectively better or worse than anyone else’s and…” Merlin made several pained noises, so Percy’s dog scampered across the room at full tilt and ran right into Merlin’s leg, because Percy’s dog doesn’t know how stopping works. She then barked until Merlin picked her up and buried his face in her tiny, tiny, tiny body.

“It is the absolute worst.”

“Don’t read it, then.” Arthur dropped a bomb and it caught one of the A.I.’s as he sped around one of Freya’s banana peels. Freya hums Queen in response.

“Homework.” Merlin grumbled and then flopped in Percy’s lap; because Arthur was busy playing Mario Kart. You didn’t interrupt Mario Kart. “I have to type up a one page write up on it and everything and I can’t just yell about how stupidly dense and pretentious it is.”

Percy hugged Merlin, because Percy had, by now, picked up on the fact that Merlin was most comfortable when he was being sort of maybe crushed a little bit. Merlin made more disgusted noises into Percy’s chest. “Like, when I say transgressive sexuality, I also make sure to point out that it is perceived transgressive sexuality as according to either contextual or contemporary societal norms, don’t I?”

“You do.” Elyan agreed, because he was used to agreeing with crazy monologues made by brunets.

“And if something is judgemental, it should be the folk narrative itself. Like…any variant of the Maiden With No Hands fairy tale tends to be about some form of perceived transgressive sexuality. Like incest, or same-dynamic relationships.”

“Or the devil.” Arthur said.

“He tends to stand in for incest, kind of, it’s a thing. Also same-dynamic, as the devil is often characterized as submissive, because of course ze is. That’s a different thing. Anyways. The point is, if the folk narrative is judgemental, that’s fine. But you, as folklorist, analyze that judgement and contextualize it and whatever you don’t cast your own…” Merlin banged his head against Percy’s shoulder. “I want wine. I want a whole bottle of wine and then fire. But not in the wine.”

“Gwen is hoarding the first in the kitchen, the second is always a thing that can happen.” Freya offered, eyes trained on the screen as she busted through the finish line on the final lap. She threw her controller in the air and caught it in victory. “I am the Mushroom Kingdom version of Drive. All shall look upon my mighty works and despair.”

“Look upon my works ye mighty and--” Merlin started to correct.

“No. No.” She pointed at him. “No. Go get your wine.”

“Percy, carry me into the kitchen.”

Percy did, because he was Percy, and Merlin weighed, roughly, a stone. Percy once dove into traffic to save a kid and their dog (who had, zeself, dove into traffic to chase a plastic bag) and hadn’t even given his name, so the kid (who’d been wearing a Superman shirt) would think superheroes were real. True story.

Arthur fell backwards onto the carpet. “Elyan, entertain your fiancée, I’m tired of losing.”

“Do you want her to plan this wedding?” Elyan looked back down at his folders. “Because, I’ll give you a hint: it will be the worst wedding.”

Freya smiled upside down at him. “I love you.”

Elyan smiled and bent over until he could kiss her raised wrist, then went back to looking at his giant wedding binder. Gwen was helping, some, and Freya had promised to show up, look nice and only kiss him when she was allowed and not to yell at anyone over anything, especially Gwen and Elyan’s father.

Arthur and Merlin had a joint save-the-date, since Merlin wasn’t exactly going to bring any of his hook-ups to a wedding and Arthur…didn’t…have…hook-ups. Merlin had tried to help with the wedding, but he’d helped in the same way a toddler tried to help clean, and eventually they’d just put him in charge of organizing the RSVPs and keeping a spreadsheet of everyone’s dinner choices and if they were bringing a guest, denoting family groups, and who was from what side of the wedding party. Merlin had a folder for it.

Arthur had been put in charge of showing up, combing his hair, dancing at least once, and making sure Merlin didn’t drink anything and start making kinship charts. (“Weddings are anthropological!” Merlin had defended. “The world increasingly needs anthropology: now we are exploring who why and how we be people. The difference between us is not so much. Tell me your story: your piece of what is humanity.” Merlin had started singing. Merlin sang the Anthropology Song by Daionisio when threatened. He was like an angry songbird in this way.)

“I’m making brownies!” Merlin shouted from the kitchen. “Do we have opinions on these brownies?”

“Bourbon!” Freya and Elyan yelled.

“No nuts.” Arthur added.

Percy’s dog barked so she could feel included and then flopped her tongue out and smiled at the room. Arthur patted her awkwardly, so clearly they were best friends and it was her duty to drool on his knee.

“Why are we making brownies?”

“Gwen’s got cramps.” Merlin called back. Percy returned, holding a Gwen, who was--in turn-- holding onto a glass of wine for dear life. Freya immediately got up and flopped all over her, because apparently she had decided she’d married both siblings when she got the one.

“Poor dove.” Freya crooned and Percy shifted so both of them could sit on him like he was just particularly warm armchair. “You’ll have brownies soon. Merlin, make them disgustingly fudgy.”

“There’s twelve ounces of chocolate in one batch.” Merlin called back. “And a pound of butter.”

“Good.” Freya slid to the ground and took one of Gwen’s feet in her hand, moving to a spot over her ankle and rubbing up until Gwen made a tiny pained noise. “There we go.”

Freya gave terrible backrubs, as such things went, because she was morally against making people relax. She just dug into a pressure point and attacked until her mission was accomplished. It got the job done most of the time, she could get a muscle cramp tamed properly, but it wasn’t ever pleasant. Every time Gwen was brought low by an unruly internal organ, Freya worked on that spot on her leg until it practically bruised but it did the job and after three days of that, brownies and much gentler Merlin-lower-back rubs, Gwen was up and waltzing Merlin around the living room.

Merlin made a distressed noise from the kitchen.

“Don’t eat the unsweetened baking chocolate until there’s sugar in it.”

“But it looks like real chocolate.” Merlin mourned as he clanged about a bit, humming to himself. “On a scale of bourbon, from eh, bourbon to in that moment I swear we were bourbon how much bourbon are we talking about?”

Gwen made another distressed noise.

“Holy fuck bourbon it is.” Merlin said and Arthur rolled up to his feet to check on him. Merlin was usually pretty decent in the kitchen, ever since the Great Food Epiphany which ended up in Merlin making, roughly, all the cookies. But sometimes he got…liberal, with recipes. “These shall be Better Get A Spoon Because We Aren’t Messing Around Here Bourbon Brownies.” Merlin said as he sifted flour, salt, and cocoa into a mixing bowl.

Arthur looked at the door and then carefully put his chin on Merlin’s shoulder, fitting his hands to Merlin’s hips and inhaling the sharp, acidic scent of unsweetened cocoa and Merlin’s faintly-vanilla scent that he always got after a long study session.

(“There’s a chemical in paper that’s a close relative to vanilla, and as the book ages it breaks down and releases the scent, which is why they smell so good.” “So basically everyone in Silence In The Library was harbouring an abject longing for pound cake along with the soul-bending terror.” “They seriously could have just dropped some ham down in there. They’re shadow piranhas. They want meat. They don’t care. Get one of the creepy wants-to-be-eaten meat dudes from The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe and they’ll be all ‘oh hello shadow, how are you? I have delicious hindquarters’ aahhh.” “Did you distress yourself?” “They want to be eaten. And maybe that’s better than animals that don’t want to be eaten, but ahhhh… I need a milkshake. I need six milkshakes.”)

“How was your day?” Arthur kept his voice quiet, eyes on the door.

“Good.” Merlin rolled his head back and sighed. “Hate my Narrative class, the professor took an instant dislike to me, and I don’t think it’ll improve since I hate every single article assigned so far. He’s one of those folklorists that think the folk are mountainous aboriginal people completely isolated from all effects of globalization whose language we haven’t even translated. To him the folk are other, and the folk aren’t other. We are the folk: the folk are us.”

“Mmm.” Arthur said as Merlin put the sifter aside and began whisking the granulated and brown sugar into the chocolate. He, of course, then immediately took a scoop of that and licked it off his finger, humming to himself with one of his disgustingly precious little smiles.

“You?”

“Jigsaw broke again.” Arthur helped Merlin crack eggs into the chocolate as Merlin stirred. “Four people dropped out of my beginner class, but the rest look like they’ll stay on. A few because their parents are making them, but it’s still money. The more advanced class is all retired hobbyists who want to make rocking horses for their grandkids and sort of take a dim view on my age.”

“How long until the jigsaw is up again?” Merlin poured an entire fist of bourbon into the batter with a smile, and the faint vanilla smell intensified.

“I’m going in tomorrow to fix it.” Arthur took over for mixing once Merlin had put the flour in. Arthur was basically Merlin’s stand mixer. He stood. He mixed things. He didn’t take up counter space.

Merlin put parchment paper in the pan and greased it. A truly, properly, fudge-y brownie had to be basically airlifted out of the pan, and, of course, eaten with a spoon. If you could cut your brownie with a knife, something had gone wrong, in Merlin’s opinion.

“Early?”

“I thought to get up the same time as you, we could take the bus together.” Arthur stepped back when Merlin poured the batter into the pan, and then scraped the leftovers into another bowl with a spoon, dumping whipped cream and sprinkles on top. He looked at the door and kissed Arthur’s cheek, before delivering the batter-and-cream unto the woeful Gwen, as Arthur stuck the pan in the preheated oven and closed the door. He set the timer, because Merlin never remembered to set a goddamn timer and then made distressed noises when things, then, burned.

Someone turned on the telly proper and Arthur peeked out again. Stray and Robin were on screen and Arthur flopped down next to the tangle of Merlin, Freya, Gwen, Percy, and Percy’s dog (sitting victoriously on the back of the chair and smiling down at all of them) since Elyan was in a sea of table arrangements and flowers.

They were halfway through an episode of Batman: The New Animated Series. Gwen made a happier noise around her whipped cream brownie batter sprinkle monstrosity, as Merlin rubbed her lower back and Freya kept working on that particular pressure point. “Seriously, just shove it off on him.”

Gwen sighed. “You tell me that every month, and I tell you every month that he’s still on suppressants.”

“And every month I tell you that the second he’s not you just dump everyone on him because he deserves it. I shove half of mine on Elyan.” Freya pointed. “It’s his fault they’re so bad, let him suffer a little.”

On the screen Stray and Robin were facing down, Stray flipping out of the way of Robin’s staff attack and smiling over his bag of stolen gems. ”Now, now little bird. Don’t you know it’s the cat who catches the Robin?”

“Or, vamp vamp vamp, vamp, vamp vamp, I have diamonds, look how pretty I am.” Freya filled in.

“I like Stray.” Merlin said. “He’s super precious. Like, the first Animated Series added Harley Quinn, so of course the new series is going to give a supervillian a new sidekick.”

“Is The Cat really a supervillian, though?” Freya asked. “She just kind of wants to steal stuff. She doesn’t want to kill anyone, or destroy Gotham, or take over anything. She just rolls into town when some cat related expensive thing is around and rolls out again. That’s just sort of run-of-the-mill villainy with cat ears, if you think about it.”

“Also to fill Bruce Wayne with way too much sexual tension.” Merlin pressed down into the pads of Gwen’s spine. “Like, he confuses people about his gender through…radar…bat-signal stuff, but Bruce Wayne is a sub. Which is why the Jason thing? Super creepy. Dick Grayson? Sub, worked for the Teen Titans. Tim Drake? Sub. Worked for Young Justice. Jason Todd? Dom and worked with no one ever he’s mine, my precious.” Merlin switched to a terrible rendition of a Gollum voice and Gwen snorted. “And then the Joker kills him and Bruce has, like, a complete mental breakdown, enough that Tim Drake is like: honey. Sweetie. I know you were already coo-coo-bananas, but now you’re cotton-room, bughouse crazy and you need a Robin. Go talk to Dick. And eventually Batman is just like No, You! because Heaven forbid he talk about feelings with anyone. So The Cat rolls around and she doesn’t know what gender the Batman is, but by god, she’s going to go for it.”

Robin said something that they talk over that basically boils down to “You are pretty, but you need to give back to the diamonds for the Mission and Justice and the Mission, justice, justice, justice.”

“Is this the episode when the weird Black Bat, Stray, Robin love triangle starts?” Elyan looked up.

“It’s not a love triangle if Stray just wants to steal all pretty people and keep them all to himself.” Merlin said, watching Stray do a double backflip in his heels and smile at Robin before leaping off the roof. Robin runs forward and Stray has already bounced across far too many rooftops to catch up with, and fades into the background animation. “That’s how Stray’s love interests work. He wants to keep all the pretty things and he and the Cat can cuddle up in a giant kitten pile of leather and money and actual cats while they plan how to keep Batman and whichever Robin all to themselves. But no, the episode where that starts is later this season when Stray actually kidnaps Robin. He doesn’t unmask him or anything, Stray just wants to keep him chained up in a little bird cage.”

“Right.” Elyan looked at the screen a moment, before shaking his head.

“I love this show.” Freya sighed. “Though I regret that this Robin gets pants. He’s just so tiny and precious and vicious.”

“Can you not ogle animated teenagers while I plan our wedding?” Elyan asked, mildly. Freya shrugged and gestured at Robin climbing onto his far too big motorcycle to report back to Batman.

“Fair enough. And I find it hilarious that Jason Todd didn’t get pants. Don’t care if you’re a dom: No Pants For You.” Elyan said, biting on the end of his pen. “When did they reboot Bruce Wayne into a sub?”

“Around the time they decided he needed to be all dark and broody and tortured.” Merlin said, and he probably knew the exact storyline and title of the series, but then they’d be here all day. “It added pathos that he was a sub who was trying to be a dom, and also gave the world a good reason why people wouldn’t catch on that Bruce Wayne was Batman, because clearly Brucie Wayne is just the helpless but business minded, philanthropic, submissive heir to the family fortune and Batman is a terrifying dominant who comes down from the skies to wreak justice. And now I’ve reminded myself of Scarlet O’Hara. One of the Cat’s costumes was basically a green evening dress and I sort of cried into my pillow in confused frustration.”

Merlin took the dipping wine glass from a snoozing Gwen and nuzzled her temple. They watched with only occasional commentary (“These locks have been broken!” “The World’s Greatest Detective, folks!”) while Freya and Elyan snipped back and forth about the wedding (“Should the plates be white or cream? White looks more classic, but the cream sort of ties in with the orange and brown theme we have.” “I think I honestly don’t care as long as they are delivered with food.” “Pick something to pretend to care about. Just. Just one thing. You didn’t even care what I wore to the ceremony.” “Honey, wear whatever makes you feel pretty.” “But can you just have an opinion?”)

“Merlin, do your homework.”

“No, I want to analyze superheroes for the rest of the day.” Merlin whined.

“Do you want to stay up all night reading a terrible paper?” Arthur asked.

Merlin huffed and made a gesture to the book. “Force powers!”

Arthur sighed and rolled over, picked up the book and handed it over to Merlin, who glowered at it and slipped down to the ground so Arthur could take over rubbing Gwen’s lower back. It was understood that whenever anyone was feeling particularly rubbish, it was everyone else’s job to spoil them senseless, because at some point they spoiled you senseless, and it was only fair.

When Arthur had one of those vicious can’t-be-shaken colds, Gwen had made him chicken soup with big hunks of white meat and big spiral noodles, with thyme dumplings and thick cut carrots, celery and onions, with chicken stock she’d boiled down herself because Gwen was committed when she made soup.

The timer went off and Elyan got them, because he was the only one who wouldn’t need a quarter of an hour to remove himself from a tangle of limbs, nor would he cause Percy’s dog to start helpfully barking.

“Is this done?” He held up the pan. Merlin poked the edges and then the centre. “Grab-eth the spoons, Sir Elyan!” Merlin announced, and they all got teaspoons, except for Gwen who got a soup ladle and she scooped in right at the middle, where the brownie was gooiest and dumped it into her bowl with a satisfied grunt. Elyan flopped down next to them when Freya grabbed his hand. “I need to plan the wedding.”

“You need to snuggle your fiancé and watch cartoons with her, is what you need to do.”

Elyan sighed and rested his head on her shoulder and she smiled quietly, the two of them holding hands and looking happy and complete for a moment. Merlin rested his head against Arthur’s knee and made grumbling noises as he continued to page through his article and make notes in his notebook, most of which involved, to some degree the thesis: “This is the absolute worst.”

They watched another episode, letting it roll by without comment. It was a good show, well animated, with actual professional martial artists and film fight choreographers on staff to help with the fight scenes, and writers who’d grown up with the original Batman: The Animated Series, paying tribute, but also letting it actually grow and develop. Hopefully they wouldn’t change the animation halfway through to be more like some other show, because the sudden shift in the original series was still really disconcerting. Most of the original voice actors came back on again to reclaim their parts without missing a beat. Merlin had basically died a little when they’d announced it, and spent the next six months waiting for it going “Please don’t suck, please don’t suck, please, please, please don’t suck.” and re-watching the entire first run like he needed it to live.

Gwen shifted and Percy took over, kneading with one huge hand and she flopped on top of Arthur, snuggling in for a nap and Arthur took her empty bowl and put it on the top of the bookcase so Percy’s dog wouldn’t try and eat it and basically immediately die from chocolate poisoning.

Arthur closed his eyes and rested it against Percy’s arm, because Percy was good for that sort of thing, and while Arthur wasn’t a big…lap…sitter, but that was just sort of what Percy was for. You sat him down in a library to go find a book, you’d come back and he’d just be…like…covered in babies. He would be absolutely dripping which children, all of whom were just sort of climbing on him, or reading, or doing whatever, because that was just who Percy was.

And that was what was important about this particular group of people. They just sort of…had things about them and everyone else accepted it. Gwen had her whole…tragic…love interest thing going on, Percy was basically a superhero, Freya would kill a person over a really intense game of Cluedo, but was otherwise fine, Elyan had been a teenage runaway and tended to just sort of vanish for a day or three at a time for no real known reason, Leon was loyal as a goddamn dog to the worst sorts of people, and Arthur and Merlin were. Well. Themselves. And everyone was just…fine with it. They fit in here, as much as they fit in anywhere, and yes they had to lie about it, but…

“Merlin, I feel drunk.” Gwen mumbled. “How much bourbon was in those brownies?”

Merlin smiled at her, upside down and she snorted and shoved her hand in his face, shaking him back and forth and he laughed.

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While some pre-gendered children present very strongly in favour of one gender or another, this should be considered indicative of nothing more than the preferred interests of your child. There is nothing inherently dominating about sports, vehicles, noises, or physical activities. A pre-gendered sub may enjoy the order and rules of a after-school sports team, or the child, regardless of their eventual gender, may simply have a naturally high energy level. There isn’t anything inherently submissive about creativity, an interest in beauty, or activities that allow for nurturing. A pre-gendered dom may still enjoy playing with dolls as ze wishes to have children with zer partner and start a family. Developmental psychologist Dr. Harry Chen argues that “[D]om’s, if anything, are more naturally nurturing and attentive because they wish to take care of their sub, which is an aspect often forgotten by society as a whole[i].” Or, as human sexuality expert Dr. Yolanda Reynolds states “a submissive is someone who chooses whom to submit to and how they wish to do so. It is not that they are overwhelmed by a dominant natural charisma and simply fall to their knees. It takes planning and deliberation, and above all, a great deal of self-knowledge and agency to do so. It is well known fact of well-established couples that the best scene is the one that takes the needs of the submissive and puts them above the needs of the dominant partner. It is unwise—and even dangerous— to pretend that it should, at all, be otherwise.”

It is with this in mind that you should give your child the skills necessary to live as a whole person until ze finds zer fiancée, regardless of how you feel your child will develop. We have no idea when your child will find zer after all, and thus they need to enter the world with a balanced set of skills and a stable sense of self. Every adult should be able to cook for and clean after zer self. Every adult should be able to put forward and express zer needs, opinions, and wants. Every adult should be able to empathize with others, should be able to walk with confidence in zerself instead of holding back out of some outdated social protocol. These are skills that are never wasted—a dom may decide to pamper zer sub by cooking a nice meal for their anniversary. A sub needs to know how to protect themselves—emotionally and physically— in a crisis. A switch needs to learn zerself, and needs the strong foundation of a good home and supportive family to find this.

In order to be that family, be supportive of your child’s interests, establish clear rules for your child early (such as reasonable bedtimes, noise curfews, and times when homework should be completed), and then enforce those rules. As your child gets older allow zer more freedom, so that ze knows what to do with said freedom before ze goes out into the world, but equally give a bigger sense of responsibility to temper that freedom (the use of the family car may come with a need for a job to pay for gas, a later curfew comes with a responsibility to always tell you, the parent, where they will be.) Give your child age-appropriate chores so they understand being part of a family means that the work of the house is shared, but don’t burden zer so much ze has no downtime to play. Remember that play is important; play allows the child to learn and contextualize lessons, as well as giving the child downtime to process information gained that day. Play is how a child discovers zer world and who ze is in response to it. Play, regardless of gendered stereotypes of said playthings, is absolutely vital to the healthy development of any child.

I recommend involving your child in games that engages the child—creatively, physically, etc. While video games (especially educational ones, or ones that invite a child to explore more about a subject even if the game itself is not instructional) have their place, children need to play without clear direction. Sports are of course useful both as social institutions, and physical exercises, and if your child shows an interest in them, by all means encourage it (but never attempt to force a child into any activity they hate. Trying new things is one thing, but a continued march, week after week to tennis practice or ballroom lessons will not make your child the genius prodigy the movies said they would) but ‘play pretend’ is, quite simply, the most vital and useful game for development of varied skills. Playing pretend is how you child sets zer own limits and experiences zer own mind. Ze can recreate books that you read together the night before (and I cannot stress the importance of reading together enough), ze can deal with things that have stressed zer or frightened zer (many children who have dealt with the loss of one or more parents simulate funerals with their playthings to try and make death something they can contextualize and control[ii]).

The best way to encourage your child to exercise zer creativity is to give zer space and time in which to do so. Of course this space should be a safe space, which you can monitor, but it should also be a space the child feels free within. Toys that can act as props (such as old garments, pots and pans, etc), are more useful than toys that seek to do the playing for the child. Fun is something that is made, entertainment is something that is made for them, and any child—if they are to grow to be functional adults—must learn how to make their own fun.

--Misha Schlovsky “The Importance of Play” Parenting Psychology Vol 2. Issue 26 pgs 54-78.

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July, 2001
His uncle didn’t even bother to ask how the scrapbooking class went. Arthur just came home and he printed some pictures off on the free photo paper his printer had come with. The photos were too dark and alien looking, but he waited for them to dry, put them on the pages and left them somewhere where his aunt could find them and make what she would out of it. Then he had homework, because after school classes were basically the definition of a recursive waste of time, he stared down at his maths book and tapped his pen against his notebook before shoving it away and staring up at the ceiling, then sighing and going back to it, flopping along the desk and writing out the problem, and working it out to, at least, a solution.

The day Arthur got out of school forever would be the happiest day of both his and the educational system’s lives. At least no one had sent him to boarding school yet. Yet. Arthur dropped his head to his desk. Merlin had read him a lot of books. Not that he couldn’t read, but…he sort of couldn’t. Or. He could read, but it fell right out of his head, just…scattered apart. Merlin had read him a lot of books, and nobody liked school for long. It wasn’t learning, nobody hated learning. Everyone had interests. Merlin would hunch over research until he fell asleep right there at his desk, because he was interested. I was just…learning was something you did. Education was something done to you. And there wasn’t a single thing in this world that was better forced than it was voluntary. A tattoo you picked—even if you regretted it later—was yours. Waking up with a tattoo someone else put on you? Yeah.

Arthur stared at the books.

And they say they did it to help you. Like surgery with no prior warning, just in, out, oh look we left a scalpel, look you have to heal for a few years, look, you’re never going to walk properly again, look, you can get angry or you can move on, okay kid? Education was the mind killer. Merlin’s school was all about guided learning, figuring out what you were interested in and expanding beyond it. The physics of roller coasters, the merit of whatever book series you were already reading, the science of baking—that sort of thing. Help when you needed it. Not…a forced march through bullshit which you wouldn’t ever use purely out of spite.

If he didn’t get more problems done by the time Aunt Rebecca showed up she was going to bring it up in therapy tomorrow.

It was disgusting how much time you wished would just pass already. Youth wasn’t wasted on the young, it was wasted by the old who wished they were young, so instead they lived through you to give you a good future and…

Solve for x.

*
Every therapy session began with his aunt and uncle going into the room before him, talking for however long while Arthur drank a bottle of water, and then coming out so Dr. Whitman could do whatever repairs his aunt and uncle thought were needed based on his last week of behaviour.

Arthur then went in, handed over his, as Merlin put it “Feelings Diary of Bullshit Feelings That I Am Totally Feeling.” He tells him about the class. Shows him the layouts. Merlin calls this the “Three Ring Circus Of Look How Totally Fine I Am!”

“Merlin was there?” Dr. Whitman asked, when it came up.

“Yeah, he signed up after I told him that I did.” Arthur picked at some dried, loose skin around his nail. “Why?”

Dr. Whitman sighed. “Arthur. The point of this exercise is for you to explore yourself. You need to get in touch with yourself and stop distancing your actions from your inclinations.”

“I am!” Arthur defended. “I went to the class, I did what I was told. It was boring, but I did it.”

“But you brought Merlin.” Dr. Whitman corrected. “The idea was for you to go out and do things on your own. To experience them by yourself, and connect with how you felt. And, perhaps, should the occasion arise, make new friends.”

“I don’t need new friends. Everyone in that class is either too young or too old for me.” Arthur defended. “He’s been with me since I was three. We. We survived this long, and we’re not going to just…stop because my Uncle doesn’t think he’s suitable.”

“I didn’t mention your uncle.”

“He’s the only reason I’m here.” Arthur gestured around them. “He’s the one who hates Merlin. You don’t need to mention him for me to know what this is about. I tried to do scrapbooking. It was boring. Merlin is staying.”

Dr. Whitman bridged his fingers and stared at Arthur. “I am aware the two of you are very close. I am happy you have such a strong bond with him.” Arthur didn’t flinch. He just stared at the table and didn’t touch anything. “But you are growing up. You’ve said before that you have very different interests. You go to different schools. As you age you’ll have less time for one another.”

“We’ll make time.” Arthur clenched his jaw. “We’ve made time before. He just joined the class to keep me company.”

“You need a larger network of friends.” Dr. Whitman stated, quietly. “You’re using Merlin like a crutch, so you don’t have to go out and do anything new, or meet anyone, and I think you feel trapped by it. I think you know this, and that’s why you get angry.”

“I don’t feel trapped.” Arthur crossed his arms. “Not by Merlin. I--”

“But you feel trapped by something?” Dr. Whitman pressed.

“School. My Aunt and Uncle. Just. Merlin isn’t the problem. He is my friend.” Arthur clenched and unclenched his fists. “Isn’t this the point? To get me in touch with my more submissive qualities, and Merlin is a submissive too. He wears sundresses and make-up and he talks about doms, for fuck’s sake.”

“And are those the qualities you most associate with being submissive, Arthur?”

“Well you gave me a long list of submissive activities. All good house-partner things, all about keeping quiet and out of the way.” Arthur rubs his jaw and paced over to the window, because if he looked at Dr. Whitman any longer he was going to throw something at him. “From what Uncle Tristan tells me, I’m too loud, I run around too much, I do not have the qualities that benefits my dominant.” Arthur and his uncle don’t talk much.

His Aunt tended to try. She sat them both down, offered activities, but his Uncle was…traditional. His Aunt wasn’t. She didn’t keep him at her side, on his knees, she didn’t have him stay several steps behind her when they go out. But he still looked at Arthur like he was put together out of scrap-box pieces and didn’t belong in the house. Had Arthur been a dom he’d be fine, his Uncle would have let him run rampant, because that was just what doms did. But he wasn’t. And he should be. And he should be, and that was what made him feel the most trapped. When all those wants inside of himself that clamoured to the surface and he didn’t… He wanted them and he didn’t want to, and it would just be better if he were different. He could do all the things he liked, and he could be with Merlin without it being perverse and...

Arthur rested his head against the glass. “So isn’t having a submissive friend good for me?”

Dr. Whitman was silent for a moment. “Having a fellow submissive is good and healthy, provided they are a good influence on you. Is Merlin a good influence on you?”

“Yes.” Arthur grit his teeth. “My uncle doesn’t like him, but my uncle doesn’t like anybody. I don’t know what he’s said.”

“This isn’t about your uncle, Arthur. This is about what you think.” Dr. Whitman corrected.

“It is about my uncle and my aunt. They’re the reason why I’m here. They’re the ones who are paying you. It’s up to them whether we stay here or find another psych. They decide when I’m better. So yes, this is about my uncle and don’t pretend I’m too stupid to know that. He’s the one who hates Merlin. He doesn’t like how loud he is anymore than he likes how active I am.” Arthur grit his teeth.

“You’re looking angry, Arthur. Do you need a cool down time?” Dr. Whitman placated and Arthur could feel his nostrils flaring like he was a bull.

“I don’t need a cool down time. I need you to talk to me like a person.” Arthur squared his shoulders. “That is the problem. I would be fine, you know? I would be fine if people could just... talk to me. Instead of telling me what to do like I should just bow my head-- my Uncle and Aunt treating me like I’m not good enough because I turned out a sub instead of a dom...and if I’d been a dom they’d just be fine with me, and that’s-” Arthur inhaled sharply. “I don’t need to be here.”

“Arthur, you need to sit down and take a moment.” Dr. Whitman held up a hand and gestured to a chair.

“Merlin is my friend and if you’re saying I shouldn’t be friends with him, because my uncle doesn’t think he’s right for me. And the only reason I’m here is because...and.” Arthur stopped being able to get words out. He just. He wanted to punch Dr. Whitman. Or throw the table or just. Run and not come back and it was too hot and his skin was too tight and he couldn’t think. He couldn’t think he was just angry and he was on his feet and-

It didn’t so much rush out of him as get tackled down with a rush of… something. Something not-anger and it gave him enough time to inhale, exhale, drop his hand and swallow.

Dr. Whitman looked unperturbed and stared up at Arthur. “All I am attempting to say, is that as much as you don’t want to admit it, someday you and Merlin will go separate ways, and you need to be prepared for it.”

Arthur turned to the door and left, anger just barely held back by the rush of Merlin’s… existence, basically. No finesse, no specificity, Merlin had just shoved everything he had at Arthur and it’s. Arthur could drown in it, if he wanted. He did want, actually, kind of to just lose himself entirely. Because he couldn’t get therapy if he’d just been made wrong, or broken somewhere along the way... It’s-- it’s not something anyone could solve. Not something he wanted solved, really. Merlin was his.

Arthur ran off and away until he found a bench parked in some little corner of nothing. He sat, dug his hands through his hair. Tried to keep breathing. He didn’t come up for air for a long, long time. Just let himself drown.

---
Pavi Of The Chopped Off Hands

There was once a king who loved his Wife with all of heart, soul and obedience, and under Her firm, loving hand, and under his supporting, careful consideration, their rulership flourished. Their fields were fat with crops, their people well fed and cared for, no other rulerships encroaching upon their territory, for though they were a small and wealthy rulership, God blessed them, and none dared throw their armies against Zer might.

And so it was that the Queen blessed the king with a child, a son they named Pavi, a child who was as lovely as daylight, and as sweet as a night breeze after a hot summer day. He was a blessed child, with eyes and hair just like his father’s and a smile and heart as good and pure as his Mother’s. The king and Queen loved their boy and when he came of age, dressed him in fine fabrics and precious jewels, allowing him every luxury and sitting up at night to listen to the sweet, perfect noises he made of his harp. He was a much loved prince, and all who saw him could not help but love his beautiful features, but more, his faithful and unwavering heart, that helped the ill and broke for the sinful.

It was then, however, that the Queen fell ill. The king called for the greatest healers, the strongest mages and the most brilliant minds to find a cure, but there were none to be found. And so it was the Queen called the king to her deathbed and made him swear upon his love, oath and collar that he was to marry none that were less virtuous, beautiful, or loving of their rulership. The king did swear, performing his last act of service to his Queen and it was with this that she passed, and found her soulmate and her Saviour in Heaven.

Years passed, and the king tried to rule over his lonely kingdom by himself, but it began to fail under his grief, and his advisors began to fear the neighbouring rulerships would conquer them. They were rich with trade still, and none wished to make the first move, but the people’s joy dimmed under the shade of fear. They ordered the king that he was to find a strong hand to marry and he consented, for all that he grieved for his Wife, he loved his kingdom and could not see it suffer. So they set forth a call for all bachelors of particular valour, faith, virtue and handsome feature come forth to win the hand of the king. All available dominants came, and they were given fine clothing, bathed and fed, allowed to exercise and study and prove that they were the best to join the king and rule. As each was presented to him, the king’s heart dimmed, for none was as virtuous, intelligent, and handsome as his wife had been, and soon there was not a single bachelor left, and not one had called in his heart for him to kneel. And it was thus the king’s heart truly and finally broke and there was nothing of joy in him, and he took to long walks about his grounds as his kingdom began to collapse about him.

It was on one such walk that he saw his dear Pavi, sitting in the sunlight and playing his harp more beautifully than ever he had before. The king had sent his son away, unable to look upon him and dour his good life with his own grief, and so the son had spent these long, lonely years in his wing of the castle, mourning for his Mother and not knowing of the kingdom’s suffering. And the king, mad with grief, looked upon him and saw the only soul virtuous, intelligent and lovely enough in the entire kingdom to sit upon the throne beside him. He immediately leapt forward and grabbed Pavi’s wrists. “Son, you are the only soul in all my searches who is as lovely, pure and virtuous as your mother. It is to you I must be wed to save the kingdom.”

Pavi, being well-taught and good spirited, was lanced through with horror at his father’s proclamation, and declared that they could not, for it was a sin and they would be damned, and their kingdom no longer blessed. Surely this was a trial of God and they would be saved if they continued to be virtuous and live faithfully.

The king fell to his knees, as if his son were one of the bachelors and begged again that they be wed, and if God wished to damn them, he may, for he would not wed another.

Pavi cried out, “No, no father. We will be cast out of Heaven and our names will be filth. Tell me what it is of me that you find so lovely and I will cast it from me. Better to lose an eye that to burn entire body in hellfire.”

“You are the only one as lovely, good and righteous as your Mother,” the king lamented, “and it is your hand I will have in marriage and no other, for your hands are as strong and beautiful as hers, and as long as they are there, I will continue to love and serve only you.”

So the son commanded his maidservant to remove his hands, so his father would not be tempted by sin any longer. And the king, so enraged and maddened by this, locked his son in a watertight chest and threw him out to sea, declaring if it was not to him his son was to wed, then he could wed no one.

cont.

December, 2011

The dance floor is as packed as such places tend to be, bodies rolling like waves, sweat on everything, arms in the air, hands on bodies, lips on lips, but too chaotic and pressing to notice anything but the person right in front of you. Which, at the moment (for Arthur), is Merlin.

They’ve danced before, mostly because the high press of bodies makes it impossible to really look at anyone and see what’s happening, but they’ve still always been…careful about it. Dancing like how subs dance, only pushing close as a joke, mostly arms in the air, bodies bumping by accident, hips swaying because that’s what you do with them, apparently.

Here the floor is packed to exploding, no one knows who they are, no one can tell what they are, and so Arthur reels Merlin in, carefully settles his hands on Merlin’s waist, pressing his nose to the slightly perfumed join of his neck and shoulder. They can’t talk at all, it’s too loud for that, but Merlin’s is immediately aroused, his back pressed flush with Arthur’s front. Arthur closes his eyes, and the music isn’t anything real. Just thumping. Direction for how to guide Merlin’s body, as so much as Arthur ever does. Merlin ropes his arms behind Arthur’s neck, and when Arthur looks, arches his everything in a long undulation, smiling with all he has and feeling so damn safe Arthur wants to just keep him here without pause or question.

Arthur rubs his fingers over Merlin’s shirt, looking around. No one is paying them any attention. No one knows who they are. They’re just two…people. Two people dancing like any two people. Or three people. Or an entire knot of moving, kissing, humanity that’s just waiting for a flat space of floor to get serious on.

Merlin rocks his hips and Arthur sighs down his low-cut shirt, rides his hand up Merlin’s bare, shaved thigh and fiddles with the hem of his skirt (“It has to twirl, Arthur. There is no sense getting a skirt that doesn’t twirl.” “It’s short enough that if you spin the entire world will see everything you’ve got going on under there.” “And you’ll defend my honour against ruffians and it’ll be genius.”) Merlin body has always been his. He’s owned it forever, every growth spurt and hair, every cut and bruise and scar. They are his, because he was there for all of them, can list how Merlin got the burn on his arm (cookies), the cut on his fingers (cookies), the slash on his calf (jumping a broken bridge), the spots on his stomach (chicken pox), he knows all of them. Merlin is the only story Arthur has memorized and he squeezes his hands just hard enough on Merlin’s hips, kneading his fingers and sucking a fresh, warm mark on Merlin’s neck.

He can feel the moan against his lips and Merlin turns in his arms, pressing them front-to-front and not a single inch left for the Holy Spirit, because Merlin doesn’t care. He would happily ride Arthur’s thigh right here without a blush or a stutter, because Merlin loves him with all of himself.

He would…he would tell everyone, Arthur thinks. Even if Merlin is the one who puts the most effort into keeping their secret. Even if he does all the heavy lifting, he would…he would tell everyone. Arthur closes his eyes and puts his mouth to Merlin’s neck, inhales the scent he’s so fully imprinted on that he can’t sleep without it. He licks a wet path up to his ear and Merlin shivers under his hands. Merlin used to be such a precious, gap-toothed little kid, big jug-handled ears and huge, bright blue eyes that could get Arthur to do just about anything. Climb any kind of tree, jump from rock to slippery rock at the creek, climb on top of buildings and throw homemade bird “poop” from the top and watched doms and subs scramble and look at the sky in disgust. Scraped knees and dirty elbows, big ideas and a tiny little self.

Merlin rolled his head back and Arthur put that thought aside for the Merlin between his hands, his beautiful, pale throat that Arthur, on one hand, wants to collar, but on the other, loves to see bare and free. They compromise with necklaces Arthur makes for him, out of gemstone-bright tiny glass beads threaded and woven together in hours and hours of careful, painstaking work that is only ever for Merlin.

He runs his hands up and down Merlin’s ribs, ignoring the press of other people, keeping his nose against the only good smell in the entire world and he could slip his thigh between Merlin’s legs, if he wanted. Go into a backroom, maybe. Except…except there would be security cameras, probably. Someone. Someone would see. The bathroom, shove Merlin into a stall and suck him off, because then no one is in control. Merlin grabs his hair and fucks his mouth, Arthur pulls back and teases, it’s…

He sucks a wet patch onto Merlin’s collarbone, shivers when Merlin digs his hand into his hair and no one knows. No one knows. No one can look at them and see anything but two men who could be anyone. They could be strangers. They could have met here for the first time, thought the other was attractive and now just doing…whatever they wanted. He could just now be discovering the spot under Merlin’s ear that you had to bite just this hard and he’d shudder. He could be delighted by how easy Merlin was for someone rubbing his stomach. He could be anyone.

He could feel Merlin talking, the vibration of his throat against Arthur’s lips, but he didn’t hear any words, and warmth and love and heat are twisting inside him like they’re alive. Happiness. That bright flare, buyout and irrepressible is happiness and Arthur feels drugged with it, the tension he carries, always, slips down and away with a jerk, the omnipresent pain in his neck and shoulders vanishing down and he just…he feels good.

Merlin is still talking, but it doesn’t mean anything, so Arthur kisses him. Right there. Right there were people could see. People can see them kissing. People will look at Merlin, look at his bright-bruised lips and know who did that, but not what it means. He could kiss Merlin the rest of the night, just sway and grind to this thumping, dropping, unce-unce-unce for the rest of time and just kiss Merlin, let his hands wander and Merlin is laughing into his mouth. His eyes are so bright, so fucking bright, so Arthur kisses his eyelids, drops more down his nose, nipping at the tip and Merlin bites his chin, grinning and his hands knead at Arthur’s hair, his scalp.

“I love you,” Arthur says aloud, because no one will hear him. He promises it down Merlin’s throat, kneading it into his skin with his finger, rocking to it with his hips—and it doesn’t matter that dancing is something that other people do, he’s never leaving here, even if everyone else is jumping and jostling and they’re just here, making out like they can’t do it anywhere else.

And Merlin is happy. Arthur wraps his arms up tight around Merlin, tight enough that he probably squeaked, even if Arthur couldn’t hear it, he’s packed tight with happiness, filled to the brim with it and Arthur…Arthur wants that always. He wants Merlin to always be this giddy-high-fresh-beautiful-joy, this rich with it, he doesn’t care if he can never turn Merlin on, or get him off the right way, or make him feel properly, really safe, but if he could... if he could just make Merlin this happy all the time, he would.

Merlin is clinging to him like a baby marmoset, nothing of his touching the floor and Arthur can totally manage to get them somewhere to sit, even if he has to move slowly. Merlin is just clinging and Arthur is clinging, and they find a single, empty chair and Merlin’s just…on him, everywhere and beaming down at him and Arthur presses his fingers to the smile. Merlin kisses his fingertips and sucks them into his mouth, hot and soft and familiar. Wet. Arthur strokes his tongue and Merlin’s eyes flutter closed, curling up in Arthur’s lap and they’re anonymous. No one is even looking at them. It’s still their secret, but Merlin is brilliant with joy and Arthur will find a way to come here every week if it means Merlin will just keep looking like this and not looking anywhere else. Scarlet O’Hara herself could come and grab him by the collar and he wouldn’t even look at her.

And Arthur feels giddy with power, and then uncomfortable with it, unsure what to do with it, if he should. He could try. He could. Um. He could do anything to Merlin. He could do anything, and Merlin would let him and no one would stop him or tell him if he went too far and he’s…he could…someone could… He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know what to do because he could do anything and that is terrifying.

Merlin pulls away slowly and then just rests his head on Arthur’s shoulder, sighing in a gust against Arthur’s neck and their touches switch from greedy need to comfort and Arthur presses his face into his hand and Merlin’s happiness dwindles down with worry and Arthur should…he. Someday he’ll be better than this, maybe. Someday he won’t panic about…

He’s why Merlin makes up his stories. He’s why they keep it a secret. He’s why…

Merlin cups him through his trousers and Arthur jumps. Merlin is giving him one of his many looks, the ones that translate into “I’m tired of you marinating in your own issues, so we’re going to find a way to fuck that calms your shit down and talk about it later over ice cream.”

Arthur snorts, but relaxes his hips and Merlin keeps rubbing, slowly, sneakily, and he’s so arranged them that he could probably tug Arthur out and jerk him off right here, if either of them weren’t terrified of staining the upholstery. You don’t stain upholstery. It’s rude. Someone would have to clean it.

Merlin moved up and rubbed his abdomen, right above his pelvis. Arthur used to. Used to toss off with one hand on his cock, the other pressed down there as hard as he could manage, abs pressing back until he just…lost the thread of everything for a stark, brilliant second. Arthur fiddles with Merlin’s earrings and smiling as ruefully as he knows how. Merlin shrugs, forgivingly, and rubs a thumb over Arthur’s eyebrow, smiling to himself—probably humming. Arthur cups his hands around one of Merlin’s bare thighs, the skirt riding high and free and Merlin—who had done life-modelling in uni, been a naked model for several photography students, and done a self-directed naked shoot for the sexual advocacy group’s “Love Your Body” campaign (none of which had been terrifically sexy)--just sort of went with it, because that’s what Merlin does when there is potential nakedness.

Arthur likes at least two layers between himself and the world. Usually three. Merlin sighs and they lounge for a bit, not touching in any particular telling way, but still touching. But then, they generally are.

When a song comes on that Merlin recognizes, and likes, he drags Arthur back out, but the movements are frenetic. Merlin’s arms crossed over his head, hips swaying and a truly stupidly big smile on his face, because he knows he can’t dance and he doesn’t, exactly, care. Arthur…doesn’t examine how poorly he dances. He just knows he really can’t. It requires a certain lack of inhibition. Arthur has a lot of inhibitions.

He could make a set of collectable trading cards out of them, probably.

---

Variants of the Fox-Wife tale type in Modern Japanese Culture
Cast:
Hinata Sen: A young submissive who gets pregnant with someone other than her fiancée, whose parents made him rebuke her and take repressive drugs so that he make a better name for himself and cover the dishonour. She tries to drown herself but is pulled from the lake by Keera—a young fox. After giving birth to Hikaru she discovers that both she and the baby are werewolves.
Keera: A young female fox that saves Hinata and (the still unborn) Hikaru, then turns into a human to help take care of the baby in exchange for a favor Hinata had done for her previously.
Akira Yui: Hinata’s fiancé. He spends most of the anime trying to get enough political clout to marry Hinata. His family develops intricate plots to keep them apart.
Hikaru Sen: Werewolf baby.
Miao Miao: Kitten, who in the anime is also a dragon, but in the original manga was a normal, if sparsely appearing, cat.
Abstract
The anime Japanese: Kitsune to Ryouken—translated into English as Keera’s Honor— shows clear signs of being influenced by variant 3C of the “Fox-Wife” tale type[1]. The “Fox-Wife” is notable in folkloric terms because of the sheer number of variants sharing the common theme of said fox wife. Variant 3C is notable for the fact that it is one of the more ‘positive’ variants; As with all versions of variant 3 it begins with the human protagonist—in this case a submissive, saving a fox. The fox then seeks to repay the favor, when the submissive is in need. In variant 3C the submissive is cut off from zer bondmate and the fox establishes a phantom bond with the submissive, to balance zer for a time. In most versions the phantom bond is destroyed when the dominant returns to claim zer bondmate, or the fox is chased off by the pair’s dog—who is usually acting to restore things to the ‘natural order’. In some variants—those in which the submissive is female and pregnant or recently given birth—the fox may return to care for the child. For unknown reasons this does not hold true if the fox herself is the one who has a baby.

In Kitsune to Ryouken, the protagonist Hinata saves the Fox- Keera- as a child, and Keera waits to return the favor. The opportunity arises when Hinata’s fiancé is forced by his family to repudiate her due to her bearing another man’s child. Keera saves Hinata when she attempts to drown herself and uses a phantom bond to stabilize Hinata’s mental state.
Following the first arc of the series, when Hinata gives birth to her son Hikaru, it is revealed that she and the baby are both werewolves (although Hinata was not one prior to the pregnancy). This then brings in the tension of the dog chasing the fox off—and one of the underlying conflicts in the series is the fear that either Hinata or Hikaru will chase Keera off. This is especially poignant as the manga has Hinata, Keera, and Akira form a stable triad to raise Hikaru, giving the fox what could be easily construed as a happier ending than the one she receives in most of the actual folk tales.

 

[1] As defined by Hiro Shiba’s treatise [trans]Faces of the Fox Wife in Folklore

---
May, 2002

Arthur was still, basically, completely unused to doing his own thing only to be struck through with a sudden, sharp spike of some feeling that he had no right to be feeling. Merlin said it was like they’d jumped into a game without reading the tutorial or handbook, and now they didn’t know how the controls worked. They’d gone, basically, from being complete null-heads, to throwing their combined selves in a blender and making a delicious milkshake out of them. In Merlin’s words.

Most kids tended to have a few years to poke at the second presence in their head while it was still dampened down. They would get to practice showing select emotions off, and hiding others. Arthur and Merlin had been in over their heads from the start line. There was no learning curve, just full, wholehearted emotions and physical sensations. There had been…a lot of awkward nights that they didn’t…talk about.

He should not have been that excited about dishwashing, yet his hands were shaking and his heart was thumping, his stomach twisted around in his gut. Excitement was really, very close to fear, wasn’t it? He’d never gotten a chance to really analyze an emotion before. Generally he was too busy feeling it.

Merlin thumped in through the back door a few plates later and Aunt Rebecca sighed, pushing her hand down flat on Merlin’s head. “At least knock before coming in, hmm?”

“Yes, sorry.” He smiled up at her and she’d let it go—like she always did—and went back to whatever it was that she’d been doing. Uncle Tristan ignored them as he always did those days and Merlin paid him no more mind than a No Trespassing sign. Merlin grabbed Arthur by the elbow, “come on, I found something. Come on-“

“Merlin, Arthur needs to finish the dishes.” Aunt Rebecca chastised and Merlin huffed out an impatient little noise, shoved Arthur over to drying and began scrubbing the silverware at hyper speed, examining them carefully for food spots and then handing them to Arthur polish and dry before putting in the dishwasher, because his Uncle was psychotic about dirty dishes, and then he was hauling Arthur out the backdoor with suds still clinging to their hands. He jumped over a bush between their two yards and yanked Arthur past Lance and Merlin’s mum before he could do more than wave and be dragged up the stairs. He shoved Arthur onto the bed and pressed a thick booklet into Arthur’s hands.

“Merlin, I am not reading a book of academic essays for you or anyone else.” Arthur handed it back.

“Okay, yes, I expected that, and I’d tell you to just read the one, but it’s, you know. Fifty pages of in-depth analysis about an anime I’ve never heard of before. Granted I don’t really watch anime, but, the point is that this? This is what we’ve been looking for.” Merlin took the booklet from him. “Look, so I was going through medical journals and psychology papers and news reels and history, but all of them talk about deviant sexuality like…I mean they use the word deviant, you know? They’re pretty biased, and they.” Merlin shook his head to get himself to focus. “Well, you’ve been here for most of the helpful ones, and there are like…thirty unhelpful ones for every even mildly useful one, and it’d be better if I could get into a university library, but. But, this is about, and here’s what she calls it, ‘perceived transgressive sexuality, that which does not follow societal condoned patterns.’” Merlin looked up with a grin, like that was supposed to mean anything to Arthur.

“Okay so, every other article has taken this…looking down their nose kind of tone about anything except a relationship that contains both a sub and a dom. They don’t even like switches most of the time, and it’s only the really liberal ones who accept stable triads as a relationship type. Even when they have information, it’s always looked at as problematic, right? Like: here is something obviously wrong. Let’s poke it.”

Arthur nodded and looked at his feet and Merlin just shoved the article in his face again. “No, no, but this just talks about a fictional relationship, in this case, you know, one between a submissive and a non-dynamic fox, because it’s a fox, and foxes are all about the making babies and faffing about, and it eventually becomes a triad between a dom, sub and non-dynamic fox, but the point, the point is that it examines the relationship without sounding judgey.”

Arthur frowned and Merlin plopped down next to him. “It’s the only academic thing I’ve found that wants to explore different relationship make-ups without this underlying feeling of someone looking at the alien. Like, you get memoirs and biographies and personal essay from non-dynamics, and switches and monosexuals and people who were in triads, and the Internet—if you look hard enough, mind—has some stuff about same-dynamic couples, but it keeps it real quiet, you know? And there’s nothing, not one thing about same-dynamic soulbonds. You get monosexuals soulbonding with someone wrong-sexed, but not.”

Merlin sighed and Arthur rubbed the back of his neck. Merlin hummed and leaned into it, sent the warm pleasure right back at Arthur. Arthur shifted so he could work Merlin’s muscles properly. He could feel the tight knots under his thumbs, sure, but he could feel even better the relief of them being worked, the slight pain as he dug in and the slowly, heated relief as they let go. It was a form of meditation, of self-pleasure that they’d gotten lost in before, and probably could again. If they. He tried not to think too much about...more pleasurable things. Merlin moaned quietly and let the article rest in his lap, giving himself over to Arthur’s hands

“There aren’t really any novels either, though.” Arthur said as Merlin went to putty beneath his fingers. They couldn’t afford to get too trapped in a feedback loop. “Not that…end well. For the couple.”

Merlin sighed and fiddled with the hem of his trousers. “No. Not that I’ve found. But.” Merlin turned and gripped Arthur’s hand. It was still a shock, still a strange feeling of…of doing something wildly inappropriate. You didn’t just link fingers with people.

“But all I have is this library system, and they’re not going to have things like that. If I could just get to a good library.” Merlin grumbled. “There have to be other people like us. There…there have to be stories about it, at least. Fairy tales, the earlier ones, they’re about all kinds of things. There have to be. I’ll find them, Arthur. You know I will. I can’t be stopped. I’m a force of nature.”

Arthur snorted, but curled his fingers against Merlin’s. “Yeah, you will.”

Merlin licked his lips and squeezed his hand and Arthur was hard. Instantly. Fast enough to make him dizzy and they couldn’t keep doing this. They. But he needed this, loved-completely-the rush of Merlin against his brain the thump of his heart syncing with his own. Just...being a whole person, and being loved and. And Merlin does this all the goddamn time, because if he didn’t, then Arthur wouldn’t just…go along with stupid ideas.

“So, uh. I was also reading some. Um.” Merlin’s eyes flicked between Arthur’s mouth and his eyes and Arthur raised an eyebrow, tried to be cool, because Merlin got so much more flustered when Arthur was pretending to be above it all, and it was... cute. Merlin didn’t get this flustered for other people. This was just for Arthur. “Some of those…uh. Fics.”

“I know.” Arthur swallowed and put his free hand on Merlin’s hip. “You kind of…last night.”

Merlin flushed and looked down, before getting a certain sort of glint in his eye and looking back up. “You got all that?”

“Yeah.” Arthur’s hand seized involuntarily and Merlin’s hips twitched forward, splotchy-beautiful with his blushing and Arthur wanted to.... wanted to--

Something. He never knew what it is, never had words for it. Merlin had the words. Arthur had the... something. Whatever it was he wanted to do it so badly it hurt. It ached inside him and if he could just…figure it out, they could be happy. If he could just get inside Merlin they would be fine.

Merlin ran his free hand over Arthur’s thigh. He stopped before going too high. “Did, um- You- You liked it?”

If Arthur had been a dom they would have had so much sex by then. Nevermind chaperones, Merlin would have found a way. Merlin was devious.

“Yeah.” He said and his hand crept up, under Merlin’s shirt. They were just…touching. They couldn’t do anything, no really. Not anything that would have shown up in those fics. They were both subs. So they were just…touching. Nothing. Nothing that counted, right?

“I could- I felt- You.”

Merlin bumped their noses together. “Lance and mum are going to work soon. We could practice. You…you could stay over.” Merlin rubbed his knuckles against Arthur’s abdomen. “We- I like sleeping with you.”

“You steal all the blankets.”

“If you wanted them, you’d fight for them more.” Merlin sniffed and then there’s the call from downstairs, Merlin’s mum telling them not to burn down the house. They waited, and Merlin pulled away, opened his bedroom door and called down. No response.

Arthur sat on the bed, suddenly cold and feeling like the last bean in a bag, rattling around emptily and about to be tossed in a bin. So when Merlin closed the door and came back Arthur kissed him, just because he couldn’t do anything else. Merlin made a happy little noise and squeezed their fingers together again.

“Fuck, you’re pretty.” Merlin murmured when Arthur pulled back.

Arthur snorted and Merlin kissed him again, wet and brief, before pulling back, “I mean it. You’re all…tanned and…your hair and…muscles.” Merlin licked his lips and ran his free hand over Arthur’s shoulder. “You’re big.”

“But I’m not going to use it the way you want me to.”

Merlin carded his fingers through Arthur’s hair. “But. What if you had to protect me from something? Like…you push me out the way of a car and then we’re on the ground and you’re over me, keeping me safe, protecting me from everything, and I’m under you, being held…being held down.” Merlin had a devious mind.

Arthur checked the door, like an idiot, and then turned them so Merlin was on his back and Arthur was over him. Merlin’s breath hitched and Arthur watched his thin chest jerk.

“Come on.” Merlin swallowed. “I’m getting cold.”

Arthur moved to cover as much as Merlin’s body from the rest of the room as possible and Merlin jerked under him, startled, even if this whole thing had been his idea. The sharp twist of arousal was theirs to share, coiling between them like something alive. Arthur ducked his head, riding it out. Merlin arched his neck, luxuriating in it.

“If.” Merlin licked his lips. “If you had the kind of dom you wanted. She’d... she’d like to be held just like this. She’d want to see just how big you’d gotten for…for her.” Merlin’s voice was low and hoarse and Arthur couldn’t look away from his lips. He physically could not. “She’d. She’d want to know how strong you were so she’d know she was entirely in charge.”

“Fuck, Merlin.” Arthur squeezed his hands against the sheets. “She likes it?”

“Yeah.” Merlin breathed, quiet, “yeah she loves it. She. She loves how big you are. For her. Big and…hard and…hers. All for her.” Merlin’s breath was quick and Arthur bent and ate it out of his mouth, their tongues sliding together in a way they haven’t figured out how to make their bodies emulate. “She puts you in tight clothing so she can just…look at you. Lets you shave your head when you want to, because she. She’s so small. But she takes up so much space with just... her voice and her--ah! ”

Arthur groaned and Merlin smoothed his hands up Arthur’s ribs. “She’s so small and you’re big and no matter what she-“

“You.” Arthur demanded.

“I tell you to do, you find a way to do it.” Merlin agreed, switched, immediately. Arthur was lowering his body, keeping himself between the world and Merlin, covering and protecting him and Merlin was struggling to breathe under the weight but he liked that. Liked being covered. Liked being smothered a little bit. Sometimes he crawled under his mattress and lay under it when he was trying to think. Sometimes he let the heavy armchair in the living room gently lean back until it was practically crushing him. He said it made him feel grounded, like small spaces and Arthur did.

A good dom would tie Merlin up. Would. Would know how to do that, how to keep him all wrapped up and Merlin would love every single fucking second of it. Suspend him maybe. Or…or tie him up and put him in a cupboard or…something. A good dom would know what do with a pretty, desperate sub underneath them. Merlin could make almost anyone into a good dom for him, Arthur thought (sometimes), he could make almost anyone want to see him desperate.

Arthur, meanwhile, panicked, slightly.

“No, no, we’re practicing, we’re just practicing.” Merlin wrapped his arms around Arthur’s neck, briefly, before that wasn’t enough contact and he was pressing his fingers along Arthur’s ribs like they were piano keys. “It doesn’t count. We’re just. We’re getting good at kissing. People do it at your school all the time, right? They don’t mean anything by it.”

“Not your school?”

Merlin shrugged and kept sweeping his hands, touching and holding, like he was unsure of what to do or how to let go. “We have fifteen kids, fourteen of whom view sex as something that other people do, when there isn’t something more interesting going on, and the last of which is me.” Merlin fidgeted under Arthur, biting his lip.

“Come on, just. We’re just kissing. Friends kiss.”

“Not with tongue.” Arthur shifted again, just so their skin could slide a bit, and Merlin’s breath caught and Arthur almost pulled off again. Merlin tugged him back down, all the way, so he was crushing him, and Merlin caught breaths in tiny, tiny, desperate pants. Arthur watched, fascinated. How did his eyes stand being so big and blue? How. You could make a new world in them, if you wanted.

He felt dizzy and beautiful against Arthur’s mind.

“Sorry. I just. I don’t know what we’re doing.”

He lifted up a little so Merlin could actually catch some air, and Merlin inhaled purposefully slowly, closed his eyes and then stared right into Arthur.

“Whatever feels good?” Merlin cupped Arthur’s face again. “Just. No one is here to judge us. We’re careful. We- I’m not ever going to try and trick you into domming me, okay? I don’t.... That isn’t what we’re doing. We’re just…”

“If you say practicing-”

“We’re just making lemonade.” Merlin smiled, then cupped his arm over Arthur head and pulls him down to Merlin’s shoulder.

“When… when I feel you, um. When you start wanking, I…I have to, too. No matter what I’m doing, I just. I feel you getting all hot and the way you. Stroke.” Merlin swallowed, and when Arthur tried to look up, Merlin kept him down.

“I can feel you getting--And then you start... Touching and I can feel that and then I have to touch and it’s- It’s like that, okay? It’s. We’re not doing anything wrong, we’re just. Sharing what feels good, like we’re going to do anyways, but in the same bed.”

Arthur didn’t make any kind of noise and Merlin flicked off the bedside lamp and fidgeted. “We’re asleep.” Merlin said like he could command the world if he just thought of how. “Come on, slump over, we’re asleep.”

“We’re not asleep.”

“We are.” Merlin insisted. “Come on. We’re taking a nap. We’re asleep, slump over.”

Arthur had a direct line to Merlin’s brain and he still never knew what went on in there. But he slumped over and Merlin moved around until they were under the blankets, heads on pillows, and no books digging into anything. Arthur huffed and when he tried to open his eyes, Merlin pressed his hand over them. “No, we’re asleep.”

“Fine. We’re asleep.” Arthur re-settled himself, because he was still hard, and his trousers didn’t exactly make that comfortable.

“Do you sleep in your trousers, Arthur?” Merlin asked and Arthur slowly shucked them off, the whole thing easier with his eyes closed. He pushed them to the end of the bed, then regretted it, because his cock took that as complete encouragement and rode up against his plain-as-Jane boxer briefs. Obvious. He was so disgustingly obvious all of the time and Merlin liked puzzles. He- He didn’t understand why-

“Merlin-“

“Shh. Asleep.” Merlin moved until he was lying with his font all along Arthur’s side, prick digging into Arthur’s hip. “We’re just two subs, having an afternoon nap, because growing up is exhausting. Nothing wrong here.” Merlin kept his voice quiet, and his arm was suddenly flopped on Arthur’s stomach, low, his forearm just brushing the base of his dick in a way that couldn’t be accidental. Arthur inhaled sharply and Merlin made a sleepy sort of comforting hum, nuzzling at Arthur’s shoulder with a hot, wet breath, dragging down Arthur’s arm.

“Merlin-”

“We. Are. Asleep.” Merlin repeated and kissed Arthur shoulder. “Just... We aren’t doing anything. We’re asleep. Sometimes you wake up with sticky sheets, and it wasn’t you doing anything. It’s just your body doing whatever, while you’re asleep.”

Arthur’s heart thumped in his chest, but he allowed himself to relax against the sheets and Merlin snuggled closer.

They’d done this plenty of times, fallen asleep together. In this bed, even. Curled up under the blankets, but never…never this tense. Merlin waited, waited until Arthur’s heart stopped thudding quite so terrifically. He slowly dragged his still-covered cock against Arthur’s hip, languid and subtle, but Arthur was hyper-aware of the hard line of it against his hip. He didn’t- He didn’t know what to do.

“I’m having a dream.” Merlin said, so quiet Arthur could pretend he wasn’t talking. That he was just muttering in his sleep. “It’s a…a good dream. And I feel hot and you… You can feel it now, too. And then you push up and I feel that. And it’s fine, because we’re asleep.”

Arthur kept his eyes closed and he just. Lay still. Wanted to clutch at Merlin, wanted to run away. Wanted to just…have someone tell him what to do so that he would know he was doing it correctly. If he didn’t know what to do, how does--

Merlin rubbed at his lower abdomen and Arthur shifted his legs open a little, because that was what felt right. Merlin’s breath gusted out of him. He slipped a leg over Arthur’s groin and Arthur pressed up against it. A tease of pressure, and Merlin was thrusting again, slowly, carefully, and Arthur--

They’d done a lot of kissing. They got hard. But they’d always…ignored it. It hadn’t been something they could do anything about, so they would sit until they calmed down, and then walk home, taking care of it…later.

Merlin’s fingers kneaded, sleepily, haphazardly and Arthur carefully thrust against Merlin’s thigh. The drag of it was so fucking…it was sweet, it was hot and warm and damp and he immediately did it again. Merlin thrust against his hip, just as slow and lazy as if he actually were asleep, slight and shuddery and selfish, a low rumbly kind of moan, high and just this side of breathy. Arthur pushed up again and then rolled over, enough to be something unconscious, something done only a little awake to get more comfortable.

They stilled a moment, then shifted a little, legs tangled until scissored, Merlin’s thigh was up against his cock, his against Merlin’s hipbone, and after a moment Merlin began to rock, slowly, moving until his head was nestled under Arthur’s, his arms curled up against his chest.

Arthur made something approximating a sleepy murmur and hitched his own hips. He shivered against the slow friction against his prick, another body besides his own, Merlin shuddered as he moved, and when Arthur opened his eyes, Merlin stared right at him. Merlin sighed and brought two fingers up, closed Arthur’s eyelids again.

“Asleep, Arthur.”

“You have your eyes open.”

“Asleep.” Merlin said again, desperate, pleading. So, Arthur kept his eyes closed, squeezed his hands into fists and rocked because-- It didn’t count if they were asleep. It- It didn’t count.

Merlin got off with a choked little sound, hips stuttering over Arthur’ thigh, leaving it sticky and wet. Merlin sobbed a little, this tiny, forgettable noise, except that Arthur had done that. It would. It would play or repeat until he burned in Hell, and he... He’d done that.

Merlin’s thigh pressed up, gave him a little more, perfect, pressure, and he would have liked a warm, squeezing hand more, or…or a mouth or…

Or someone to tell him now was the right time. Or to hold off. Or. Or what to do and he was supposed to know what to do. He was supposed to know and he didn’t.

“You’re asleep.” Merlin said, petted his thumb across Arthur’s mouth. “Do whatever your body wants. You’re asleep. Arthur is offline.”

Arthur shook his head and felt Merlin’s long fingers curled up against his jaw. “Arthur. Arthur please. Don’t. Can we have this?” He pleads. “I need you.”

Arthur tucked his head down, buried his face in the pillow and thrust until it was all he could think about. Until that was all that mattered: sliding his cock against Merlin’s skinny, bare thigh, getting that bit more friction, that atom more heat,

Until-

Until-

Until Merlin held his hand and he couldn’t…think, it was just.

And.

Good.

Merlin was smiling at him Arthur opened his eyes and Arthur felt…okay.

“I’ll get some washcloths.” Merlin decided as he rolled out of bed. “Just lie there and feel floaty.”

“Sure.” Arthur agreed and shoved his face into Merlin’s pillow, because it was the best scent in the world, right then. He did feel…light. Or maybe the correct kind of heavy, because he didn’t want to move at all.

Merlin cleaned him up first, hands gentle and humming something stupid to himself. Arthur knew it was something stupid, because Merlin only listened to stupid things, and then Arthur would get some small part of it stuck in his head.

He cleaned himself less carefully, and rinsed out the rag a few times so it wouldn’t get…wank-sock-esque, then got back into bed with a flop and groan, half on Arthur and half on all the blankets, before they really did go down for an afternoon nap, partly naked and entirely fine with it.

Granted, when they woke up again, Arthur stared at the ceiling and, after a in-depth study of the stain on the plaster that looked like a pile of noodles, had a panic attack about…everything. Nothing-- just... Second verse, same as the first, and he tugged his trousers on and bolted back to his house. Where he hid like a fucking coward, because he was. He was, and he couldn’t... He shouldn’t have-- dragged anyone into his mess.

But Merlin, being Merlin, climbed onto his roof and knocked at his window.

Incessantly.

Arthur opened it, because Merlin didn’t really stop doing things just because you ignored him, Merlin squirreled in and sat on Arthur’s spotless desk so to best stare at him.

“I don’t…know what we’re doing either.” Merlin announced, finally, looking down at his fingers. Arthur kept his arms crossed and doesn’t go and comfort Merlin, because...because he doesn’t.

He should have gotten this-- they should have gone to a doctor. Except that Dr. Whitman was horrible, and they’d never... They’d just be alone, then. And Arthur isn’t sure he’d stop loving Merlin, even if he couldn’t feel him all the time. And then what excuse would they have?

“You’ve got it more together than I do.” Arthur rubbed his face with open palms, before falling back and let his head knock against the wall with a hollow thud. “You never panic. You’re always...” Arthur frowned and rubs his chest, stared at the all-too-familiar ceiling, bereft of a even single stain, crack, or mark.

“You’re panicking enough for both of us.” Merlin popped his knuckles, restlessly, and got up to pace. “I’ve told you. I. Arthur, I was so fucking happy when it was you. I’ve told you. You were there, you…felt it. You had to have.”

Arthur swallowed. “How can you be happy about the fact that we’re fucked up?”

“You’re mine, forever.” The bed dipped as Merlin lay down, curling himself around Arthur’s legs. “I didn’t have friends. I don’t have friends. Mum found Lance, and I know she still loves me, but. New soulbond is going to distract anyone, for a little while. I have fourteen classmates, of which I am the most socially adept, and in case you haven’t noticed, I am not actually good at people—”

“Bollocks.” Arthur shoved him and Merlin snorted.

“I am. I mean-- I’m good at parents and teachers, and I’m good at appearing decently normal for a little while. But, Arthur. You can’t seriously think that anyone besides you or mum really wants to listen to me wax poetic about spotted hyena sexual hierarchy.”

“A biologist, I assume.” Arthur put his hand to Merlin’s head, and Merlin arched up into it.

“You are my only friend. And you... I used to daydream that we’d end up soulbonded. Not in a sex way, but just-- We’d get dogs, and live together, and tell our adopted kids about how we knew each other as kids, and you’d never.” Merlin sighed and bowed his head. “Jesus, I’m pathetic.”

“And I’m messed up.” Arthur clutched Merlin’s hair briefly and dropped his hand. “So...what? You think this is your fault? You wished this into existence?”

Merlin didn’t look up from staring at Arthur’s knee. “And you think you should have been a dom and you’ve doomed me forever because of it. And you will not let it go.”

“Look at me. I should have been dom. My Aunt and Uncle thought so, all my teammates just took it as read we’d all be doms, my teachers and coaches just let me go off the handle because they thought it was just pre-identity aggression.” Arthur knocked his head against the wall again, kept his voice quiet, because who knew who would be listening? “I don’t. I don’t like anything subs are supposed to like, I don’t look like a sub, I don’t…I don’t want anyone…’

“You want someone to tell you want to do.” Merlin said, rubbing Arthur’s knee. “You’re terrified you’re going to hurt someone with one of your Hulk-outs, so you want someone who can take you out. Keep you down. Someone who will let you be angry and give you something to fight against. Someone who can shove you out of your own head for a bit, but the idea of being responsible for someone else, for having to be in touch enough with your own instincts that you could bring them the edge and not an inch further scares the fuck out of you. You would, if you had to.”

Merlin rolled over. “If I wanted you to, you’d learn how to dom. You’d...”

Merlin sighed and looked at Arthur’s stomach. “If-- if I let you, you’d overcome every inch of that terror and just…do it because you’d do what you thought I wanted. But you’d hate it.”

Arthur swallowed and looked out the window.

“You don’t want to hurt anybody.” Merlin crawled up the bed and pressed his forehead to Arthur’s shoulder.

“Even at your most angry you don’t…you only hit people when they hit you first. You punch walls, and you throw things, but-- I think.... I think it would have taken a lot for you to learn how to be okay with hurting someone. Even if someone wanted it. I think-- I think it’d take an entirely different life for you to-- Enjoy. Hurting anyone else... You--” Merlin rubbed Arthur’s throat and Arthur swallowed.

“You always want to be the one who gets hurt, you know? In all our games, you always wanted to be the martyr. You...” Merlin licked his lips and considered him. “You would be the first one to try a jump, the first to try and climb something. If you got hurt, we’d get you to stop bleeding and it’d be fine. When I got hurt you’d go mental.”

Arthur cupped the back of Merlin’s head and Merlin kissed his jaw. “You are who you are. I don’t... I really don’t want you to be different. I want you as you are, and who you’re going to be, and I want to sit on a porch with you and play…fucking bridge, or something. If you were a dom, you’d be different and it’d be weird and you’d-- It’d be different.” Merlin clutched at him.

“Maybe better.”

“Maybe worse.” Merlin countered, then paused, listening, before the door creaked and Merlin shoved his face against Arthur’s shoulder-- instead of pushing away, like he should-- and began…crying?

Arthur’s Aunt opened the door to look in at them, mouth already open to say something, and then took in Merlin sobbing and the way Arthur was holding him. “What’s…wrong?” She asked, instead of whatever it was she intended to say. Likely ready to demand Merlin go back to his own house, like that’d ever worked before.

Merlin shook his head and curled up tighter, and Arthur doesn’t even need to think about it before he pulled him closer. “It’s just. A thing. Can you-?”

“Right.” She stood there another moment. “Sorry, I just-- Is there anything I can do?”

Merlin shook a bit too realistically and Arthur kept petting his head, taking a tissue from the bed stand so Merlin could blow his nose. “I’ve got it.”

“Right... I--” She pulled the door closed. After a moment her footsteps retreated down the hall, and Merlin perked up and wiped his eyes.

“Damn.” Arthur commented.

“We’re doing a segment on acting.” Merlin smiled and wrinkled his nose to try and get the red out.

“It’s good I’m not a dom.” Arthur tugged his hair. “You’d run circles around me.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty much amazing.” Merlin beamed and kissed Arthur’s cheek. The conversation turned, again, before Merlin slipped out the window and Arthur went to bed late enough that he was ridiculous groggy the entire next school day, but didn’t much mind.

---
January 2012

Gwen was twenty-five and married, technically.

She’d lived, previous to this last year with Elyan and Freya, with her father for her entire life—not that that was very long. It wasn’t like she was thirty and still living in home. Not that there was anything wrong with that, provided you were close to your family. And she was, at least, to her father. She and her father had spent most of her life playing an extended game of house, since, for all the good soulbonds were supposed to do for everyone, they sure left a lot of broken homes in their wake.

Her father had been forty-four when she’d been born, and Gwen, at nine, had read between the lines and saw “accident”. Elyan had been planned because, at forty, her father had given up on ever finding his fiancé, so dated, found someone, fell in love and they got married and had Elyan before suddenly finding themselves with Gwen. And, of course, the fill-in attending doctor to Gwen’s birth had turned out to be her mother’s soulmate, and they’d run off together.

Immediate no-fault divorce, her father getting custody at first temporarily, because her mother and her fiancée were a little too occupied with each other to raise two kids, and then because they moved to America and never filed for custody. Gwen. Gwen didn’t agree with a world where you could say you were completely and utterly in love with somebody, say you’d happily spend your life with them, and then look into the eyes of some other person and forget all about the first. And it wasn’t like she was any different than any of her classmates. She identified on time, she started feeling her fiancée, she heard the same stories, watched the same telly, read the same books, but…

Her dad hadn’t quite ever gotten over it, buried himself in fatherhood when he was there, buried himself in work when he wasn’t, didn’t date anyone else. So Gwen grew up making sandwiches for him to take to work, and Elyan helped her read cookbooks, turned on the stove while she carefully measured everything, the two of them making simple little dinners, and then the three of them sitting in front of telly with bowls of condensed soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, talking over the programs and eating ice cream for dessert. She’d grown up sitting between Elyan and her father on the bus, sandwiches between them walking down the street. She’d grown up knowing her father would come to her dance recitals, and Elyan would be the one to make sure she got to practice, after school. Sitting in the waiting room and doing his homework as she stretched and listened to the teacher, finding the isolations in her growing body, reclaiming every new-found inch and using them to make her arches more graceful, her leaps more dramatic. She never got very big, her brother said the dancing stunted her growth, but she had lifts if she wanted to see more of the world.

Elyan had run away when she was twelve and Gwen had never known why. Still didn’t really know why, for all that she now lived with her brother. He’d never been able to explain it, no matter how she pushed and so that. That was a thing that they left alone. At twenty-five Gwen was living with her brother and his fiancée and it was a relationship built on the understanding that there were things they didn’t talk about. They worked their problems out between themselves, she worked her problems out in front of the mirror, the tiny stereo in the corner giving her something to think about. She was twenty-five and in charge of her own, small, community dance troupe. She was twenty-five and teaching uni students how to accept who they were and move with that. Body consciousness had no place. Awkwardness and shyness had no place. They weren’t full on professional, she was paid for her time, along with tutoring rich little pre-gendered identified subs how to look pretty for their parent’s garden party talent shows, with ribbons and spins, smiles and skirts.

And so she didn’t talk to Elyan about how their father had bent his head down and accepted it, accepted his son leaving like it was the way things worked in this world. There was a lot, too, her father didn’t talk about. But he worked that little bit harder so she could have nice things, coming home and helping with her homework, no matter how tired he was, going to bed at nine, getting up at five, where she was already up, making breakfast and packing his lunch, before going back to bed until she had to get ready for school.

She found her fiancé at twenty, still living at home, working as a waiter because dancing couldn’t make you any actual, real money. Not if you looked like her instead of the sort of people who were in music videos. But she still practiced, did shows when there was a chance to, came home after being lambasted and exhausted and then did her stretches, pulling her leg up to her chest and breathing through it, falling into a splits and arching, practicing her routine if she had one, making up something if she didn’t. Dancers had their own form of monologues to beat into their bodies. Waiting made money, if nothing else.

She met her fiancé waiting tables, in her co-workers section, sure, but it was still the sort of movie cliché that she expected to have a soundtrack for. She’d gotten off work early, gone to his hotel room, and they hadn’t crawled out again for a week, and she hadn’t cared that she hadn’t had a job at the end of it. There was always somewhere else to wait tables. They’d found a flat, moved her stuff into it, he’d met her dad, she’d told Elyan on the phone, they’d christened the entire flat like they were a bottle of champagne on the side of a boat, him looking for work, making crazy delicious meals out of food he got from somewhere or other, watching telly and telling the other everything they knew about themselves, dancing for him, teaching him how to do basic lifts in their tiny living room so she could feel like they made something together.

Then she’d been stuck with a six-month lease by herself with her fiancée off in Tibet somewhere with no warning, after a small single little fight about blanket hogging sort of maybe spread into being a fight about dishes and then took over to whether to leave the shower curtain open on the inside or the outside and then the laundry and the…and then they’d just fall into bed and it’d be perfect and they’d talk and everything would be perfect until he left his egg pan on the counter and he ran her paintbrushes through the dishwasher and-

So by the end of the first month they were trying to not fight while fighting and it wasn’t that she was stubborn, it was just. She. She’d been taking care of her father, yes, and it wasn’t that she couldn’t do it for him, too, she’d just. Her father had also done his best to take care of her too, and she’d thought, maybe, once she moved out she could have a bit of a more…equal relationship. Except then she’d go through fits of doing everything for him and then resenting that she’d done everything, which, yes, sure, was a little annoying. Probably. But that was no reason to just scamper off and become a globetrotter without warning.

Gwen was twenty-five and living with Freya and Elyan, with one big bare room in the house for her to map out the steps to the dance she was working on. She stretched in the mirror, careful in her movements, moving into her body, breathing, keeping the video recorder going so she can watch herself later, taking choreographer notes, remaking her steps for each part, building the ensemble in her head for her troupe. She wasn’t waiting. She wasn’t going to sit around waiting for the tosser, just because she loved him in that helpless, all-consuming way that horror movies were about. She was just doing her own thing, only letting herself have a screaming row about it once a month, at maximum, and Freya would calm her down, Elyan would sit quietly and they’d watch a dumb film about things that exploded or kissed one another, because there should be both kissing and explosions in everything.

Gwen liked dancing, even if she knew she was slowly falling out of her prime and she still hadn’t made anything of herself, and she wasn’t going to. She had refused to make a series of thumping, vicious, heartbroken routines, and instead put it into finding places to work. All ensemble shows, all the chorus line—she couldn’t sing, and she couldn’t act, so no point trying for many plays—did a bit of burlesque, because she could, helped in children’s theatre, was one of seventy dancers in a scene for a straight-to-video sequel to something or other, worked as a model for a small, indie, animation studio.

If nothing else was dependable, her body was. She knew how long her reach was, the circumference of her hips, the strength of her thighs and the flexibility of her back. She knew herself, even if she didn’t really know anyone else, and the one person she was supposed to get— money-back guarantee, lifetime warranty, 24/7 customer service and technical support—had run off on her with no reason and so she didn’t even have that. She could bend forward this far. She could bend back to that angle. She could spin, she could hold this for five beats, six beat, seven, nine, twelve, holding and holding as still as possible, effortless and aching. Ballroom competition because she knew how to move, working in retail and swinging through the aisles, working in an office and practicing her stretches while entering data. Standing next to buskers in the warm summer months, during festivals, and moving with them, letting them hand her crumpled singles after a long day. Living statue, holding difficult poses for thirty-minute intervals. Security guard and kicked a shoplifter right in the jaw and became known as The Ninja. Community theatre teaching amateur actors how to do a proper waltz for the crowd, how to salsa dance and make people feel it, even if it was just a few, playful steps. Karaoke night and doing a handstand on a chair with full split extended, Freya laughing drunkenly into Elyan shoulder, as he gamely continued to make it through “Show Me Your Whiphand.” off-key and full of power.

No postcards. She keeps her ring in her wallet. She doesn’t try to take anyone home, she doesn’t want anyone. She isn’t sure she’d take her soulmate, at this point, even if he showed up in her bed, naked and apologetic. She’s interviewed for a student documentary on the cities burlesque revival circuit. She teaches aging married couples how to move together, she goes to clubs and gives absolutely no fucks about how she looks. She doesn’t get over tripping over her words, because while she never underestimates the importance of body language, the rest of the whole…communicating…thing is sort of. An awkward. Mess. Merlin dances with her sometimes, clumsy, but game for everything, invested as a stockbroker in her lectures on the history of dance and it’s use as a storytelling device. Merlin loves people’s passions, passionately. She took him to an office party (if you’re going to something boring, bring Merlin. Merlin can liven up anything) and had talked to James from Market Research about his three pet rats with sincere and unqualified interest, then let Gwen spin him around the dancefloor, bending into her dip extravagantly, full of attitude and silliness as always. And when the head of a different department tried to kiss her in the copy room, Merlin had tackled her with a Viking yell and grinned up at her.

Merlin could liven up anything.

She can still get both legs behind her head, and crawl her legs up the wall and lie them flat, torso on the ground and watch telly. Arthur quietly kneels on the ground and hold up his arm when she wants to do an over the shoulder lift, stretching out her body like she’s the figure on the front of some old fashioned pirate ship and will stand still if she wants to do a flip over his arm, but he won’t actually dance. He will make her lovely stage jewellery, though, and when she’d needed to play a wizard for a show, he’d ended up making a beautiful, ornate staff for her to work into her routine. One of the patrons had ended up buying it for a few hundred, but she’d felt powerful holding it in her hands for the two week run.

Arthur is. Solid. He’s dependable. He’ll help you bring in the groceries, and help you move. He’ll slam someone giving you trouble into a wall and just…hold them there. And if that particular person is trying to steal their money, she might climb up Arthur like he’s a tree and hold a can of pepper spray to the asshole’s face while Arthur stays steady as a goddamn rock underneath her, and she phones the police. They’re good friends, the both of them.

She loves Freya, who adopted Gwen immediately and without qualm, letting her sob drunkenly about how people were so stupid and then dealing with the fact that Gwen would feel guilty about it the next morning. She watches Gwen’s dances, and drags everyone to every single show and they clap the loudest, the proudest…possibly the drunkest. She and Elyan were rebuilding broken bridges, and they watch bad movies and he helps her re-fit her costumes, because he got into clothing in a big way somewhere along the line. She’s a ghost for a haunted house, she’s part of an amateur music video contest and they get third place. Freya teaches her to roller skate, because that’s the kind of person Freya is.

Her mobile rang while she was planning out her next routine, still figuring out the intro, stretching out her arm and staring mindlessly into the mirror as she feels the floor under her feet and trying to think of what, exactly the direction is she wants to go. Most of the time she just improvises at this stage, letting the music run on repeat as the video goes, finding sequences she likes and linking them together. But she likes to have a direction, an idea of what she’s trying to do, instead of just movement, followed by movement, followed by isolation. She moves over to the mobile and step right, step left, leg lift, turn—

“Gwen, hi, it’s Arthur I-“

Gwen did not think Arthur had ever called her. Merlin, certainly. Merlin sometimes called, shouted, “You are a good and charming person!” and then disconnected, just for the sake of doing so. Merlin wasn’t one to be forgotten. No, more energetic than that, it’s an upbeat sequence. Not just attitude, no, not just energy. Maybe she should just watch how Merlin moves for a day, take some of his gestures and incorporate them. No one is made of more energy than Merlin. Oh, that’s an idea.

“I... I’m sorry for bothering you.” He sounded distressed, his voice oddly distant and she could not think of a single reason why they were talking. But it couldn’t be good and she stops thinking about the routine. Arthur was also a creature of the physical, she and Freya had agreed, once. He isn’t good with words, and stops talking entirely if stressed enough, but he knows how to move. She’s addressed how he plays footie in a piece, once, the way his world becomes the ball. Freya had worked with her, letting her work with the ball until she was comfortable with how to hit it with her head, her chest, her feet, before she brought it to her troupe. He isn’t as aggressive as Freya, but he’s beautiful focused and…relaxed. His body is only happy when it’s moving with purpose.

“It’s no trouble.” She said. “Is something the matter? Not that something needs to be the matter for you to call me. You just sound... Um.”

“Look-- We’re.” Arthur’s voice cut out a moment. “Merlin’s hurt. He’s-- I don’t know if he’s dislocated his shoulder or...” There was a pained grunt followed by a few moment of panting and she looked at her phone in case it’d gotten a particular idea of what static sounded like. “It’s. A… thing… went wrong and we’re kind of. Can you please just? I’m sorry, Merlin, just don’t move any.”

“Where are you?”

“Our flat. We-- It’s going to look.. Just-- Don’t.” Arthur’s voice caught and he sounded scared, and she wondered what exactly they’d gone and gotten done to themselves. Household accident? She had the car, she would be the one to take them to the hospital. Home invasion? Unsafe dom? She knew Merlin and Arthur were close, probably close enough to want to do a scene together, if that was what they liked. She had a few dancers who were into that sort of thing, especially after one of those shows where they were all over each other anyways. You had to be comfortable with other bodies to do this sort of thing. But she had a hard time imagining them finding a dom they both liked, they were just…very different people? But fascinating to watch. Arthur reeling Merlin in, pushing him up, always there when Merlin needing catching. Merlin wound Arthur up, relaxed him back down. They had the beat of the other.

“Please come and don’t... Bring anyone. We might need to get Merlin to the hospital-- I don’t...”

“Calm down, I’ll be right over, don’t, um. Don’t do anything.” She got up and tugged her trousers on over her dance clothes and stuffed her bound feet into her trainers. “Should I bring anything? Is…I mean are you two alone. Now?”

“There’s no one else here. Merlin, for the love of Christ, stop moving, you’re just making it worse.

Gwen didn’t have to be good at words to know something else was happening here. She closed her mobile and drove.

---
December, 2011

Morgana knew how to get what she wanted. She’d been taught well.

Her father was especially skilled at it, of course, the lockpicking lessons, and the proper way to pick a pocket or handbag, but also the right way to smile, how to cry on cue, how to be a pretty, little innocent so daddy can rush in and save her, or rush in and make it worse (but only pretend) and they can get the payday. He knew how to smile, what to say, how to make people give them what they wanted in the hopes that they would get what they wanted. (“Gotta go for the ones with greed, Mork. No good person has ever fallen into a con, because no good person ever thinks they can get something for nothing. It’s the people who think they deserve it that pay out the most, babygirl.”)

She was taught how to throw a good punch, how to run like crazy, how to kick and bite and properly, really, fight like she was going to die. She was taught how to break someone’s wrist, three different ways to choke someone. She can get what she wants with her fists and her teeth, but she doesn’t do that often. Mostly uses that to keep what she already has, because she is not a mugger. She breaks muggers’ teeth, or their ribs, or, at minimum, their sense of wellbeing.

The other models had taught an object lesson about how to use being pretty to her advantage. And then, later, how to use being attractive. It’s something most attractive people learn, eventually, but you need to look at each target and think of how far you can push before it goes too far. Never push too far, unless you have something in mind for when you need to push back, and that only happened a few times, when she’d been young and testing herself out. Sometimes you needed to break someone’s foot and run like they could never even begin to catch you. The designers and photographers had taught her, in part, how to move, how to stop, how to pose and turn and twist to get herself in magazines.

Morgause had taught her how to put it all together. How to be dangerous, clever, changeable and lovely.

“How do I get him?” She’d asked, standing on the walkway and looking down at the two of them, because they demand her notice. No one else’s, because no one else cares to look. But she is looking and she…wants. They’re worth the second, long lingering, glance. Morgause has approached her, and Morgana always knows where her sister is. Usually next to her, as steady as mountains, and she is watching too. Wants as well, because they’re… well matched, Morgana thinks. The two of them come as a package, you can tell from the way they move, the way Arthur is already offering his drink as Merlin begins to steal it. The way Merlin shifts as Arthur does until they’re both comfortable. The way people take a look, want, ask and get denied with either an apologetic smile or a look that could cure leather.

“Merlin will be easy.” Morgause says. “He already wants you.”

Morgause has grown up to think of herself as the top standard of beauty, she has to think that if she wants anyone else to. Even eggs, if you put equal pressure on them, will not break. Not unless there’s already a crack. Morgause is seamless and Morgana is trying to be. Will be. Will weld herself shut, if need be, so she had to present herself as the most beautiful to be treated as lovely at all. Merlin…reminds her of herself, and it’s a bit warped, but the sort of warped she likes.

Morgana looks at Morgause and Morgause is studying them, compiling, and will report when she’s done.

Morgause gets that studious little frown that means something is wrong.

“What?”

“It’s harder when they’re happy.” She says and cups her fingers under her chin. “He wants sex.”

“Yes…” Morgana tilted her head. “What about Arthur, then?”

“Arthur wants guidance.” She turns her gaze. “He won’t accept it, he’s wary. He doesn’t trust people, he’s sitting with his back to the wall, he’s watching everyone, and letting Merlin do as he wishes.” She smiles a little. “He’s not comfortable in his own skin. He wants to be removed from it. Pain, probably, he wouldn’t want someone to be soft with him. He…” She frowns. “They’re very good friends.”

“So. Merlin?”

“Wants to be the centre of someone’s attention, he’s used to it.” She points to how Merlin is comfortably assured that Arthur is always listening, keeping chattering and never once snaps his fingers in front of Arthur’s eyes, or gets the kind of look like someone who's being ignored again. “Wants someone to…entertain?” She cocks her head. “Wants someone to impress. He’ll be beautiful for you, not much effort at all. But you want what you always want.”

Morgause knows Morgana doesn’t mean Morgana wants him in her bed. That’s easy, she can do that with anyone. She wants to keep some part of him for herself. She wants, even if she never sees him again, to have conquered some small part of his mind. She likes to leave a mark. When she submits, her doms earn it, and love her for making them. When she controls, her sub is hers for a night. For as long as she has them, they are hers. Morgana gets what she wants, because she has made it her lifelong study to figure out how.

Morgause stays silent for a long time watching the two of them and Morgana follows suit.

The two subs have an easy friendship, a partnership, maybe, of years and years. They’ve had no steady relationships to get in the way. Arthur had followed when Merlin had moved out to uni. They were solid. Impenetrable. Provided each other’s needs in tiny, effortless little ways that made her just want that much more. If they could... keep them. If they could keep them, then they would be perfect, an Arthur for Morgause, a Merlin for Morgana, it’d be…family.

A nice fantasy, for all she has no intention of properly doing anything about it. Yet.

“Theatricality.” Morgause says at last. “Make it big. Make it dramatic. Make it…larger than it is and he’ll remember it.”

“He has a good memory.” Morgana says and Morgause fixes her hair, it’s stiff with hairspray and mousse, thick with product, it takes on the appearance of softly falling curls, it has the image of something luxurious to touch, but it crunches under her fingers when she fixes her pins. She can’t look even a bit out of it tonight, she can’t look tired, or overworked, can’t look dishevelled, she has to last until 3 am looking perfectly, beautifully put together. Smiling and effortless, energized but collected. It’s all there in the makeup, in her hair and clothing, in her posture and smile.

It’s a big opening, and she circulates through the bloodstream, finding pulse points and making sure she beats along with them. Morgana wants this club to do well, to do ludicrously well, and she knows how to get it. She will conquer this city, it will belong to her. If, even, for a short time.

“He wants someone big.” Morgause says. “He wants someone larger than life, and if you put your mind to it, you could block out the sun, sister. Give him every single inch of that and he will forget he’s ever had anyone else.”

Morgana tilts her head to look at her sister. “And you want the other one?”

Morgause smiles to herself. “Seems a shame to break up a set.”

Morgana looks back at them, feeling…something. Something she’ll tuck away for later and examine. “It does, doesn’t it?” She agrees and pushes away from the bar, striding down the walkway precisely the way she does, because she does own it, and even if she didn’t, she’d own it for a little while. Only give up fake inches, Morkie. Only give them up when you know you’ll get back a mile. Otherwise you keep those in your pocket. No matter what, you’ve got to know who you are, because no one else is allowed to.

Morgause follows and the crowd parts for them. As well they should.

September, 2001

“No.” Arthur repeats, staring at the wall.

“You need therapy, Arthur. You’re out of control.” Uncle Tristan has his arms crossed. “Your anger is probably why you haven’t formed a proper soulbond yet. No dom wants-“

No.” Arthur repeats and stands. “Or does ‘no’ not mean anything to anyone anymore? You can drag me to whoever you want, I won’t do it.”

“Then how about we send you to a school that can-“

“The neighbours would know, then.” Arthur holds his ground. “I will make the biggest scene you can imagine. I will get myself kicked out of every school you can find and I will drag your names through the mud to do it.” Arthur works his jaw. “I am done with therapy, I am done with how you think I need to act.”

“Your mother-“

“Is dead.” Arthur pushes, packed full of rage and willing to throw his uncle in a woodchipper if he would just stop talking. “And the only time you ever talk about her, ever, is to say how disappointed she’d be. It doesn’t even mean anything because, if you’ll remember, I don’t know who she was. The only time you mention my father is to blame him, how everything is his fault.” Arthur squares his shoulder and shoves himself into his Uncle’s space. “I think she’d be disappointed in what a fuck-all awful job you’ve done in raising me.”

His uncle opens his mouth, then snaps it closed. “You can’t speak to your elders like that. You are a rude, unlovable child, and if it weren’t for your aunt’s insistence, we would have left you to rot somewhere. Your father was a waste, and you’re no better. Nothing good will come of you.” His uncle looks him over. “You’re an ugly, ill-behaved sub, and if your soul-mate has any mind at all, ze will never make zerself known. You will go to therapy, or I will find the strictest school in this country and hopefully they’ll beat this out of you.”

“This is how you talk to him?” Merlin says from behind his uncle and he turns around.

“Because, you know, that qualifies as emotional abuse.” Merlin lifts his tape recorder. “If you want to keep talking, that’s cool. I can- Whoa now.” Merlin steps back as Uncle Tristan steps closer. “You lay a hand on me and my mom presses charges on my behalf.”

“You will give that to me right now.” His uncle shoves out his hand and Merlin puts the tape recorder in his pocket, crossing his arms.

“If you think you’ll be able to see Arthur once I send him off-“

“You won’t send him off.” Merlin feels terrified, Arthur could smell the stink of muddy pond water, hovering just outside of consciousness. But Merlin looks like he could conquer England. Drama classes. “Do you think that’s the only thing I have on tape? I could ruin you in this community.”

“Hand that over immediately. Anyone who's met Arthur knows he’s out of control. Rebecca allows it to a degree because she feels sorry for him. But his mother would be appalled.”

“I have records of you insulting every sub in this neighbourhood.” Merlin’s breath is coming fast and Arthur is getting all this…fear and he just…pulls. Keeps it all locked up in himself and Merlin stands taller, smiling. “I have back-ups of those. No one would ever talk to you again. Or Rebecca.” Merlin shoves his hands in his pockets. “I don’t know what your problem is, but you’re going to leave Arthur alone, or you’ll regret it.”

His uncle looks between them, eyes flashing and his smile is thin. “Oh I see. You’ve perverted yourself that much?”

Merlin blinks and Arthur is holding onto the fear, all of it. Merlin can take care of this, and Arthur is going to hold onto all of his fear so it can’t stop him. He feels like throwing up, he wants to shove it away but he can’t. He wants to smash his uncle’s head into the mantelpiece so he’ll stop talking, for the love of God, stop talking, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop talking.

He’s got his uncle slammed against the wall, every ounce of rugby muscle pinning him there and he’s ready to rip him in half, oh god stop talking.

“You’re disgusting.” His uncle is shaking and Arthur can feel himself snarling and he isn’t doing anything. Just. Keeping him away and Merlin appears next to Arthur’s shoulder.

“Leave him alone, or I will ruin you. If you just shut up and stay out and we’ll be gone before you even know it. If you don’t I will take both you and Rebecca down.” He holds up his tape recorder in Uncle Tristan’s face. “Arthur, let go.”

Arthur lets go and his uncle fixes himself and then Merlin is in front of his face. “Engineer Winslow is so ugly it’s no little wonder she’s buried herself into a technical career. She needs to lose at least twenty pounds before anyone would think of touching her. Teacher Lester is far too loud to make anyone a good sub, she should learn to keep her mouth closed, I cannot believe how little control House-partner Lee has over his children, he is a dishonour to his dom—“

He goes pale and Merlin stops and leans in, whispers something and his uncle slumps against the wall after looking at Arthur, face going slowly, splotchily red. “How did you hear that?”

“Ventilation in the loft.” Merlin lifts his chin. “I can burn CDs and everyone you want to respect Rebecca will never look at the two of you again.”

“She’ll do something.” Uncle Tristan sniffs.

“You think I don’t have anything on her?” Merlin looks at Arthur and then back at Tristan. “Arthur is my friend. You’ve been threatening to send him away for years. Remember that time you shoved him in the car, only to have it break down a block away? Remember every phone call you’ve gotten just as the three of you have gotten into a fight that would end up with him in a boarding school?” Merlin rolls his shoulders. “Remember how you invited Rebecca’s boss to dinner and everything went wrong? Funny, all of those, really.”

“You destructive little shit, I will-“

Merlin holds up the tape recorder, and when Uncle Tristan tries to grab it from him, Arthur slams his wrist against the wall. Merlin tucks it away and smiles. “Leave us alone, we’ll go away, you can continue to be a miserable wanker in peace. Let go, Arthur.”

His uncle looks between them and Merlin holds up the tape recorder. “I will know everything you ever say again, I am high achieving, I am dedicated, and I do not care what I have to do to embarrass you into silence, and I fully intend on keeping my friend here.”

“You’re perverse, the both of you. They’ll catch you. It’s disgusting. You’re both disgusting.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Merlin says and Arthur can barely breathe he just. He wants. He wants to hurt someone and.

Arthur follows Merlin out the door, because Merlin is gripping his wrist. Merlin gets them to his bedroom, with all the projects and dirigibles and books, and he gently untangles his fear from Arthur’s, leaving Arthur exhausted. “Sit tight.”

“You don’t get to tell me what to do.” Arthur grumbles as Merlin tugs off his shoes and stuffs a pillow under his head.

“I do right now. I get to be bossy.” Merlin grins and scrubs Arthur’s hair. “Let me take care of this. No one, but no one, is sending you away from me.”

Arthur stares at him and nods, crossing his arms over his chest. Merlin licks his lips. “Sit tight.” He repeats and then leaves and doesn’t come back for…however long Arthur ends up napping for.

He doesn’t know, actually, precisely what Merlin said or played for Aunt Rebecca. He knows that when someone called Merlin a weirdo he punched them in the gut. He knows when someone tried to steal Merlin’s handbag he tackled them. He knows that when someone presses their suit to hard, Arthur is the one who gets them to back off.

 

But Merlin is the one with the plans, and when he comes back he kisses Arthur on the forehead and they lie in bed. The next day his uncle is…resigned, his aunt…furious, and no one makes him go see Dr. Whitman again.

---
Hymn 293

Let me be as a submissive
to our Lord God up above
Let me bow to zer orders
and be rewarded with zer love
Let zer strength stand and protect me
Let zer forgiveness cleanse my soul
Let me love zer like no other
Let me never falter, faint or fall.

Verse 1 of Hymn 293 from The New Lutheran Hymnal

---
December, 2011

Arthur was not surprised that-by the end of the night- they found themselves in a limo with Morgana and Morgause. Well. He was a little surprised by the limo, he’d never been in one before. Merlin was looking at the sunroof thoughtfully and Arthur was sitting a little closer to Morgause than was entirely comfortable, but not so close that he felt trapped.

“I should be holding a bottle of booze and standing up out of there and screaming ‘woooo!’ I think.” Merlin said, at last, thoughtfully. “It’s a thing people do. Telly told me this.”

“Given the sort of telly you’ve told me you watch, I think I’m going to have to keep you down here. Or you’ll end up getting hit in the head with a skull and we’ll be the opening to one of your murder mysteries.”

“It’ll be a cannibal.” Merlin told her, and they’re sitting next to one another, Arthur and Morgause on the opposite side. And she isn’t ignoring him, exactly, watching Merlin and then glancing at him for reactions, but she also isn’t trying to drag him into the conversation, isn’t doing the whole…small talk while our friends basically ride each other’s thighs…thing, that he keeps ending up in. “And a serial killer. And it’ll go on for the whole season and then Zaaaaach” Merlin shoved his face in his hands “I would have taught you the ways of love, you confused adorable little dom creepy face. Ugh. Ugh.”

“He is never going to be over it.” Arthur supplied.

Not ever.” Merlin said from behind his wall of not-ever-going-to-be-over-it. “Like, Bones, we’re all—with the exception of Morgause, that we would be on our knees for her so hard and letting her rationalize how pretty we are all over the place right? Right? We’re good with this.”

“Did she wear green on that show?” Morgana frowned

“She did.” Arthur leaned his head against the back of the seat. “Merlin could probably tell you every episode we see her in green. Don’t…don’t ask him to.”

“But. Seriously. On my knees all over the place. But Zach, I would break that poor little darling in.” Merlin shoved his face against Morgana’s arm. “And how much do I love that he is a dom? How much. How much do I love that they let him be that confused and socially awkward and literal and a dom. How. How much do I love that?”

“How much telly do you watch?” Morgana asked.

“An Internet. I watch an Internet amount of telly.” Merlin looked up at her and smiled. “I make Arthur watch with me so he knows what I’m talking about.”

Morgause smiled. “Morgana does the same with books.”

Morgana returned the smile, “It’s good for you. You make me listen to your music.”

“Arthur drags me to his films.” Merlin made the worst face and Arthur reached across to flick his nose, hitting his eyebrow instead when the limo jumped over something. “They are artsy and full of thoughts and social issues and talking. So much talking. That last one? That one was entirely comprised of talking and then some bad touching.”

“It was brilliant and terrifying and you are exceedingly plebeian in your movie tastes.” Arthur defended, because it had been an amazing film and Merlin had fallen asleep. Arthur couldn’t take him to anything.

“I just want there to be dogs and kissing and explosions, but no exploding dogs. I don’t see why that’s so…” Merlin trailed off, then purred as Morgana stroked over his head, letting her hand carry his weight and she smiled to herself, lipstick so perfect Arthur wanted to scrub his hand against it just so she’d stop being so…

He was sweaty, not terrifically well dressed to begin with. Merlin skirt was riding up his thighs, his legs shaved and his neckline dropping down until it would just take a bit of a tug to see his areola. Morgana was looking at Merlin like…like…like how doms looked at Merlin, when he was being silly, and sexy and adorable. Like they wanted to take him home and chain him at the end of the bed, and then make him meet their parents, but maybe not both of those at the same time.

Morgause, when she did look at Arthur, looked…speculative, Arthur guessed. She--

He felt like he was a skittish dog, or something, the way she was holding herself—body facing Arthur, an invitation, but no reach. No demand. She didn’t look at him overly long, and Arthur hated feeling…comforted, by that. Merlin needed to be the star; he talked in grand gestures and hyperbole.

He did it, in part, because that was who he was.

He did it, in part, because he knew who Arthur was. Arthur wanted to be backstage. Arthur wanted to do the lights and the music, the sound and the stage setting. Not…not act. Not be stared at. Just be window dressing to Merlin squishing his face around with his hands as he enthusiastically described how much love he had for something.

“What film?” Morgause asked, carefully. He wasn’t fragile. He didn’t need anyone being careful with him. But he. He also didn’t enjoy being rushed, either. Not fragile, dangerous. She was... She was showing respect, he thought, and maybe she was like him. Maybe she was used to standing back and watching and protecting. And he…

It’s a little too close to home, how this could turn out. Too close to a folder in Merlin’s filing cabinet, an invention he had made to get them through a long night, or two. Tori and Jennifer were two doms who had soulbonded, Jennifer tiny, rock steady and serene sort and Tori the curvaceously muscled mischievously playful kind, because why not? They never played with Tori and Jennifer (never, ever Victoria and never, ever Jenny), because they couldn’t figure out how. They didn’t know what it would look like. There was foursome porn to be found, of course, of two doms and their submissives all going at it. But it never felt…right.

Tori and Jennifer were for when they were feeling particularly sorry for themselves while Arthur worked on making sturdy wooden and ceramic jewellery for a commission and Merlin stressed over his distribution requirements, trading stories back and forth while Arthur squinted under the bright light of his work desk and Merlin chewed on his pen over his French transitional clauses.

But, of course, according to recent statistics the normally even balance between submissives and dominants (with a small percentage of switches) was pulling ahead in favour of submissives for reasons that people had a lot of theories about—pollution, overpopulation, the media—meaning that more submissives were identifying each year with no fiancé until much later in life, like Merlin’s mum. In the 1940’s it was generally assumed that if you didn’t connect by the time you were 18 you didn’t have a partner, but by the 1960’s one out of every fifty submissives who identified reported no feelings of any soulbond at all, and other children who would later identify as dominant shifted their entire bell curve over until it was more common to feel a connection at seven or eight rather than the previously normal thirteen or fourteen. It was not something parents were pleased about for a variety of reasons.

Most of their research about same-dynamic turned up either Fisher Mulder and Annie Carter documentaries, case studies, pulp fiction rip offs, psychological horror movie tributes or research papers, websites and porn sites about Group Stress Connectivity Syndrome and the army, There was probably a support website somewhere, some underground system, maybe, but it was hidden well and judging from the way people treated both of the above subjects, it was no big surprise. Electroshock therapy was mostly off the table these days, but heavy medication and “medically necessitated” bond splits were not. The DSM may have taken same-dynamic bonding out of their newest edition, but better to just keep it a secret.

But here they were, in a limo driving to…somewhere. Arthur hadn’t heard the conversation, really, just followed Merlin’s leading hand as they’d returned the bracelets and reclaimed their coats. Here they were, together, with Merlin flirting in his own particular way (“Like, DC doesn’t want to deal with soulbonds. Superman? Alien, so he doesn’t have one. Batman? Fiancée died, just to rub it in for him. Wonder Woman> Amazons are completely Non-dynamic. Green Lantern? Power ring just went ahead and stole that physic power for itself. Just ‘cause. They just do not want to deal with soubonds, but Marvel, like, fucking delights in them. Marvel is like ‘Oh! Oh! And then we tease at who their soulbonded partner is for the next thirty years. Except obviously Captain America’s is now dead, and he can angst about that, and Bruce Banner’s powers went and ate up his head and kind of made him a switch a little bit? But Tony Stark. We are going to motherfucking taunt you bitches over that.’ They are all bastards.”) and Arthur was being…courted? Soothed? And if they hadn’t been sisters, and Morgause had been Morgana’s dom, then maybe this could have...

Maybe this might--

But they wouldn’t. They’d see how they looked at each other, and Arthur was starting to get his ability to distinguish gender back, and without that grey area the entire ride felt doomed.

But wouldn’t it just be perfect? If they could find…something like that. People who would just let them…people they didn’t have to pay to not ask any questions and pretend they were stone-stupid.

Glass. It’s a film festival circuit psychological horror film.” Arthur replied, “I thought it was brilliant.”

“By Howard Isen? We saw that. With Kelly Stan, actually.”

“I’ve done a few shoots with her.” Morgana said, “she’s mostly an art model, she gets traded around this one group of genderqueer artists, for paintings and photography and the like, and they had a gallery opening where they needed a few more models, and I had a free weekend, so.” Morgana made a ‘and the rest is history’ gesture. “It was interesting, and then she’d said she’d been in a movie, so.”

“Did you like it?”

“I did,” Morgause said. “Morgana doesn’t particularly like psychological horror films.”

“There should be gore.” Morgana clarified and Merlin enthusiastically echoed her and then they were off talking about their favourite gore-fests, and Arthur was never, ever going to like the same sort of films that Merlin did, except the few times when something of their mutual interest came along, but then they wouldn’t agree on the parts they liked. Like The Dark Knight. They could agree on telly shows, but Merlin’s interest in films was an entirely different animal.

It was three-thirty am, they were in a limo and Arthur was very likely going to get shagged. And he didn’t mind the prospect.

Merlin and Morgana were discussing Repo! The Genetic Opera (“Why is there a famous singer if everyone is always singing all the time.” “That? That’s the problem you have with that whole thing? Not…why would anyone default on their organ loans if they knew they were going to get murdered? Not that?” “Well, I assume they’re all really dumb. They got a new heart because they’d thought it be cool. They’re not smart people. That’s fine.”) And he and a handsome, interesting dom were talking about a weird little Cinderella story.

Merlin was clearly going to get shagged tonight. And then they’d do the walk of shame back to their flat, sleep for awhile, Arthur would write the first draft of his article, Merlin might work on homework, and later that night Merlin would tell Arthur about all of it, the two of them wanking each other as Merlin voice stayed low and fresh in his ear.

But.

But maybe, that time, Arthur would have something to share. Maybe they would...maybe tonight would start in a shared room. Though, actually, maybe that was too much to hope for. Probably. But they might go up for a drink, and then Merlin would scoot closer, so Morgana would slip a hand up his thigh, because it would be there, all bare and tempting. Merlin had lovely legs, really, slim, and curved, pale and just, apparently, begging to be spread open a little bit.

Arthur didn’t shave, because the few times he’d tried he’d just cut himself up after a frustrating hour that had still left some stubborn hair clinging to his ankles and knees. And afterwards his legs had itched until the hair grew back, so, no. Arthur’s legs were bulky and unshaven and he did not wear dresses or skirts or even shorts, most of the time. Arthur’s body was not like Merlin’s. It didn’t invite anything.

But Morgause had been looking at him, in brief, polite bursts, like it did. The looks lingered on his neck, on his wrists, on…his stomach? And he didn’t... He had slept with five doms, all of them only once, four of them terrible and one of them had been, ah, “Sophia.”

So he’d slept with four doms who’d yelled at him because, fuck, he wasn’t Merlin. He wasn’t easy. He didn’t go down and he didn’t. It was hard because he wanted to. He wanted to have that fuzzy sense of perfect well being that Merlin described and he sometimes felt on the edges of his brain, but it wasn’t simple, and he didn’t leave his number and they didn’t ask for it.

It wasn’t going to work. He looked at his hands, and refocused on Merlin being as precious as he knew how to be, wide and guileless like all the world was his playground. A lie. But a nice one. Merlin’s focus shifted, immediately and he bolstered up Arthur’s mood, just shoved good feeling at him: love and affection and attraction until Arthur leant back in his seat and could ride those emotions better than any other drug he knew of.

“-and you’re like no, no Bruce. No. Stop being creepy. Stop it. Stop taking in all these young, some unidentified, kids and making them your sidekick and being creepy at them. For the love of all that is good, stop. Stop it Bruce. He is so creepy. Batman is fine, but Bruce is so goddamn creepy. Like, for the third Robin’s birthday? His super special birthday surprise was to dress Alfred up as future him and be all ‘One of your friends or family is going to go dark side, figure out who’ just to make him that more paranoid and isolated then he already was. He is so goddamn creepy, is Bruce.” Merlin was babbling on autopilot as looked at Arthur in glances, testing the waters. It must have been hard, being Merlin and never knowing if Arthur’s sudden changes in mood were due to external or internal factors.

“We have a theory that Alfred is a demon butler, a la Black Butler, who made a deal with the Wayne family that he will serve and protect them and then eat their souls when they die. And he didn’t get Bruce’s parents because they were murdered.”

Morgana frowned. “But if he has demon powers that makes him less… fantastic.”

“Well it’s like Batman. He’s a human. He’s a well-trained, very rich, supposedly intelligent human, but he’s still a human. And yet to compete in the Justice League they basically made him the God in the Machine. How does he do stuff? He’s Batman! It doesn’t even mean anything anymore.” Merlin explained. “There is an actual rule at DC that says that Batman can never actually, really fail. In the end he always has to win. So Alfred doesn’t even make sense. One bloke cannot run that entire household, unless he has demon powers.”

“And he wishes Bruce would stop pushing the Robins away, because he knows Bruce won’t have kids—”

“Except he does—” Merlin interrupted.

“Wait, what?”

“He has a psychopath broken kid with an insane assassin. It’s a thing that happens.” Merlin hand waved. “But Alfred wants all the Robins to be adopted so he can nom, nom, nom souls.”

“I have never been in this extended of a conversation about Batman.” Morgana replied. “I have never enjoyed a conversation about Batman, though, so… fair enough.”

“He is the creepiest.” Merlin made a distressed face and flapping his hands slightly. “He is made of all that is creepy and why, Bruce, why. Why no trousers on Robins ever?”

Merlin turned and Morgana was staring at him. Arthur watched their reflections in the window, as Morgana cupped Merlin’s face and just… took his mouth. Arthur wondered how you did that, exactly. Just dive in and claim someone with a kiss. Merlin and he had kissed. But it had never been. It had been exploratory and quiet, never…

Morgause looked at him and he turned. She cocked her head. “May I kiss you?”

Arthur blinked and glanced back at Merlin and Morgana. She was just…taking… what she wanted. She hadn’t yet pulled Merlin into her lap, and she kept her hands above his neck, but it was... She clearly had intent in any case.

Arthur looked back to Morgause, who cocked her head, waiting for his answer.

“Do you want to, or do you just…?” Arthur cleared his throat.

“I want to.” She asserted, firmly. “I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t. I would very much like to kiss you. I’d like to do a great deal more than that.” She wasn’t touching him, wasn’t moving closer and he studied her right back.

“But you won’t unless I say you can.” Arthur clarified.

“I won’t.” She agreed. “It won’t stop me wanting to, and I can’t say I wouldn’t ask again, but I won’t, unless you say I can.”

“And if I do.”

She smiled, mysterious and pleased and Arthur licked his lips. Kissing was. He could do kissing. He was very good at kissing. He’s had- ha- practice.

He glanced at Merlin when Merlin makes a little moan, one Morgana takes right from his mouth, her teeth on his tongue with a pull. Merlin was pressed against the door, radiating love for every moment of being pressed against a dom and a hard place. Merlin’s kinks were, generally, really straightforward.

Arthur turned back. “And if I don’t?”

She shrugged. “I could take you home. We could watch a movie. We could watch them go at it for the rest of the limo ride. We could tell them to stop.”

Merlin took verbal exception to that last one.

“I could offer you a list of reasons why letting me kiss you is the decision of a person with distinguished intelligence.” She considered a moment. “Or I could throw film quotes at you.”

Merlin pulled away and looked over. “He only likes the weird, brain-y—ah.” Merlin was pulled into Morgana’s lap, the two of them tilted so Arthur and Morgause got a nice view of Morgana wrapping his hands around Merlin’s waist in a firm, long-fingered grip.

He maybe should have stopped staring at them so much, but Merlin was flushed and he had his hands curled politely against his chest, head bent so she could reach him. Her hand trailed up his back and dug into the unruly mess of his product-ladened hair.

“Though if we’ve drastically misread the situation and it is, in fact, my sister you are interested in, you should let us know.”

“No, I. Uh.” Arthur cleared his throat. “I just.”

Morgause reached forward and nudged his chin over until he’s back to looking at her. She let her fingers trail along his jaw as she moved her hand back to her lap. He licked his lips and thought…though why not? She was handsome and she was, at least, looking at him like he was…attractive?

And Merlin’s arousal jittered up his nerves, bounced in his stomach, and he could never help but respond. It…

Arthur didn’t let her kiss him, so much as he attacked first. If she couldn’t beat him back, then she didn’t deserve any of it. She didn’t slam him down like he expected, instead she allowed his assault, allowed him to bite and slide his tongue alongside hers, to push himself up and growl. She got him by the chin and rose, tilted his head and smoothed her lips over his, hummed her approval and he--

The other doms, besides ‘Sophia’, had shoved him against a wall, or against the bed, or against something and he didn’t like to be manhandled. He wasn’t Merlin. Merlin liked to be slammed and lifted and shoved. Arthur likes to hold to... he wanted someone who would use him like furniture, who would like that he wasn’t some slim, svelte, fey creature instead of. Instead of pretending he was.

Morgause didn’t shove him. She didn’t climb into his lap either, but she didn’t shove him. She held her own, and let his attack continue. She replicated the way he’d scraped his teeth on her lower lip and smiled when his fingers clenched, didn’t pay attention to the way it was Merlin who moaned.

They were trading sensations, echoed them back and forth and Arthur shivered at the way Morgana’s nails bit into Merlin’s neck. Merlin let out a low, rumbling groan at Morgause’s teeth nibbling along Arthur’s upper lip. After a moment Arthur wasn’t sure who was reacting to what, and the two sisters probably thought they were the best at sex ever the way the two of them were just both, suddenly, entirely game for it.

They should have done this sooner.

---
cont.
Pavi lay weeping in the chest, rocked by the ocean and cleaning his bloody, healing wrists with his tears. He mourned his father’s madness, wishing he had been born ugly so never to drive his father to such terrible lengths. He prayed he would pass into Heaven and spend eternity kneeling for his soulmate, and if he was to die, he might die with as much grace as his Eternal Saviour had. He prayed, mostly, that his father could redeem himself from his madness and atone so he might join Pavi and his Mother in Heaven where they could rejoice in the light of the Guardian and this would be burned away as all terrible things.

But instead of death, a trade ship sailing to distant lands rescued Pavi. They saw the chest bobbing on the waves, and—hoping it to be full of treasure—and the boy they found inside indeed was. He was the loveliest creature any of the foul, working sailors had ever seen, and upon rescuing from the chest and hearing his wretched story, sobbed for all their drinking, carousing and woeful behaviour and they were forgiven. They fed and watered him, reforming their vulgarity and filth so he might be comfortable, and served him, for he had no hands and could not serve himself, and they told him stories so he might laugh and forget his troubles for a moment. But it was not his own troubles that caused Pavi to mourn and pray so, but the troubles of his father and the kingdom he had left behind, leaving no pity or woe for himself. They revelled in his pure soul as once they had in hard drink and loose submissives, and swore they would take him to the Emperor, so he might be protected and never have fear or trouble again. Pavi thanked them, and spent many weeks teaching them of God’s word, and singing for them hymns instead of shanties, so their minds were made clean and their hearts reformed.

However, such a night came when a storm brewed and the ship was tossed wildly, crashed, the sailors aboard dying to keep them afloat. When morning rose, Pavi mourned and prayed for his rescuers, but rejoiced that they had found their way to heaven. He had landed upon an island, and he climbed down from the shipwreck carefully, unable to take provisions with him, for he had no hands with which to pack them.

He walked for days and nights, bending to drink from a stream, and eating berries from bushes, pricking his cheeks and lips, but refusing to give into vanity. He walked and he found a tower. The door was open, and though he called and asked permission, no one answered. He entered the tower and walked up the hundreds and hundreds of stairs, finally reaching the top, which was the home to a powerful wizard, currently set to his evil work. The wizard gasped upon seeing the beauty of the boy, and allowed him the use of his chambers so he might bathe, eat and drink. And, upon hearing the boy’s story the wizard renounced his terrible ways. “How terrible that you should have such things as these happen to you.”

“I mourn only for my father, for my friends on the ship and my Mother are in Heaven, and I rejoice for their good fortune. But my father has strayed from grace, and it is for him I pray.”

“But why not yourself. You have lost your hands are away from your home and all you know. Never again will you play your harp, and your soulmate, should you find him in this life, will never hold your hand.”

“If my sacrifice has redeemed my father, I can only see it with joy.” Pavi replied and the wizard wept and promised to get Pavi to the Emperor, and though he renounced all his magic, he did have a wondrous ship and they set sail to the Emperor and the renounced wizard took care of Pavi, feeding and caring for him as if he were his own son and when they reached the distant shore, the former wizard shuddered and died. He had lived many centuries in his evil, and he had kept his life in the tower, and being so far away from it ended his unnaturally and painfully long life. Pavi mourned and rejoiced that his friend had found salvation and went to find the Emperor.

August, 1989

Arthur is small and the world is big. Arthur is small and the world is pain. His chest still hurts, a lot. To breathe is to hurt, but it doesn’t hurt as much as it did. It hurt a lot for a long, long time, except when he was in the hospital, when everything was constantly foggy and he never knew what was happening. There were a lot of strangers there, and two strangers who said they were his aunt and uncle, but they wouldn’t let him see any of his parents either.

He used to have three parents, all who loved and played with him and he’d thought he was lucky, because he had three parents, and he always had a lap to sit on. And now he was in a hospital bed, and there were other children, and he didn’t like any of them, and he had nightmares, but no one was there when he woke up.

When he’d gotten out the hospital, he’d had to go to his aunt and uncle’s house and that hadn’t been anything like home, he didn’t have any of his toys, and the sheets smelled bad, and the water tasted bad, and his parents still weren’t there. And he is small and the world is big and he doesn’t understand why people keep giving him toys instead of his parents. He doesn’t want any of them. His chest hurts. They made him dress up. It’s the same dress up clothing as… as when he saw his mums.

This building is like the hospital. His mums hadn’t visited him. He wants his mums, he wants his daddy. He doesn’t have his blanket, or his teddy, and his uncle is holding his wrist, but he doesn’t do it like his mums did, one on each side, him gripping their wrists back so they could swing him up on every step, laughing, and letting him ride on daddy’s shoulder when they got tired. He wants them back. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t. He doesn’t say anything, because maybe if he doesn’t say anything his mums will be back. They won’t be cold and alone and away from him.

This hold drags him along and he wants to go home. But they said he was going to see his daddy. He wants to see his daddy. So he walks as fast as he can and he’s behind his uncle, who is behind his aunt, and the halls smell like a hospital, but there’s a blue wave on the wall, so he follows that with his eyes instead. If he keeps being quiet he will see his daddy and his daddy will take him home. If he keeps being quiet everything will be okay. He just can’t say a word and everything will be okay.

The adults talk and he doesn’t care, because there’s his daddy in a chair, and Arthur wrestles his wrist away and moves over. There’s his daddy. Daddy will take him home, and take him to his mums (who can’t be in suitcases in the ground. They can’t be.) and he runs over before anyone can stop him and climbs right into his daddy’s lap. His daddy is here and he’ll make everything good again. He’ll make Arthur’s chest stop hurting, making breathing easier, make his aunt and uncle go away, and then he’ll have his mums and-

“No.” His daddy says, gripping Arthur’s waist. “No, no, no, you are wrong.” His face is turning red and he’s hurting Arthur’s sides. “No. Where is Igraine? Where is Igraine-” They’re trying to wrestle Arthur away and he feels something in him give. Pain, again, familiar, like being in the hospital again and waiting for his mum or Daddy or anyone, and getting nobody good. Then breathing hurts more. Can’t. Can’t breathe because. His chest. Can’t. Daddy. He reaches. He’s quiet. He’s being quiet. He’s not going to talk ever again if everything will be alright. If he just never talks again. His daddy’s face is twisted and Arthur is terrified but he doesn’t make a sound.

He reaches and they give his daddy a shot and he can’t. Can’t breathe. He needs his. He needs his daddy to make this okay again. His mums can’t be in those suitcases and buried. They can’t breathe down there. He wants to tell his daddy that they can’t breathe, they aren’t happy, they need him. He can’t breathe, but he isn’t going to make a sound. He’ll be good. He’ll be the best-behaved boy in the world if it’ll bring his parents back. He’ll never cry again. He’ll never ask for any toys. If they just walk in now, he’ll be good. He won’t tell them how his chest and side burn. He’ll be the best behaved, and he’ll follow them out and he won’t cry. He was...he was crying before. When the car exploded. He’d been crying. He didn’t tell anyone. He’ll be quiet forever.

He needs to get them out. He didn’t get to see them. The suitcases were closed and he’d been too small to open them. And people had said they were sorry. People had hugged him and it had hurt his chest. He needs to see them. He needs his daddy to hug him and this isn’t. This isn’t a hug. It hurts too much. Hugs make things better, and this makes all his hurts hurt again. His chest hurts so much and no one. There’s not one. He’d been crying and his mum had reached back to grab his hand and--

They get him away and the world swims around him, because it hurts. He doesn’t make a sound. He doesn’t. He won’t, because he’d cried in the hospital and nobody had come, and his mums always came when he cried so... So he wasn’t going to anymore. His daddy is being taken away, still shouting at Arthur, screaming, screaming. Arthur doesn’t hear the words, and he doesn’t move when his daddy grabs a clipboard and throws it at him. Doesn’t move when it hits him in the stomach and clatters to the floor. He won’t cry. He won’t.

Arthur is silent, his Aunt’s arms gripping his chest and it hurts, it hurts too much to breathe, but he isn’t going to cry. He isn’t. If he just keeps quiet everything will be good again. He made a deal. He. He’ll never talk again if it brings his mums and daddy back. And now the nurse is holding him, and he coughs, and it hurts. He should tell them it hurts, but he can’t. He won’t. His aunt yelling and he just.

He’ll be quiet.

He’ll be good.

 

January 2012

Gwen didn’t ask. They. They’d never asked about her deal, and she’d always been the most…accepting of their friend group (former friend group?). She was even-keeled. She. She might not. She would at least help them. Arthur wrists ached, fingers tingling from how hard he’d been trying to break the handcuffs by sheer force.

She just got there, followed Arthur’s voice and stopped in the doorway briefly, taking in the room for only a moment. How she got in the flat proper Arthur didn’t really think about until she was already there. Maybe Merlin had given them a spare key. Maybe she could pick locks. He didn’t. She was there and she was. Arthur hadn’t been thinking properly. Wasn’t. Thinking properly, just trying to wrestle the pain from Merlin, trying to calm his own panicked heart.

“What do you need me to do?” Gwen asked after a beat.

“Grab Merlin’s trousers.” Arthur ordered, “he left the keys in them. The.” Arthur’s jaw clenched shut and he stayed silent until she fumbled the keys out and bent behind him to get his hands free. There were bright red welts around his wrists, he was still naked and she was… but that didn’t matter half so much as snatching the keys from her and getting on the floor next to Merlin. He was bent up and breathing, arms still twisted up awkwardly behind him and his face had gone white from pain, tiny little sobs echoing out on the exhale.

“You’re okay. You’re okay, I can fix this.” Arthur carefully freed his hands and Merlin let out a punched-out grunt of pain as Arthur felt around his shoulder. “The joint is still in place, I think. I’ve seen plenty of rugby injuries; I know what a dislocated shoulder looks like. But you probably tore a muscle, because you are not an escape artist and I had a plan. I had.” Arthur slowly got Merlin up on his feet, Merlin sighted Gwen and shoved his face into Arthur’s shoulder, and Arthur could feel the exhaustion and pain, pulling Merlin down like a wet towel. This was Arthur’s to deal with.

“Okay, we’re going to get you dressed and get you to the hospital. It’ll be fine.” Arthur tried to keep his voice soothing. He didn’t think he was succeeding.

“Just cut out the pain and let me sleep.” Merlin mumbled, trying for joking and completely failing. Gwen hovered awkwardly, biting her lip and wringing her hands, but still not asking as Arthur got Merlin dressed. Their secret was out. It had to be out. There was no way she could think anything else was going on. She. She wouldn’t think they soulbonded. She probably thought Arthur was... nondynamic and Merlin just…humoured him. There was plenty of evidence to that.

Or. Or they were perverts. Or. But they’d both been handcuffed and so they both. They were subs and. And she was still in shock but she was going to pull away after this, they couldn’t hang out with her and Leon, Freya and Elyan and Percy and… well maybe Percy. Percy had once had saved a same-dynamic couple from hecklers by tying the hecklers to a tree and explaining why they were wrong, before taking everyone out to dinner and, through the magic of Percy, making them like each other, rounding out the night with karaoke. True story. So. Maybe Percy. But. But not Freya, or Gwen, or Elyan or Leon and they. They were friends. They’d had friends finally.

So he just got Merlin in his clothing, carefully grabbing one of his own dress shirts and sliding it over Merlin’s arm and carefully around his shoulder. Merlin swam in it, as he always did, and hunched over himself as Arthur closed the buttons, keeping his breathing as even as possible, hazy around the eyes. Arthur bolstered him as best he could, even if Merlin wouldn’t let him take the pain, and then got him into his shoes. Only then did Arthur get his clothing on, shoving himself into his trousers and hoodie with little regard to anything except being decent enough to go outside.

“Can.” Arthur began and Gwen interrupted with “of course.” and they were on their way to the hospital. He’d say Merlin tried to pick up something heavy the wrong way and. But the welts. He’d. He’d say he’d gotten a safety call? His hoodie covered his own welts, he’d just be careful about gesticulating. An accident. He sucked at coming up with stories, that’s why Merlin did it.

Gwen still didn’t say anything, tapping her fingers against the wheel of the only car their entire friend group had. Leon’s purchase, because he had this idea that they could take road trips and have wacky adventures. Mostly it sat and sometimes it’d be used to get off with somebody, but they had it. Gwen, Arthur and Leon could drive it, Freya had nearly killed them all, and Merlin got a look of desperate terror in his eyes, followed by a giddy mad-with-power feeling that made Arthur drag him away from the wheel and ban him from touching it until he stopped being a nutter.

“How do your hands feel?”

“Fine.” Merlin leaned with his good side against Arthur. “Mostly everything is fine except for the screaming pain in my shoulder.” Merlin grit his teeth and Arthur’s insides were entirely comprised of worry and trying to take the pain away from Merlin and Merlin refusing to give it up.

“Stop that.” Arthur whispered. “You’re about to pass out. Let me have some of it.”

“No. You need to.” Merlin whined and Arthur caught him around the back of the neck, rubbing along one trip-wire tight tendon. He looked up at Gwen and then squeezed his eyes shut. “I’ll think of something.” He murmured, and Arthur carefully squeezed Merlin’s wrist. “No, just. I’ve got it. I can take care of you.”

Merlin looked up at him and then closed his eyes and kept breathing. “The sub-drop from this is going to be really bad for me, by the way.”

“What?”

“I... May have convinced myself that I’m being good if I can just-- I’m being good.” Merlin kept breathing. “I’m being good.”

Arthur swallowed and didn’t grab Merlin’s hand, though he wanted to with every atom he had, because Gwen didn’t properly know and that. Just. Any grey area would be. Would be good. “You are very good. Just keep being good for me, okay? You’re brave and strong and you need to let me take some of the pain, okay?” He kept his voice as low as he could, Gwen listening to the radio up front to give them some sense of privacy. “Shh, I’ll take care of you.” He rubbed Merlin’s neck. “Just give it up.”

Merlin whined and shook his head.

“Do it.” Arthur ordered, snapped, and the pain flared in his arm, white-hot and intense, the searing hated fire of a ruined muscle. He refused to let himself react to it beside clenching his teeth and cradling Merlin’s relaxing body. Merlin still had the lion’s share, but his breathing came a little easier.

Merlin was easy. And if he wanted to drop into headspace to contextualize the situation, fine. Arthur could. Arthur could protect them. He stroked through Merlin’s hair and quietly repeated every porn line and quoted phrase he could remember, letting Merlin drop farther, letting him curl up against him and get foggy and distant from his body, coating Merlin’s head with every bit of love he had, of respect and…and possessiveness. Focusing on Merlin in his shirt. Merlin leaning against him. Merlin needing him and nobody else.

Merlin was willing let himself be duped, leaning heavily on Arthur once they parked and went to Emergency, eventually Arthur just hoisted him up and Merlin clung as he always did, bad arm curled up on his stomach and being good and not crying even as Arthur jostled him with every step.

Gwen stayed as a silent, steady presence next to them, watching Arthur fill out Merlin’s information, not saying a word when Arthur knew every single item and Merlin kept sitting on his lap, gripping onto Arthur’s shirt and keeping his eyes closed from everything. Arthur almost stopped himself from burying his fingers in Merlin’s sweaty-greasy hair, checking himself, looking around, and then his shoulder just kept spasming so he did it anyways, ducked his head and ignored the rest of the waiting room.

He should have thought of a story. Of how this happened. But he can’t-- He can’t think of.

Merlin inhaled. “I was with a dom, play-struggling. The scene was going fine, complete consensual and I pulled myself just the wrong way. They called you, my safety call, to come over, because he didn’t know what to do and I’d passed out from pain. Gwen offered to drive you, he’s near to here, and so you decided to drive me instead of calling 999. It was a stupid accident.” Merlin voice was shaky and quiet, he swallowed, kneading at Arthur’s shirt, not looking at Gwen.

Gwen was staring at one of the extremely outdated magazines, pretending she’s in an entirely different room.

“They’ll pop my shoulder back in joint, and I’ll be fine.”

“The tendons—” Arthur began, knowing about the shoulder. It’s just a sort of cup and ball, and only tendons hold the ball joint in place, and if they get too stretched out, he’d need surgery and… And soulmates needed to be sedated together, for surgery. The body could still feel what the brain was too far gone to, and it’d just…and they’d know. They couldn’t

“Shh.” Merlin’s breath was still shaky, his face still blanched-white from pain. He closed his eyes again. “Shhh, he petted Arthur’s hoodie. “You got me. I’m safe. You can keep me safe.”

Arthur swallowed and tucked his head against Merlin’s scalp. Held on.

December, 2011
They wind up in a penthouse.

A mother. fucking penthouse. With like…huge windows looking at other buildings, and a Jacuzzi and a telly that was bigger than a telly had any right being, really. Morgana hung up her coat and stretched, back and back until her spine popped. She climbed out of her shoes and buried her toes into the carpet.

Arthur took off his shoes, because that was just what you did when you went inside someone’s house. Merlin looked around, hands tucked in the small of his back, rocking back and forth slightly as he took it in. Morgause took Arthur’s jacket from him, and hung it up where he could find it easily, putting Merlin’s up beside it.

“Coffee?” Morgana asked. “Tea? Liquor of some kind?”

“Do you have a brandy snifter?” Merlin perked up. “Or port? In those, like, super tiny sipping glasses. Oh, hey, you have an actual bar.” Merlin scurried over and Arthur stood in the entryway and watched Merlin investigate.

“How are you this effusive at three thirty am?” Morgana asked, following him at a statelier pace. Arthur and Morgause wind up on the couch, watching. “And not high.” She said taking him by the chin and looked into his eyes. “Mmm. No pupil dilation—oh, no, there it is.” She plucked up a heavy crystal flask, puts it on the bar and took the stopper out. “Brandy snifter.”

Merlin sniffed it and made a face. “That is roughly six hundred percent too fancy for me.”

“How about vanilla rum and orange juice?” Morgana asked and Merlin snapped his fingers in agreement.

“That is my exact level of fanciness. Things that taste like things that come out of ice cream trucks are the things that are my level of fanciness. Not that I ever got to see an ice cream truck, but it’s a truck! That runs around with ice cream! It’s the most solid business plan I’ve ever heard of.”

Morgause huffed, amused. “They play off each other well.”

Arthur nodded, and started to feel how it was three-thirty am. “I’ll take you up on that tea, please.”

She nodded and placed a hand on his shoulder as she moved to the kitchen to brew a cuppa. Arthur turned around, stared at the blank telly, listening to Merlin and Morgana playing off one another like they were Pong, or something. Arthur worked at a dead piece of skin on his thumb. A burn, or cut or something. His hands were so beaten, used and callused that abuse was just another thing that happened.

“I didn’t know how you took it, so.” She put down a little pot of cream and a sugar bowl, along with a few thin rounds of lemon. He put a bit of everything in and drank it down, the tea was scalding, but you had to drink it fast or—

“Tea!” Merlin clambered over the couch. “Tea for me?” He made grabby hands and Morgause put a mug in his hands, slipping a proper teacup into Morgana’s. Merlin made a pleased noise and dumped far too much sugar and nothing else, smiling and generally being as rambunctiously precious as possible. He had tried sultry, vampy, sub next-door, and approachable and mysterious, bratty and everything else under the sun, but adorable worked for him. He was marvellous at being so precious you wanted to hold him down and fuck it out of him.

Arthur was just…he didn’t. Have. Anything. He wasn’t any kind of seductive. He just. Was. He didn’t draw anyone in, that wasn’t what he was here for. Morgause was sitting too near to him to make him believe that entirely, at the moment. Merlin leaned against Arthur’s arm and pulled one of Morgana’s feet into his lap, working on them with his thumbs and Morgana makes a pleased noise. “Never met a dom who didn’t want their feet rubbed.” Merlin said, shifting and snuggling closer to Arthur under the guise of getting more comfortable. “Or an Arthur that didn’t need his forearms massaged. Hint. Nudge.”

“Taken and accepted.” Morgause said and plucked up Arthur’s left arm, and she…knows what she’s doing. Arthur’s forearms always hurt, he does stretches, alternates heat and ice, but the combination of typing, woodwork, and occasional fistfight isn’t terrifically kind on his arms or hands. But you don’t rub someone’s hands. Merlin will do it, when they’re home alone, Merlin kneading Arthur’s palms, rubbing at each knuckle, lacing their fingers together and using his thumbs to make Arthur head drop forward so they can watch something terrible with kissing, puppies and explosions. Arthur had watched many horrible films in the name of getting his hands to stop hurting.

“Not the crook of his elbow, though.” Merlin said and worked her at the big toe and the balls of her feet. “I get that heels make doms feel all big and sexy and powerful, but dear fuck does it mess up your feet.”

“That’s what pretty little subs with talented fingers are for.” Morgana knocked her free foot against Merlin’s chin, then pushed past to rest it over the back of the couch. “I might just want to do this the rest of the night.”

“He had cats as a child.” Arthur said, face lolling against the back of Merlin’s head.

“I’m very well trained,” Merlin intoned gravely and kissed her ankle. “And because I can’t think of a smoother segue, would you like to see?”

Arthur couldn’t see his face, but he knew Merlin was giving here the dorkiest smile he had and Morgana tapped Merlin’s face with her foot again before turning backwards over herself like Stray after a successful heist. She held out a hand. Merlin placed his wrist into it as formally as he knew how and she tugged him up. “You two have fun. See you in the morning.”

“If you don’t wear him out too much he’ll make crepes in the morning. If you do wear him out too much he’ll demand crepes in bed.” Arthur said and Morgana made a speculative noise and she tugged her capture down the hall.

He didn’t watch them go, because he knew he’d stare, and staring was telling. Instead he turned to Morgause and watched her work his wrist. “You needn’t feel compelled to play with me if you don’t want to.”

Arthur stared at her. She looked up at him and quirked a smile. “But I can promise you won’t regret it if we do.”

Arthur should have had something arch or flirty to say. This was the moment for something arch or flirty.

“What do you want?” Is what he said instead, because he was good at life, clearly. He wiped his mouth and shook his head and she disregarded the question. “So, listen.” Arthur began, instead. He got up and stuffed his hands in his pockets like he could lose them somewhere and thus have a reasonable excuse to go home. “I. This isn’t what I normally. Do.”

“One offs?” She cocked her head, giving him her full attention and he felt disquieted. He wasn’t used to attention being a “good thing” from anyone but Merlin. Generally if people looked at you like that it ended poorly. But Morgause asked for things. She was... tactical. She looked at Arthur like she knew he’d bolt with the wrong move, yes, but she didn’t make wrong moves.

“No. Or sceneing in general really.” Arthur stared at the giant telly and then at the tiny tea set on the table.

“I have my list.” He went to his coat and pulled out his wallet, thumbed through and handed her his yes/maybe/no/really goddamn no, list, written in ballpoint and pencil on creased notebook paper. Merlin had a printed spreadsheet that he replaced whenever he found out something new about himself. Arthur just scribbled it on with pencil. Mostly in the no/really goddamn no section.

She took the paper from him and read it, considering. “I imagine the ones in pen are the ones you researched and took a distinct disliking to, and the ones in pencil snuck up on you.”

Arthur nodded, looking down the hallway. “If I were in a committed relationship with someone I trusted I might reorganize a little, but. Right now that’s pretty solid.”

She rubbed her lip and considered, putting her feet up on the table and he looked out the window.

“You don’t like things that humiliate, degrade or in any consideration, lessen. You do like things that restrain and punish.” She noted after a moment, quietly. “I had no intention of humiliating you.”

Arthur shrugged and continued to look out the window. “I think a better question is what you want. I have preferences, of course, but you look rather more...” She cocked her head, studying, “Hard done by.”

She continued to look at him and his stomach shifted inside him. He cleared his throat and rolled back his shoulders. “I just. I don’t go down.”

“Easily?”

“At all. Usually. And I don’t mean subspace, because I’m not sure that exists. Or. Or if it does then I don’t. I mean. I can’t get into any kind of headspace at all, usually, and doms get upset at me about it, and it just gets worse when they try and...push it.”

She considered this and slowly stood. “So you’d consider yourself…challenging?”

“Sub on expert mode.” Arthur shrugged and lifted his chin. “Why, you the sort who likes a challenge?”

“Let’s say I’m not the sort who lets a thrown gauntlet lie.” She didn’t touch him then, like they would on telly. She just stood nearby with intent. “Talk to me.”

“What?” Arthur watched her as she moved past him to grab a chair, setting it down next to him before retrieving her own.

“I’m not going to go in blind. You have a hard time submitting, but it isn’t going to be solved by my dominating harder. You don’t want me to backhand you, press your face in the ground and make you lick your blood off the carpet.”

Arthur jerked and she nodded. “My point. And if all your previous partners have responded to your... disinclination as purposeful baiting, then I can only imagine how that would make the situation more difficult. I need to know where to apply pressure.” She sat and relaxed in a controlled sprawl: owning the chair and staring him down. “So. You’re a protector.”

Merlin made a noise loud enough to be heard down the hall and Arthur turned, like he could see if he tried.

“She’ll take good care of him.” She added. “He is not so difficult, is he?”

“Merlin’s easy. He gets in his headspace when the telly yells at him with the right tone of voice.” Arthur turned his attention back. Wouldn’t do him any favours if he spent all night pining down the hall. They’d both shoved their attention away from the bond, but. But maybe once he was into it, he could cheat a little? Merlin already felt fuzzy edged, like Arthur could crawl into his brain for a nap, if he wanted.

“Which is a good reason to be protective of him.” She studied him, thoughtfully, and Arthur met her head-on, because he wasn’t... He didn’t just back down like that. “But he’s safe right now, and enjoying himself. You would know if he wasn’t.”

Arthur tensed and she gestured down the hall. “He’d call for you. Morgana hates gags, she finds them...detracting from her overall aesthetic purpose.”

He rubbed his hands together and stared at the couch. “Look. I’m just. I’m complicated. Or. Just. I’ve got a lot of...brain trash just sort of sitting around and we’re not going to get through that in one night so let’s just. I mean. It’s not that I don’t—” Arthur rubbed his face and took a deep breath. “It is not that I do not wish to try, I just don’t want the backlash if it...”

“Alright.” She agreed, and it was. It was weird. The few doms Arthur had slept with, that he’d told about his whole…issue, had immediately latched on and thought the problem was that his previous partners simply hadn’t shoved him around enough. They hadn’t done this…sharing and caring and feelings business. Maybe he should have tried sceneing with doms he could talk to, instead of just ones that wanted him that he would consent to scene with. But that would have made his already small pool of potential partners a drop in a wineglass.

“Why not tell me what you like?” Morgause folded up his paper and gave it back to him. “I can see the things you will do, but I want to know what it is you need right now.”

He shrugged because he didn’t know, really. Or, well... He did. He enjoyed when Merlin made up a world for them, but he didn’t know if he liked it, or he liked the way Merlin liked it. He had a whole host of things he was pretty sure he hated, but, again, he didn’t know if he hated them objectively, or if he’d just had a poor introduction. But then, there were only a few things he craved that Merlin couldn’t give him, and he’d might as well take the opportunity.

“Impact play.” He looked at his feet. “Not in a punishment or humiliation sense. Just unto itself. I--” He pressed his lips together. “Sorry, I know you were just in for a fun night. Sorry. I can.” Arthur moved toward the door and Morgause gripped his wrist and pulled him back in.

“I am not here just for a night of fun. I knew you’d be difficult.” Morgause cocked her head. “You’re like me. Morgana and Merlin are the ones with the open minds and easy hearts. They are theatrical, they play the part.” Morgause smiled a little to herself. “Morgana says she’s not an actor, she’s just the stage. She is dressed and she becomes 1950’s small town America, or the throne room of a majestic palace, or the blank black box theatre. But she still becomes what people want her to be.” Morgause stroked her thumb along the inside of Arthur’s wrist. “Your Merlin is a…storyteller? He has the hand gestures and vocal intonation of one.”

“Yeah.” Arthur licked his lips.

“So. They’re theatrical, they’re used to slipping into different headspaces. They’re used to allowing others to make them other people.”

“And I don’t?”

We don’t.” Morgause pulled him a little closer, slipping her other hand around Arthur’s wrist and moving her free hand to his waist. “We are ourselves. We do not become other people for anyone. Who we appear is always exactly who we are. We do not shift gears. When I dominate, it’s because that’s exactly what I want to do to someone. They inspire that in me.” She trailed her fingers up to Arthur’s elbow, moving them closer. “If I don’t feel it down to the marrow of me, then I don’t do it. I only do exactly as I believe. And, if I am not mistaken, you are much the same way.”

Arthur watched her and she tilted her head, searching his face, considering. “You can submit. You just won’t unless that is exactly how you feel, and nothing I, or any other dom, can do will make you change your mind. You won’t until you want to. You won’t until you find someone who you trust and you won’t find someone you can trust until you trust someone.”

“Catch-22.” Arthur tilted his head up. “So, what do you suggest? If I can’t do something I believe, and I can’t believe something until I believe it, and I don’t believe in you, yet.”

“That I hit you.” She slid her hand up to his shoulder and rubbed his shoulder. “I just hit you. You tell me if you want it harder or faster, lighter or slower. You tell me what you want it with, and you tell me when you’re done. I hit you, because I like seeing my marks on somebody, and you get hit, because that’s what you need right now.” She carefully carded her fingers through his hair. “No mind games, no teasing. You don’t need to trust me to take over for you. We have the kind of fun we want to have.”

Arthur paused, looked down the hall. Merlin was down there. Maybe. Maybe the rooms were right next to each other so he could hear. “So I would just get comfortable, and you’d let me position myself however I wanted and then you’d hit me?”

“With whatever you wanted, however you wanted. I’m not in charge of you, you aren’t in charge of me. It’s a rather straightforward physical exchange. You tell me to stop, and I will. And if I want, or think I should, stop, I will. No bells. No whistles.”

The prospect of getting what he wanted without having to muddle through the complications of everything else that usually went with it was... It was a much better deal than he’d thought he was going to get, when they’d climbed into the limo.

“What do you have?”

She arched an eyebrow and then turned, offering her wrist. He took it.

They went down the hallway and into her room. He sat down in the desk chair as she opened her tool chest. It had usual assortment to be sure, but it lent itself well to what he was interested in. She had got the run of it, all nice quality from what he could tell and clearly well cared for. She stepped back and hovered a hand over them. “Examine them all you like and pick whatever you want. I’m skilled with all of them.”

“How skilled?”

“Professionally taught and examined.”

Arthur raised his eyebrows. Not a lot of doms outside of professionals could say that, and Arthur’s skin still tingled from how ‘Sophia’ had worked him over, just the right amount of force, the blows perfectly spaced… It’d made him relax. Not drop, but at least feel somewhat…comfortable in his skin. Like it was something he belonged in. Something he was meant for. Merlin always explained it like he was being made better, that he was being made…good? And Arthur just saw it as…as settling in.

She pointedly turned her gaze away so he could think about his options. He didn’t take anything out, just spent a moment touching. He’d never been head-over-tit for leather in and of itself. He liked the sharp tangy scent of it, yes, and he could appreciate something that was made with care by artisans who knew their craft. He liked, mostly, that they were things people had put time into. That someone had made that particular strap with their hands, that they had examined it and hung their hat on its quality. The strap was worked in, but not worn out, soft to the touch, but heavy enough to really leave a mark. He considered it a moment, then puts it back as carefully as he’d found it.

Merlin made a loud, shuddering noise in the next room and Arthur could feel it in his gut. Merlin had never been very good at being quiet, and he wouldn’t try to be, especially, if Arthur was the only one who was going to overhear him. Maybe Arthur would be louder than him for once. Give him a story worth hearing. Maybe. Maybe tonight would be…good.

He did prefer wood, or other plant life. He was used to it. Woodcrafting was the first hobby he’d ever found that he’d liked. He knew how it should feel under his fingers. And the cane was a beautiful piece of work, high quality kooboo rattan woven evenly and without flaw. He picked it up and measured the thickness. She had several weights and sizes, and this was a lovely example of a senior judicial cane, a good 10 millimetres thick, beautiful and glowing in the light. She had a junior cane as well, a tiny, snappy tool that would barely leave more than a bit of a sting, provided she didn’t try and slice his skin open. It would be good for someone who wanted, say, a naughty school child fantasy, but not that actual, proper pain of it. Still resting in its slot were two suitably terrifying reformatory cane, 12 millimetres thick, the other half an inch in diameter, neither of which he had any intention of touching.

“These are very high quality,” he noted.

Merlin and he had done a lot of research, back in the day, looking at pictures, watching videos, sitting on top of each other and studying the submissive’s face carefully, wondering how each hit felt. They’d weighed the heavy, fleshy, thump of something rubber, versus the shuddering, gleeful smack of a flat paddle, or heavy leather slipper.

The cane was smooth and unmarred: clearly his choice. He stood and offered it to her on his own two feet, chin up, no declaration, pleading, or request. His stomach seized a moment, but she just took it from him and stroked the very tips of her fingers down the length, like she was looking for fault. She ran her thumb along the handle as she gripped it. She was clearly familiar with it. This was her craft.

“Do you prefer a warm up, or to be put directly to business?” She tested her swing in the air a few times, even and measured and he was thankful she couldn’t actually tell how much he wanted that up against his skin. His throat ached with it, a need he could feel behind his teeth.

“Warm up.” Arthur wasn’t sure whether to get undressed then, of if he should wait for her to tell him. But she wasn’t going to tell him. That was the point of this. This was. This was something new.

She stepped out of her heels and placed them in her wardrobe. She closed the lid of her chest.

He pulled off his socks, stripped his trousers and his (entirely too utilitarian, really) pants off and then stood there a moment, with his back turned, before yanking off his shirt. He was not a coward. He’d been naked before. It wasn’t a big deal. If she was the kind of person who couldn’t stand to see a sub with some flaws, then she was not the kind of person he wanted to scene with anyways.

“I have found the bed is the most comfortable place to play, either the posts or the mattress, but there is also the desk, chairs or walls,” she offered, holding herself back from him. He stood there a moment, then looked over at the wall, climbing on the bed, right up against the headboard, so he could place his palms against the wallpaper. He could hear Merlin more clearly from here, the low near-constant murmur of his voice rising and falling in pitch and tone as she did whatever she was doing to him, as he contextualized it however he wanted. He wondered what story he was telling. Hopefully a good one.

“Do you want anything to help hold you up?” She asked, gesturing back to the chest. “They don’t have to be restraints. They can just be something to hold onto. She held up a pair of climbing-rope-strength nylon loops. “Or I have any number of bondage implements, if you’d prefer to be restrained.”

Arthur nodded to the loops and she smiled and pressed his forehead against the wall, digging his nails in and if Merlin were here he would come up with a reason why this was happening. But if Merlin were here, he wouldn’t be getting caned, and Arthur hadn’t gotten this sort of release in ages. Not without having to get on his knees, kiss the whip, look down at their feet and ask for it nicely. Follow all the rules. He knew all of them. His uncle had taught him. He. He knew how to ask. But he wasn’t being ask to be in any of the formal kneels, he wasn’t being asked to refer to himself in the lower third person, wasn’t asked to refer to her in the higher second.

Or he might get a few cursory slaps on his arse for his trouble, might get bruised, or he might bleed. He’d get nothing close to what he wanted. And then he felt worse for having to ask for it, especially when he was used to Merlin’s semi-omnipotent fantasy doms who always knew exactly what Arthur wanted and needed.

Morgause put up the loops and Arthur slipped his hands inside, wrapping his hands around to get a grip. He could slip out in a moment, he settled on his knees, braced himself and didn’t watch her. “Warm up with the cane or something else?”

“Cane.” He said and she stroked down his back with the long edge of the tool, following the curve of his spine, over his arse and down his thighs. “Any areas off limits? Ones you want me to pay particular attention to?”

Arthur shifted. “Um. Stay. Don’t hit my front and. Um. CBT is not. Obviously kidneys and I don’t. I don’t like my arms or the bottom of my feet whipped.”

She nodded like all this was fair and continues stroking him with the cane.

“Not my shoulders or upper back if we’re using a cane. I just. Traditional, I guess. Arse, thighs, that…sort of thing.” Arthur watched the wall shudder a little, they both listened to Merlin’s high-and-tight cry and Arthur gripped the cord and took a breath.

She started with a few teasing little cuts, tiny stings along his thighs, a bit of blaring warmth. Arthur shifted and settled down. He liked a little bit of a warm up. If she just went for it, he tended to react like it was danger. But a warm up was good, provided it didn’t go on too long. Then he got an inch between his shoulder blades, a hunger under his muscles, and he got…tetchy.

“That’s good.” He said, after a moment, a part of him squeamish as fuck to say anything. You weren’t supposed to order. You asked, you formally requested you begged, and, mostly, you accepted what was given to you. “I. Just like you would anyone else I gues-ah.”

Arthur jerked under the first hit, and it blared, bright and beautiful and like the only light in some foul pit. His breath hitched and Merlin was warm, deep, inside him, tangled up in pleasure and pushing himself closer to Arthur, his little cries just audible if Arthur rested his forehead against the wall. She kept the strikes even, rhythmic, something that was nearly lulling, how it shook his body and then rose high, mingling with the rest of him. He closed his eyes and breathed. Strike, inhale. Strike, exhale. She didn’t change it up to put him off his toes, and when she crossed her strikes, she was careful, hitting lighter but making those welts…His skin itched to sweat, it would bead and bleed into the welts and she might have to stop because wet skin bled easier.

His first dom made him bleed. Arthur was very good at-- He’d learned well how to not talk. Not talking was second nature, just hiding himself down deep in his gut, no matter what happened. Falling off a swing and refusing to cry out, someone else from the playgroup stealing his cupcake and not making a protest, quietly watching his babysitter and his dom making out and feeling each other up on the couch when he was supposed to be in bed, because he’d needed a glass of water and hadn’t said anything. Quietly, quietly, quietly slamming that self-same cupcake-stealing child’s face into their own birthday cake without comment. Forrest Mark.

His first dom had made him bleed, because Arthur had been scared and he hadn’t known how to say anything, so they just…hit him. With their belt, and it had been too wide and too sharp on the edges—sewn closed instead of a single strip of leather—and he’d bled and the dom had called out and sent him home still…messed up and silent because the dom, like all of Arthur’s classmates, hadn’t been able to look his stillness in the face.

When he made a noise, Merlin made one as well, matching him, and when he opened himself a little Merlin was right there, high as towers and just. Arthur could sink into that. It wouldn’t be the same as his own, but it made his head feel soft and dark, made going down seem so easy, but he dug his heels in. He didn’t. If something went wrong he’d have to.

“You’re tensing.” Morgause notes. “Should I continue?”

“Yes. I just.” Arthur shook his head like there were flies on the inside he had to be rid of. She kept going and he couldn’t feel wrong in his skin. He couldn’t. It was too tight for him to rattle around in. It was being tailored to him, the mugginess of pain clashing out thoughts. He was just. And there was Merlin, warm and inviting and the pain, hot and searing and Arthur, hung. Like a childhood science experiment about buoyancy, hanging in the middle of a fish tank. The pain built, and it wasn’t. It wasn’t a direct translation to pleasure. It hurt, he wanted to get away and move, it was too much. Not enough-- he needed to be hit until his skin pulled too tight and he just…split open and found himself in the mess.

His second dom hadn’t…they hadn’t liked that Arthur didn’t go down. It ruffled her feathers. It’d started out nice enough, but escalated when he’d still been too…himself, he guesses. She’d gotten angry with him. She’d shoved his head down, hogtied him and insulted him, spat on him when that did work, and when he’d finally, finally, found his voice enough to safeword out, he hadn’t looked at her at all before scrambling for his clothing and getting out as she tried to tell him what was wrong with him. Melissa Rangely.

Morgause paused for a moment. Her inhale was audible, a beautiful little noise of ownership and he turned. It was Morgause’s eyes that made him shudder. Her tempo was strict; her hits fell like she was trying to make him into something. But she wasn’t looking at Arthur like he was... Precious? Well, like he was the only one she wanted anywhere near her bed, and maybe he only knew what that looked like because Merlin. She was too hard to be Merlin, but there was a similar quality. And that was new. That was. New.

He shivered and she stops, hovering a hand over his shoulder. He nodded and she stroked, carefully. “Good?”

He nodded again, like he was all he knew how to do. He took a few deep, careful breaths. She pressed a finger to one of the red, raised welts and he jerked, gasping.

“You could make noise if you wanted. I wouldn’t judge you.” She stroked her knuckle along one throbbing line as he hunches over and hisses. “I would enjoy it, in fact. It can be very therapeutic, I hear. Not telling you what to do. Just mentioning.” her breath hitched as Arthur twisted. “You are, indeed, lovely.”

“You are good at what you do.” Arthur licked his lips. His blood felt too hot, his skin too tight, toes twisted into the sheets and fingers against the cords. “This…I feel…weird.”

She trailed her nails up to the back of his neck and she stroked. “Good weird?”

Arthur shook his head and his skin was hungry. His muscles ached, his…his teeth ache and he couldn’t. He didn’t know what he needed. He just. The skin under his nails itched. “I don’t know. I just.” Merlin usually made this easier. Merlin knew what to say.

His third dom and him had managed, at least, to get through the whole, insipid, boring scene. He’d wanted to roleplay, but it hadn’t been up to Merlin’s…level, and Arthur had sort of lay there and played along, gritting his teeth with frustration at the barely-there spanks, and he hadn’t come, but his dom hadn’t much seemed to care. His dom had liked it well enough, but Arthur hadn’t stayed for aftercare, hadn’t left a real number, gone home and felt…sick with himself for staying for the whole thing. It hadn’t been bad, exactly, not in a traumatizing sort of way. It had just been…bad. Tyrone Pith.

The wall jumped and Arthur kept shifting. He was fidgety, he couldn’t...

“May I try something?” Morgause asked, quietly. “I don’t…like seeing my partner distressed.”

Arthur shook his head and rolled his shoulders. He tried to catch the rhythm of his breath. Tried to- His- Buzzing. He might have nodded his head, he just- He needed.... He hungered. Everything buzzed and tingled and hurts and his throat ached. She grabbed him by the hair, carefully, deliberately.

“Arthur, listen to me. You are fine. You are safe.” She rubbed his neck. “You are here with me. And you took that beating—no.” She stopped and inhaled, rested her head against his shoulder. “Feel the marks, Arthur. They’re yours. You wanted them. Enjoy them.”

Arthur shifted and she scratched lightly down his back. “Do you feel these? Those are yours. They belong to you. You earned them, why are you fighting them?”

“I don’t. I feel.” Arthur tugged at the ropes, rolled his forehead against the wall. Merlin had stopped talking, and…Morgana must...

Arthur listened, desperately, for noises from Merlin. A catch in his breath. A whine on the exhale. He wanted them to be in the same room. Two beds, no. No. Same. One big bed, Morgana on one side and Morgause on the other and he would be able hear. He would be able to watch Merlin and know if he was okay. But he felt okay. He felt…drifting, happy. Arthur smiled briefly, tried to let it soothe out all of his rough, sharp edges. He was too…he was too jagged. He.

He squeezed his eyes shut. Skin was too tight. Skin was tailored wrong, too narrow in the chest and too big in the head. That was what he got for buying something off the rack—no. Charity shop.

Merlin had gotten his bespoke, custom made and beautiful, settled right over his bones. He knew how to wear makeup and how to walk and if Arthur could just slip into Merlin’s self for a day, then everything would be sunshine and boneless, brainless jellyfish (“Sea jellies”) drifting through the water like trash bags.

Everything was sharp. He was going to impale himself. No. What was the word for that? Merlin knew the word for that. If you got a cracked rib and it…went through your lungs or. Or if a leatherback turtle got tonsillitis or.

Merlin had told Arthur’s fourth dom to get blown by a leatherback turtle. They hadn’t even really gotten to the scene. It’d been a date and they’d-- Too personal, too fast. Asking if Arthur had been raped and that was why he was so closed off. Tried to get naked pictures of him before the dessert and he’d called Merlin and Merlin had shown up and thrown a glass of wine in her face before taking Arthur home without a word. She hadn’t let Arthur order for himself and scowled when he tried to tell her what he might like. She’d gotten him a salad. With balsamic vinaigrette. Anita Bower.

His thoughts felt like holding too many things at once. Something would give. Drop. Fall. Clang. Crash. Whatever the sound was for when things were still reverberating on the floor and the room had gone quiet because everyone was staring at you

“Shhh.” Morgause put her hands on his hips, holding on tight. “Shhh. They’re yours. You took them, you earned them. Stop fighting them. They’re your prizes.” She nestled mouth to his ear. “Your victory. Relish it.”

“It-- I don’t... I want to be able to.” Arthur dug his fingernails into the wall. “I can’t.”

“You are not giving in. You are not weak. You are not getting fuzzy. You aren’t going down.” She followed his arms. “You are strong for accepting this. You are beautiful. Shall I quote arcane things for you? There are High Queens, well mannered and lovely from crown to slippered foot, but O! my dearest liege, but O! you are the only who shall have my sword.” She pressed herself along his back. “I hit you as you wanted. Feel what you deserve.”

Arthur reached out blindly, but Merlin was deeper down than he was, and dragged Arthur with him, sinking them both into the ocean, a warm ocean. With terrifying creatures that Merlin can point out along the way. Arthur almost felt like they’re the same, right then. Not separated by a wall, or skin, or personality. A single, centred, creation. Something unbroken, melded together and steadily and perfectly as if planned.

Arthur’s fifth dom was a gift to him from Merlin, designed by Merlin, perfect, only, in Merlin’s image. The closest they’d ever had to what they wanted, and it still fell short. Too exposed, flayed alive, fuck, fuck.

“Go.” She commanded and he…hung, and he didn’t get in the right headspace, but he did…something and the world narrowed down to just. Merlin, and the way Merlin felt and the way they should be able to click together and complete a circuit instead. Redundancy. Program error.

*
Arthur didn’t see his sixth dom check the time and make note of it. He did feel when she freed his hands from the straps. Did feel when she pressed his head to her lap, did feel her stroke through his hair.

Didn’t notice as she listened to her half sister doing the same to his…friend…on the other side.

---
cont.
So it came that Pavi found the Emperor, but was refused entrance. Pavi stood at the gate, watching as members of the rulership came and went, standing as his sleeves draped over his hands. He did not beg, and he did not steal, instead standing outside the gate for three days and three nights, watching as the guards changed and asking again if he might see the Emperor, and again being rebuffed at each attempt. And Pavi may have died there, had not the Emperor not chosen to go for a ride.

The Emperor was a wise and powerful ruler, and as he left the gate he saw Pavi, and wondered that one of his rulership should wait for entrance, for he wished to hear the grievances of all his people so he might cast judgement and fix problems. He asked his guards why they had not allowed Pavi in, and they said he was not of the rulership. The Emperor guided his horse to Pavi, who had bowed his head and stood waiting.

“Young one, what is it that you wish to speak to me about?”

And when Pavi raised his head, the Emperor felt his heart shudder, for there, as truly as sunlight, was his intended, beloved and most pure. He leapt from his horse and swept his beloved into his arms, laughing with joy that such good fortune had befallen him. He held out his hand and Pavi turned his head, and the Emperor pressed his hand to his beloved’s face. “My life and joy, why will you not clasp hands with me? Surely you feel as I do, that we are a single soul. It is only right that we should touch.”

“My lord,” Pavi said, “I cannot clasp hands with you, for mine tempted another to sin, so I cast them away to save them. I am sorry to be so ill-used for you, my lord. For you are Emperor and your beloved should be pure and perfect, and I am not.”

And the Emperor saw that his beloved had no hands, and he was filled with grief that his most perfect and beautiful should have hurt in this way. “My soul, what has happened that caused this? You are far more beautiful and lovely than any other, and if you were not, I would still love you, for your soul has walked along mine all these years.”

And Pavi told him everything, as the Emperor took him inside his beautiful palace, for his rulership was vast and powerful and for every wonder Pavi had ever known, the Emperor had a thousand. The Emperor wept for Pavi’s terrible fortune and good spirit in the face of it, and he had them wed immediately, happy that his beloved had hurt himself, rather than led another to sin. He could not clasp hands, but he revelled in the beautiful spirit that shown along his own, and their rulership shown brighter than any other for Pavi’s love and virtue, leading all those to the path of righteousness, and the Emperor cared for Pavi all of his days, until they died and entered into the Kingdom of Heaven together, hand in hand.

end

- Myra Anders “The Straight And Narrow Path: A Christian Book of Fairy Tales”

December, 2011

Merlin’s yes/no/really, no list is a carefully organized and laminated note card, which does not have a “maybe” column, because, as he says, if it isn’t on there, he’s willing to try it once, unless it is a derivative of something on the really, no column. He pokes around her room with absolutely no shame, looking at the glass swan on her desk, and begins talking about the mating habits of swans in a disturbingly conversational tone, while she thinks.

“You have roleplaying underlined twice and circled.” Morgana notes, when he reaches a pause point. He’s flipping through one of her books, head tilted and he looks up, like he forgot he was talking.

“It’s a really, very, super yes.” Merlin shrugs. “I mean. I don’t need it. But it’s really, very, super yes.”

“What kind of roleplaying?” She taps the laminated card against her cheek. “A little dress up? Some props?”

“Umm.” He shrugs and rubs the hem of his skirt between his fingers. “I’m kind of disturbingly into it? Like. All into character. You don’t have to be if you don’t want to, just playing along is fine, but I tend to. Uh. It’s like a story, in my head.” He looks at one of the drawings she’s hung on the wall and studies it awhile. “I like stories. I like the way people contextualize their world and impart knowledge. And then I also really like trashy, trashy romance novels. I mean, just horrible stuff, where the good sub is kidnapped by a terrible, horrible, filthy brigand dom, and ze cannot be zer soulmate, ze simply cannot and there’s maybe some really problematic rape apology in there somewhere because they don’t speak the same language and the brigand knows their soulmates so ze just goes for it and…” Merlin shrugs. “So I like that, but only in a fantasy setting, because in real life that is the absolute worst and I would punch anyone who supported it in all of their faces.” Merlin runs his fingers over her footboard and grips it.

“You’ve very open.” Morgana notes and watches him. He’s smiling and far too energetic, considering the time, and she wouldn’t mind just…chaining him to her bed and keeping him there for awhile. He’d be lovely to come home to, she thinks, he’d even enjoy it for a while. He’s built of stories, and she could make him tell her all of them, about how she’s a demon, and he jumped from a bridge, and if you throw away your life, someone might take it. Or how she bought him as a pretty little decorative piece and has no problems riding him hard and leaving him to suffer once she done. Or she’s a wizard and he’s her demon, or familiar, which she can use any which way she likes. He’s filled to the brim with stories and she isn’t an actress, but she likes knowing what she’s displaying.

Merlin hops up on her desk and swings his bare legs in a purposefully adorable way. “I like getting what I want. What I want is a good story, and you’re the most beautiful woman in the world.” Merlin said, and his tone was perfectly, on-key, matter of fact. “Unto You— most lovely, unto You—most perfect, unto You—most knowing: this lowly servant gives himself.” He bows his head a little and then peeks up at her, a tilt to his smile, formal words tripping out like a tongue-twister well-rehearsed.

“She sells seashells by the sea shore.” Morgana says, instead of the formal reply, because she doesn’t think standing on ceremony will get her very far.

Merlin replied without missing a beat. “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, popped the pickled peppers past Petra Piper’s pack, who put the pickled peppers in poor Peter Piper puppy’s punch, so Peter Pipers puppy pee pickled peppers on Petra Piper’s puce purse.”

Morgana raises her eyebrows, cracks her neck, “A bitter biting bitter bit a better brother bittern and the bitter better bittern bit the bitter biter back. And the bitter bittern, bitten by the better bitten bittern, said: ‘I’m a bitter biter bit, alack!’”

They stare at each other. “Girl gargoyle, guy gargoyle?”

“Agreed.” She says and they stand off for almost a full minute, before Merlin trips over himself and laughs, poking his tongue out of his mouth and shakes his head. “Alright, fair enough. I consent to your victory.” He hops off the desk and leaps like the floor is made of lava to the footboard of the bed, holding onto the bedpost and staring at Morgana, bare foot circling the air. “So. What do you claim as your prize?”

She looked down at the little note card again. “Are you sure you don’t want me to wrestle you? You like man-handling and I may know a bit about that.”

Merlin’s eyes light up and he crawled over the mattress and extended over the bedspread, cradling his chin in his hands in a posed look of charm and whimsy. Morgana huffs and puts her feet up on the mattress. “What kind of roleplaying were you thinking of?”

Merlin looks down at that, rolling back up to his knees and then scooting to the edge, taking her feet back up on his lap and began working on her arches, moving back up to her toes and tugging each one, her big toe popping and Morgana settling down, tapping the card against her chin. “You have something specific in mind, but you’re stalling for time so you don’t seem creepy.”

Merlin shrugged. “You inspire imagination.”

Tell me.” She rotated her ankle and he cupped her toes shaking her foot back and forth to try and get some of the tension out.

“I can add any elements you like in.” Merlin looked down at the blanket. “I’m adaptable. But. Um.” He clears his throat. “I mean if you don’t like it I can change problematic elements.”

“Ah, so there are problematic elements.” Morgana nudged Merlin’s arm. “If I want something I’ll tell you. Now, tell me what you want, you have imagined something. Stayed up late one night, put a scenario together. How tailored is it? Off the rack? With a bit of tailoring for me? From a designer line? Completely bespoke?” She knocks her foot against Merlin’s knee.

“A previous sketch left on some coffee shop napkin, reborn and redesigned with you in mind, sketched out from every angle. Fabric picked out, cut, and pinned, on the mannequin and waiting for your first fitting.”

She likes this. She wants to hear the scenario first, of course. It might be boring. It might be any one of the boring dime-a-dozen porn scenarios, the light burning behind his eyes might be faux-fire, might…might not be the addicting potential she hopes it is. She hopes he’s as beautiful inside his head as he sounds like he is. All those memorized things have built something worth seeing in there. Not the overly complex rat-maze of some pet fetish fantasy, locked up too long. Not a straightforward costume-shop job. Something with meat, something with teeth, something that is worth holding onto. If he can do that, if he can make a story worth listening to. Then. Then she is going to keep him chained at the end of the bed by his wrists and squeeze every story he has out of him.

If Vulgate takes off the way they think it will, she could be in the business for a kept sub. She could get Merlin all the pretty dresses he could stand, tow him around on one of those designer chains, let him liven up a few parties. She could only imagine how much less boring they’d be with someone like Merlin talking into her ear about how they’d constructed a jellyfish out of rat heart cells, and then explaining to someone rich enough to be in a party mostly comprised of models how that worked and what the purpose was behind doing that.

She knew a few designs he would be perfect for, with those legs, the slope of his shoulders, pale, lovely skin. She could dress him in complementary colours, a lovely collar…maybe…silver? Metal. Arthur would look best in leather, of course, but Merlin would look good in metal, with some…sapphires.

Merlin licked his lips. “Can um. This is dumb, but can I be on your lap?”

Morgana re-adjusts herself without comment. “Usually the storyteller is the one who is sat upon.”

“We all have our methods.” Merlin grumbled and climbed on, shifting around so nothing was digging into her thighs. He rubs one of the buttons on her waistcoat, trailing his fingers along the line of buttons. “What I normally do is tell you the story, tell you who you are, who I am, what the scene is. Hit the high points, you saw what to avoid, you add some ideas as they come to you…” Merlin stroked over her bowtie, fiddled with one of the ears, tucked his free arm over her shoulder. “The night takes off from there.”

“Costuming?” She asked.

Merlin raised his eyebrows and Morgana pointed to the closet doors. “Walk-in, packed to the gills with a lot of options, if you like. I’m a switch fashion model with your colouring, and at times in my life, your body type. I have a lot of options here.”

Merlin smiles and nuzzles her cheek. “Oh, I like you.”

“Tell me.” She takes his chin in her fingers. “Don’t feel too much pressure for it to be brilliant, except for the bits where you do such a lovely job of convincing people that your brain is everywhere at once. So, perhaps I have some high expectations.”

Merlin licks his lips. “I think you’ll like it.”

“Mmm?”

“You get to be a God.” Merlin offers, stroking her arm. “Nearly every Pantheon had a switch God, and they are, to me, usually the most interesting. Tricksters, sometimes, like Anansi, who is both man and spider, who is both clever and stupid, who is both dom and sub, all at the same time, always. Loki and Coyote, obviously. And then you have non-Trickster switches, usually to stand in for…or I mean. Like Janus, whose got two faces and is the God of doorways. So he’s less both dom and sub at all times, and more…one half dom, and one half sub, like they got grafted onto each other, but that’s that for you. The Holy Spirit is considered a form of switch, depending on the canonization, but also sometimes non-dynamic, so it’s up to interpretation, but since Christianity is technically monotheism and the Guardian is dom, and the son is sub, so if they are the three in one, then the one, technically is both dom and sub, so. Ganesha, the God of Luck-” Merlin stops when she puts a finger to his lips.

“Focus,” she says. “While I appreciate how much more research you have done into my gender than anyone else I have ever spoken to—or worse: listened to— there is a time and a place.”

Merlin smiles ruefully and looks contrite until she lowers her finger. “So, I am a God. I like this so far.”

“You are a God of pain and pleasure. You can’t have one without the other, the switch god makes sure of it.” Merlin plays his fingers over her collarbone. “Do you want to be a Trickster?” He cocks his head. “Are you straightforward? Are you mischievous?”

“Mmm…maybe slightly… capricious?” She smiles, rubbing Merlin’s throat with the back of her knuckles. “It wouldn’t be good for you if I were predictable. And, speaking of which…you are?”

“Well.” Merlin snuggles closer. “I am, of course, your fervent follower. I get on my knees for you every night and you grew to like the quality of my prayers.”

Morgana laughs and sticks her thumb in his mouth. “So, I grow to love your rambling, and instead of asking me for suitable lovers, or to bless your marriage, or to give you a little more of one side of myself and less of the other. You…talk to me like a friend.”

Merlin laughs and nips her thumb. “You are my patron God, you deserve all my love and thoughts.” He says, pulling back, before sinking his mouth back down on her finger. His mouth is hot and he twists his tongue over her thumbnail.

 

“So, you are precious and lovely and so very faithful, so I kidnap you into my bower for a night of…my talents?”

Merlin ducks his head and smiles, still sucking her thumb.

~~~
His prayers are, by far, her favourite. She gets thousands of prayers, daily, more by night, lovers all calling up to her, pleading that she bless their union. But his prayers are always singular, and long. Poetic, perhaps, in their inclusiveness. She is not the one who gets beautiful, lovely prayers. It is not her who gets the long, drawn out praises. Hers are frequent, yes, enthusiastic, surely. But brief, unimaginative. Powerful, in their way, filling her veins with life and her fingertips with ability.

His prayers are entertaining, throwing up joy to her for things that are, maybe, under her purview, but no one ever thanks her for, bowing to her siblings in this matter, the God of joy and despair got many prayers that could, perhaps, be hers. But Merlin’s included all the things that pleased him, all the things that pained him, and praised her for both, thanking her for her gift of bliss so he can enjoy it, and equally so for her punishments so he might learn and grow stronger.

He had been a darling young submissive entirely devoted to her. He’d been worshipping since puberty. He had looked upon the Pantheon he had been taught since he was a young boy, and, at the tender age of twelve, put his token onto her altar and hasn’t looked back since. He was unafraid to grab her attention, even as she tested him. He never faltered and was never satisfied even when she gave him rewards, didn’t relax his faith, and didn’t falter once.

She was the god of pain and pleasure, she was a god who both doled each out and accepted both. She was not, as some of her siblings, either one thing or another, being firmly a giver of joy or despair at any given moment, but always, simultaneously both. Pleasure and pain were interlinked, tightly woven together in a lovely pattern that must be view in its entirety to be fully enjoyed.

And, if she was to have a faithful follower, then what, exactly, was the point of being a God in the heyday of her power and prestige, if she wasn’t to…examine him personally?

He looks lovely in her bed, all pale skin warmed by candlelight, no clothing and just her medallion around his neck, where it always resided. She did not have temples like some of her siblings, she did not have grand houses of worship where he could have been a lovely little acolyte. She would have lain him like a sacrifice on her own altar and prepared him exactly as she wanted, in front of all her priests and let them know he, at that moment, was favoured.

But her altars were wherever people made them. So this bed would be her altar and this lovely little mortal would be hers to devour however she liked. At this moment, she wanted him stretched out over her bed, stretched across it and bound, exactly like the kind of offering she would actually accept, had she temples and sacrifices and services.

She stroked through Merlin’s hair, feeling his dreams flutter under her fingertips. They’re good dreams, sweet little darlings that she could just eat out of his head like candy. Full of fluttery, beautiful little thoughts, most of which he gives to her, on his knees, in a formal Offering kneel, giving her plenty of time and thoughts and all of his emotion, all of his bliss, all his agony without question, without hesitation, does not try and shield himself and when he rages, he rages and laments and mourns and gives every ounce of that to her, and it sends shivers up her spine, arrests all of her attention.

She grips his hair, and he wakes, because she wants him to, groggy and slow, still and little under, just enough to get that slow, sleepy wonder as he blinks awake and stares at her. He blinks and tries to reach for her, then turns to stare at his bound wrist, then down at his ankle, before going back to her and biting his lip. “Um, hi.”

She strokes over his nose. “Hello there, little darling.”

“My liege,” he managed, then frowned at how slow and sloppy his voice sounded. He ran his tongue between his teeth and frowned, then smiled because a mortal being in the presence of a God tended to have…reactions. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but there certainly weren’t unaffected. “I feel…um. Hi.” He shifted on the bed and licked his lips. “I. Didn’t have anything prepared for this, actually. Um. You’re…”

She plucks up the medallion from his chest and rubbed her thumb over it. “You’ve prayed to me for hours every single night since you were thirteen and you didn’t even consider what would happen if I took notice?”

“Whatever you wanted would happen.” Merlin smiles, content with everything. “You are you. I didn’t think you’d take notice. I mean. You must notice everything, but. I didn’t think I was. I imagine you get much more eloquent prayers and praises than what I have to offer, from... um. Nicer looking people.”

She huffs a laugh. “Are we fishing for compliments, little one?”

He fidgets and she examines the medallion. It is a simple one, not cheap, and almost certainly the best he could afford. She likes being in the notch of his collarbone, likes that if she pushes down on the medallion with her thumb he’ll cough, struggle to breathe a little. She likes that he wears it around his neck, like she already owns him. Others wear their medallions on their wrists, in their hair, on their ears, dangling from any number of piercings. And she likes that, like the pain people go through to have her on them, the sharp, aching tribute present every time a lover pulls on it, afterward.

“Is it not simply enough that I chose you?” She asks and he looks ashamed with himself and she flicks his nose. “Hush now. You have my attentions, though you may regret that.”

Merlin blinks at her, slow and confused.

“I am who I am. I am not like, say, my sister of Order and Chaos, who does not inflict the latter, just takes away the former. I do not give gifts and take them away, I am not at one moment present and another absent, I am who I am, Merlin. And you know this.” She stroked though his hair, gentle, caring. “You know this, little one. That is why you praise me, even when you suffer, truly, honestly suffer. Not a bedroom game, not stubbed toes. But when you grieve…” She cradles his head and presses down on the hinge of his jaw. “When you grieve. When you hurt. When you are in agony of the spirit or body, you give yourself to me. You trust me. Not my siblings. Not my parents. You give yourself only and truly to me.” She inhales and he doesn’t fight her, she could gouge out his eye and he wouldn’t fight her, she thinks, except for the instinctual writhe of a body in pain.

“So, you know, that if I wished it, this could be about your suffering.” She took his lower lip and pinched it between her knuckles. “That would please me exactly as much as seeing your writhe in bliss would. Or any combination of the two. Would you praise me then, if your skin was hanging off you in tatters?”

He stares at her and then carefully reaches and bites her knuckle, eyes wide and blue as a song. She cocks her head and strokes his cheekbone. “Or perhaps I will torture you another way. Make you feel good until you lose every single bit of yourself to it and you longed for something to take your mind off it. Would you still be mine?”

Merlin smiles around her knuckle and she pulls back. “You will do whatever you want with me. Just as you always have. You are going to do whatever makes you happy.” Merlin smiles and he’s all teeth and joy, all eyes and ears and pale, uniform skin. Ah, of course, nicked and cut here and there. A burn here. A scrape there. But those are just part of the canvas, like the hair over his chest and the indents of his ribs. A life lived leaves leftovers.

“And you’re happy with that?”

He inhales deeply, closes his eyes and smiles to himself. “That’s for you to decide.”

“And you’ll accept my choice?” She fits her thumb into his navel, tugging downwards. Maybe she’ll leave him pierced. That would be a good present, she thinks, to let him wake up in his bed with her mark firmly on him. Or a tattoo. A brand? She’s branded a lover or two before, and they screamed for the honour. They lived their lives differently afterward. What would he do, she wonders.

“I’m yours.” He repeats. “You will do what you want with me. I may try and convince you to do things I like, but…” He shrugs. “Mortal human. We have our flaws. One of them being that I’m really selfish. But I’ve also loved you as long as I’ve known how to, and I guess I’ve grabbed your attention, somehow, and I hope in a good way, and…and whatever you want to leave me with that’s.” He shrugs, helplessly, hands lax in the bonds and smile fidgeting over his mouth. “That’s what I’m happy with having. But I think.” He licks his lips. “I think you’re happy. That I’m yours, I mean. I think you want me to keep being yours. And I will.” Merlin added, fervently, even as she digs her nail into his skin. “I will be, unless you drive me mad or kill me, or…or whatnot. Because then I wouldn’t be. So. If you want to test me, then that’s good, however you want to do it. Because I’m happy if you. I mean. I’ll do my best.” He licks his lips and looks down at her hand on him.

“Oh little one.” She rolls over to lie on top of him, rest just enough weight on him that he has to struggle to breathe, and he does struggle, but doesn’t complain, staring at her with all the respect and love that she is due. Or, if not love then…she is not used to love. That is not what she is for. People enjoy her, but they don’t love her. Merlin does, though. He wears her medallion around his neck, where he should be wearing his dom’s collar. Where his soulmate is going to want to clasp something permanent and final. But he wears her medallion there. She won’t collar him. She doesn’t want to keep anyone that long. But. Then. Mortals don’t live that long at all, do they? And the thought of her sibling keeping his soul in her citadel forever? The thought of her having him, just as she has all of those worshippers, makes her sick.

“I do like having you.” She says and rubs at his arm, pulled taught and exposed for her. “You are right about that. And you have been a…lovely worshipper, who I will enjoy keeping under my heel, under my hand, lovely as welts. So. I think I will enjoy you, tonight, my beautiful little one, and if you really are mine, you will enjoy it as well.”

Merlin shivers under her hand and he doesn’t beg for anything, doesn’t plead or order. He looks a natural in those ropes, perfect in bindings, and she slides from the bed, stretching and enjoying his worship of her form. She is a God, she could be anything. She could be man or woman, human or other, young, old, anything else… but she likes being what is most effective, and this is what is effective.

“So, the question is not what I’m going to do to you, then.” She drags her foot over the plush carpet and spins on her toe, slightly, looking around her. “I’m going to do whatever I what, however I want. But, ah. The how.” She cups his feet and stares at him. “Not that I’m asking for your input, little one. I just need to decide…what pain looks best on you.” She runs her hands up his calves and back down again. “What about you will please me the most, I wonder.”

Merlin licks his lips and his fingers twitch, eyes bright.

“Oh, you have a suggestion?”

“I. Just um.” He clears his throat and his eyes flick down her body, before dragging, slow and purposeful, back up to her eyes. “A thought was all. I.”

She crawls up the bed and hangs over him, stares down as he flushes, and then watches it spread with interest, tracing the blotchy, uneven borders of colour with intent. “Look at you. How far down does this go, anyways?” She flicks one of his nipples and he jumps a little, licks his lips again. “Your idea?”

“I just. I mean. Um.” He clears his throat. “I realize it may have occurred to you, because. I mean. Um.”

“Say it.” She presses her nail into his areola and he fidgets.

Merlin dips his eyes. “This lowly one—ah!”

She twists his ear. “I am not my sister of order and chaos, I do not like formality, so you will address me with, ha, painful honesty at all times, unless I wish the pleasure of a pretty, pretty lie. You are in my bower, little one. When I took you, I took everything that’s inside your lovely head as well.”

Merlin stares up at her and licks his lips again. “I just. I am yours, to do with as you want, whatever it is that you want, and if you want a passive…I mean, if you just. Want to do things to me; I will live happily for the rest of my days. But I would like to... worship you? A little?” He smiles, perfect and off-kilter and rueful. “I’m in the presence of my patron God, and she picked me out of…everyone everywhere. I’d…feel weird if I didn’t get a chance to show her my appreciation. I mean. If I can do that by just. Being here. Then good. But.” He inhales, sharp and desperate. “If it pleases you. I would like to…” He sucked his lower lip into his mouth and bit down, harder than a nervous habit. A tiny little tribute, just for her..

“Harder.” She says and he does, pressing down with those precious, sharp little teeth into the meat of his lip, getting it nice and bruised for her. Tender and wet, a steady, growing kind of pain that sends a shiver down her spine. “That’s lovely. But, you still haven’t actually asked for what you want.”

“I-”

She presses their noses together and stares down at him. “Ten words or less, little one.”

“May I offer the use of my mouth?” He blurted and his flush is the perfect match for the candlelight. He doesn’t flush prettily, exactly, not two high spots of colour on his cheekbones. He is splotchy and ruddy and beautifully mortal. Fragile. Trusting. His lips bruised and she would have to straddle his head for him to work and that…is a lovely image.

“Why?” She asks, continuing to toy with his nipple, alternating sweet and spice just because it makes his breath hitch.

“I want to make you feel good. I mean. I want. I want to do something and be responsible for it pleasing you.” His hands twisted, trying to gesture and failing. “But I also just…like doing that and. Um.” He fidgeted in the ropes and she knelt up over his stomach and considered him.

“I will consider it.” She says and a flick of candle catches her eye. A soft, white one, sweet smelling paraffin and mineral oil and just about exactly perfect, something light to leave darker marks on him. Heat to make him shiver, soft enough to give a little under her fingers, a ring of wax on the stand she’d left it on. She drips some on her own wrist; it stings. It stings and then sinks into her skin like a hot bath, tingles down her arm and makes her salivate, the wax pulling tight on the skin as it cools.

Oh, her boy will look beautiful covered in this.

But first…

She takes up a flask of oil, heated enough to make it comfortable and pours some on her hands, rubbing them together before stroking long and purposefully over his skin. Merlin rolls up into it, his eyes slitting with intent and she keeps her strokes hard, not really massaging, but he relaxes like she’s giving him one anyways. Trusting her entirely as she rubs down his arms, sweeps up again to his chest and over his soft, giving belly, down over his legs and back, rubbing over his prick and he doesn’t thrust, doesn’t move at all. Just watches her, quiet and happy, feet kicking in his bond, happy as flames in wood.

He stares at her, unashamed and trusting as she puts the flask back down, as she holds the candle up, high enough to test him, and watches his skin jump at the trail of wax over his chest. His breath catches and then his eyes are back on the candle, watching as the wax pools, as her hand tilts and he’s jerking before it even properly lands on his stomach, inhaling as sharp as a bracing wind.

“Well, you seem perfectly capable of that.” She lowers the candle a bit and lets good amount of wax develop in the divot, peeling the wax she’s already lain down off, so she can see the fresh pink marks. She bends to taste one, a slightly waxy residue left, but sweat is pricking up to replace any other flavour. But he’s just a bit sweet, she thinks, and she sucks a mark onto his chest. She likes that he never closes his eyes, or—if he does—it’s only for an instant before they’re snapping open again, watching her. Studying. Keeping it for later, like he’ll wake up and it’ll all be gone.

She likes how he looks at her. She is powerful, but she has always been. This makes her feel it, and she could have him on her hook with just that. She could lay hands on him and leave him feeling whatever she wanted. But he’s watching her. Studying. Keeping. And she wants to give him something to remember.

She drops a large puddle right at his navel and his abs clench, feet and arms up and then down again as he pants, the wax dribbling down the divot of his stomach, down his side, and she hasn’t given him anything but this. She’s tied his hands. She’s bound his feet. She’s marked him with wax and his cock is hard. Not fully, not as much as it will be, but he’s interested. She cocks her head. He’s smooth, shaven and she pushes his prick out the way and raises the candle again. He watched her, breath caught and lip between his teeth. She smiles and tilts the candle and he doesn’t try and get away, the wax slowly sliding down and a single, tiny little droplet lands right on his sac. He fidgets, a little.

“This is my lowest burning candle. It doesn’t even really hurt, does it? You just think it will. It’s just heat, and then it cools and pulls, restricts. Not pain, just… something to think about.” She rubs one of the marks, already fading. He can take more. If he’s hers, he can take more. She slaps his cock a little and Merlin rides up into it, and he gets harder for it. He’s one of hers. She wraps her hand around him and tugs a little, to reward him, maybe, or to see what other little noises he can make. He is unlike a whore, he isn’t theatrical with his noises, he isn’t trying to distract or convince. They’re honest, little things. Quiet, mostly. Vulnerable, like something she could carve right out of him and keep. But it would rot in her hands; go pulpy and fetid before she could even enjoy it. She is not her brother of Health and Disease, she does not enjoy gangrenous limbs or broken hearts.

“I have hotter candles, of course.” She lets another stream trail down his inner thigh, loving his tiny, broken little gasp. “And if I get bored of that, perhaps I will get one of my pinwheels.” She didn’t want to use anything where she’d have to move, to stop touching him. The pain should be close, should be trapped between them like heat in a snowstorm. And then, maybe, she’ll kneel astride his head and see what he’s capable of.

She drops a thicker stream over his nipple and she toys with it. Maybe clamps…clamps would make them all red and tight. They’d bounce if she let him up, tugging and aching, working for her even when she changes her mind and decides to mix her two domains more fully. She is a creature of sensation.

She reaches up and pinches the nipple she’s been happily abusing thus far and Merlin just makes a tiny little “ah” noise, pushing up against her fingers, torso tilted up, and he isn’t trying to pull away. But then, moving away would just pull harder, so perhaps he is trying to free himself. No, no clamps. She wants to do this herself. This will be hands-on, her masterpiece, her lovely, little servant. She releases her prize. They’re both high and perky, waiting for her attention, so she bends and sucks the abused one into her mouth. The heat probably isn’t soothing, not after how hard she pinched it, but Merlin’s sounds aren’t distressed, just questioning.

She pulls back and drips the candle wax over Merlin’s hipbone, long beautiful ellipsis over his knee and down his calf. His legs are shaved, under his arms, his sac, his face, but not his chest. He’s trying to look vulnerable; he’s giving her plenty of space to work with, open spaces ready for her nails, for her teeth, for the wax trailing down the muscles of his leg. Beautiful little darling. She wants hotter wax. She wants him to squirm. To dance under the drips. Skitter over the bed, sizzle like butter in a hot pan, sweet like sugar and caramelizing.

Coloured wax doesn’t actually burn any hotter than uncoloured—given a few understood factors—but people tend to think it does, and she wants him splattered with colour. She wants patterns all over him, for him to look like a painter’s smock. For him to be her perfect bit of art, panting and cock hard, and she wishes she’d thought to have a bowl of wax ready. To prepare something so she could trail it in huge swatches over his body, so she could dip his cock in, maybe, as a finale.

She picks up the blue, because he’ll look beautiful in blue and trails it in a line down his sternum, drips it down his ribs.

He looks at her hand, at her eyes, down at the wax and then the inside of his own eyelids for a brief, desperate second.

“Does it hurt?”

“Not. Yes.” He licks his lips and breaths. “It’s hot. It burns, but then it… Do you.” Merlin breathes a moment. “It burns for a moment. Hot enough that I want it off, but then it cools down and it…it feels good.”

She trails a line up his arm and he jerks harder for that, for the inside of his elbow, entire arm bouncing and then he calms again.

“You look lovely for me. You’re going to look better, dripping with my marks.” She flakes off a stray mark that she doesn’t like and picks up the white candle again, offering a bit of counterpoint, oh. No. Green. Green is what is needed. Green is one of her colours, and that’s what she wants to see him in. Green and purples, blue only because it suits him so perfectly, but no red. Red is…wrong, somehow. Clashes.

He doesn’t react much for wax on his legs, laughs a little breathless when it trails down the arch of his foot, spasms away when a splash hits his inner arm. She stays away from his face, is careful to guard his eyes when it’s an issue. She wants his pain, not for him to be harmed. Not him. She has brought pain to people who have—in her opinion— deserved it, left blood trails where they once had pride.

She drips purple down the underside of his cock and she gets a thin jet of pre-come for her trouble, and she laughs. “Good boy. So lovely when you flinch.”

His breath is laboured, beautiful, aching down his windpipe, scraping around his lungs like a trapped dog. She sets the candles aside, and lays on top of him, biting into his mouth, feeling the air trapped in his chest and he moans, tiny little whimpers as wax comes loose and pulls at his tender skin. She rolls up his body and clutches his hair, kissing him as viciously as she can, because she wants to see his lips plump up. Wants it to hurt when she sinks down on them, when he gets what he wants.

He allows her in, accepting every nip, accept how hard she’s pressing, and then, equally, accepts when she pulls back and soothing, petting the side of his face and shushing him, and he follows her up until he can’t go any further, and then he falls back, staring up at her, blinking as little as possible.

He’s like her own personal crime scene, her fingerprints are everywhere on him. She doesn’t need her medallion around his neck to know he belongs to her. It’s there in his eyes, it’s drenched into his skin. “I could keep you here as long as I wanted.” She noted, trailing her nail along one perfect arc of green wax. “You have pledged yourself to me. I could keep you here. You could be my personal pet, suffering and enjoying according to my every whim.”

He looks so hopelessly desperate for it that it pains her. She closes her eyes and enjoys it, petting his cheek with a sigh. “I could keep you here forever, I could teach you how to love and hate everything I did to you.”

“Why don’t you?”

She trails up and grabs his right wrist and squeezes. “Ze wouldn’t get you. I am a switch. I am complete unto myself. But you…oh you little darling.” She kisses his eyelids. “You need someone, and they are there for you. So very close.”

He stares at her and she puts her hand on the wall to support herself and his breath gets caught. “Does ze feel this? Are you sharing it?”

Merlin’s pulse jumps in his throat, and then he shakes his head.

“Do it. Give this over. Bring them into it.” She moves up and closes her legs over his arms and kneels over him. “Now.”

His eyes don’t go glazed like she expects, he’s still entirely there with her, but his mouth goes slack and he rides up in a way that has nothing to do with her. His mouth looks so wet and inviting that she lowers herself, not expecting how he’ll immediately latch onto her, how he moans and she doesn’t know what the cause is, but he is delicious, heat and need and focus, tongue and lips and it has to hurt. Has to, the way she’s left his mouth, but he doesn’t pause, eyes fluttering closed and going for it with everything he has.

She wonders how it is for her dominant siblings. How odd it must be to look down at a sub like this, full of power because of how much they want and it’s up to you to decide what to give them, but not to know what it’s like to be there themselves. She’s been on her back, packed full with all the need and desire to make a dom remember her. Love her. She knows exactly how strong the need is to prove oneself is, tied up and soaked in marks of ownership.

She gets a hand in his hair and uses it to guide him, to keep her sense of balance. He’s attentive, eyes on her even as his mouth works, trying to gauge if what he’s doing it correct.

“Suck.” She tells him, after he’s tried flicking his tongue at increment speeds and pressures, flattening it against her and writhing, tip of his tongue dragging up against her and she grabs the headboard with her other hand, licking her lips. He purses his lips around her and pulls, light pressure at first, increasing as she tugs harder, adjusting herself as she feels like, liking the strong pulls of breath he manages when she rises over him. “How long can you do this for?”

He swallows. “As long as you need me to. Am I…is there something I should be—”

She gets his hands out of the ropes, rolling them over so she can relax on the pillows. His legs are still tied, crossed over one another, but she throws a leg over his shoulder and drags his mouth back in towards her. “Impress me, then.”

He does his very best, keeping his hands spread on the bedspread, changing angles and goes easily when she hooks her fingers on the chain of his medallion and kisses him, tasting herself and purring to herself. It isn’t even about how well he works, but he is enthusiastic and unashamed, making hungry, slurping, lapping noises without care or worry. He does, in his way, worship, body curved in supplication, mouth-forming prayers, and she drags her foot against his spine, enjoying the curve of it, pleasure tensing low in her body and she smiles at the fingers of wax still visible on the lovely little priest, caressing his skin while she tugs his head up, curves her arm around his neck and pressing him down on her nipple. “Suckle, the nature of which is rather divorced from sucking, you’ll note.”

Merlin nods, body long and hot against hers, and she cradles him against her, as his mouth works on her nipple, soft and rhythmic, tongue cradled against the bottom, eyes closed and fingers curled and relaxed against his chest. She strokes his hair as he works, trails her nails down the back of his neck, shifting over until she can nudge her knee against his cock, dripping steadily and his eyes flash open staring at her.

“Is ze with you right now?”

Merlin nods carefully as she keeps the pressure on his pretty little prick steady, rubbing her thigh over it, as wax flaked off in a slow, wincing peel.

“And what is ze feeling about this, exactly?”

Merlin flushed. It was rude, of course, to talk about your partner’s soulmate, or to mention your own too frequently. But she has none of her own, and she’s…interested. Always interested in what it must be like, being half a person. Does it bleed? Do they trade bits of themselves back and forth in order to keep working? It was her sister, of love and longing, who spilt souls in half, crammed them into bodies. Bodies are so much easier to manufacture than souls, after all.

“Ze.” Merlin swallows. “Ze is…enjoying how. Um. They like how aroused I am. And they’re…” His eyes flutter. “Ze’s sort of…just. Making sure I know that I belong to zer. Ze is just…I can feel zer more. Ze is listening.”

She hums and reaches a hand down to stroke him; he shudders, biting his lip and hands fisted against his chest, her thigh running under his prick, rubbing against his sac and keeping his attention very firmly on her. She gets the rest of the wax off of his cock, liking the little choked hiccups he has once she gets a particularly…stubborn, piece off. She press his head back down to her other nipple before shoving him down, wrapping both her legs over his head, squeezing down until his ears are pressed flat against his skull, and he adapts easily, tonguing into her carefully, undulating before dragging tongue back up and sucking, slow and steady, an inch climbing her thighs, a twist in her abdomen. “Yes, good boy. Just like that.”

He shudders under her foot and she cocks her head, sweat beading at her temples. “Good, good boy. You are lovely, you are pleasing me deeply.”

Merlin sobs and practically rolls against the bed, fingers clasped in the sheets, so she lowers her voice, keeps it steady even if all she wants to do is grip her hair and press hard against his chin. “You’re such a good little love, you’re doing exactly what I want.” She continues a stream of praise that’s doing more for him than her hand on his cock had, every strip of skin that she can see from between the fingers of wax is flushed red, and he’s mouthing at her with more-than-an-under-flavour of desperation, fingers scraping against the sheets, pulling back to breathe hot air over her skin, let it get hot and sensitized before pushing in again.

“I should keep you.” She has her nails buried in her own skin. “I will keep you, wrapped up like a present at the end of my bed, and use your mouth whenever it pleases me. I would lock you in the dark like my own personal monster.”

Merlin whines high and needy, pulling back, staring up at her, eyes hollowed out with need, a fleshy abyss that she could fill with whatever she wanted and she slams him back down to the bed, pinning him down and she is filthy wet, so close she could take care of it herself in seconds, but his mouth is shiny and he’s staring at her like she could fix him, if she just reached in and yanked the right bit back into place.

“You are a sweetheart.” She murmurs, and slips down, and slides, shifts until they’re joined and his eyes nearly cross as she sinks down, as she digs her nails into his chest and sighs. Her body accepts him easily, greedily, his cock feeling perfect inside her, where she’d been clenching emptily against nothing every time Merlin had done something particularly clever. She arches back until she’s fully seated. He’s shuddering beneath her, keeping still until she tells him otherwise. He’s covered in sweat, flushed; wax chipping off where her nails shred, bite marks scattered over his neck and she grinds against his hipbone, squeezing him a little and he looks about ready to cry, or vibrate off the bed, or turn into hydrogen.

She rises and falls, enjoying the slow drag of him inside her and he shudders again, breathing shallow and quick and she wants to clasp her hands around his neck, force him to take slow, deep gasps and not faint on her. But she doesn’t, just presses her fingers to his lips. “How long has it been, little one?”

“Since, um.” Merlin licked his lips, squeezing his eyes closed a moment and taking a slow, shuddering breath. “Since what?”

“Since someone has taken their pleasure from you like this.” She rises and falls again so he has a clear idea about what she is referring to. His hands go up to the cut ropes and he squeezes, taking in another set of harsh, quick little breaths before calming himself down again.

“Um. Never.” He presses his hips more tightly against the bed. Trying to be still. Trying to be good. She pets his lips again and he laps his tongue against them, just a quick, friendly thing. She slips her fingers in to press his tongue down. Just…just for a moment, before sliding out again.

“Never?”

“Not. Um.” He shifts on the bed and takes another few breaths. “I mean. They’ve…in me. And. Um. Sometimes, with their mouths but not.” he drops his eyes to where they’re joined and shudders moment. “It’s…”

“Good?’

He nods fervently, flushed as bright as ever she’s seen, and she might have wanted to push him to the edge, to fully, properly test him, but with that tiny admission she wants it to be slow and easy and she sets up a rhythm for it, loving how his hips fidget upwards before he remembers himself. She presses down on his lower abdomen to help remind him and he jerks up hard at that, bouncing her up a bit and she bends over at the sudden rush of heat, the twist in her and she curls inward so she can enjoy it, rolling her hips and Merlin whimpers, feet kicking and holding himself in control, staring at her like she’s the only thing with a gravitational pull in all of creation.

She feels almost that powerful, coming out of it and staring down at him, smiling to herself—bracing herself— and earning every drop of sweat that beaded off his forehead, keeping her pace steady, luxuriating in the burn of her own thighs, in the desperate sounds coming out of Merlin as he slams his hands against the wall, fingers digging into the paint, reaching and stretching as far as he can to get there, a singular pale arch, too much weight resting on his head and shoulders, hips up until she slams him back down again, grabbing him by the head and kissing him, his arms helplessly flinging over her shoulders, mouth slack and mindless.

~~~
Morgana can hear Morgause and Arthur on the other side of the wall, and if she can hear them, then Merlin certainly can. He is lovely, truly lovely, and she is watching his every breath, every movement and he’s… she doesn’t know if it’s headspace or the story he tells himself or what. But he’s not entirely present, moving them up the bed slowly, trying hard enough that she frees his legs and before she knows it they’re up against the headboard, Merlin’s hands tense against the wall like they’re bound there. And if she can hear her sister and Arthur this clearly, then they must be right next to the wall as well.

She presses a hand to Merlin’s throat, not enough to cut off air, just to push his ear to the wall and his eyes alight. He’s listening. She can tell he’s listening, and he’s too far down in himself to even care if she notices. She notices, of course, she notices things. She had been trained to observe and use what she’s learned. And what she’s learning now is that Merlin is desperate to hear what’s on the other side of that wall.

What she already knew is in a folder in her sister’s bag, waiting for them to look over and begin a plan, because she wants them. She wants to keep them, both of them. Maybe just for a bit, maybe for a week, maybe forever. She wants them because they’re so hungry, so needful, and so obvious about it. You can’t…or, she can’t help but look at them and see it. See where she could slip in, grab a foothold and take them for all they were worth. They are black pits.

But.

Oh…but. This is the delicious part. This is the part that can make her salivate. They need, they need, but they are…like her. They are complete. They need because they want to need, they need to feed their own little motor-engine. They didn’t need new parts, they just need fuel, and that was perfect. They were needful, but not needy. Wouldn’t hold her or her sister back, wouldn’t root them down once they got tired of Vulgate, took the money and did something else.

And they’re special. Morgana…likes special things. She doesn’t keep them. But she likes having them for a while, at least.

When Merlin goes, he goes perfectly. He goes because she gives him permission, he goes with a cry and he goes as she hears a similar-maybe-familiar cry from the other side of the wall. She flops down next to him, pulling his head into her lap as he shivers and checks her watch. 4:36 am. She notes it for later and, for the moment, lets Merlin snuggle until he’s calmed down enough to get clean.

The wax peeled off in long, stringy webs and Merlin just stared at her for it, eyes slitted and dazed, and he goes exactly where she wants him to, cuddles close, almost…confused. She strokes through his hair and he doesn’t calm, doesn’t focus on her, turns and looks at the door. “I should be…going.”

“Just rest for a bit.” She says, instead of anything. “You did well. You deserve to rest for a bit.”

Merlin yawns hugely and flops closer to her, and it’s nearing five in the morning. She’s accustomed to being up late, to getting home when people are getting up, to finally taking off her shoes and showering as people are doing the same in reverse. She’s used to crawling into bed at long last after everyone has finally convinced their own tired bones to leave their covers. Merlin is entirely exhausted and it’s a simply matter of putting one strong arm around him and holding, until he’s fully asleep.

Morgana is good at getting what she wants.

---
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Loyalties Lie on the Flip of a Coin: The Trickster in Popular Culture
,

By Merlin Emmeryson (age 22 1/2) Arthur I can’t put that in an academic article
The role of the trickster is irrevocably (It’s precious when you use big words.) tied with the sexual identity of a switch (You just jump right on in there. Another introductory sentence would be good. Give them time to get into your paper before you start throwing things at them). Ze is also one of the most popular and widely used folklore characters in popular culture, (as you will prove later? There’s a lot of declarative sentences really early in this paper) although outside of the ‘safe’ realm of folklore zer identity as a switch may be downplayed or even written out in order to be accepted by mainstream culture. Many characters are written subtextually as switches, like the Doctor from Doctor Who, (Merlin we need to talk about your abusive relationship with commas) who switches dynamics when he regenerates into new bodies, and few are overt—most of whom are outsiders or fringe members of society, such as the con-man switch Neal Caffrey (i.e. Mr. Disturbingly Attractive) Arthur I can’t put that in an academic article on the television show White Collar. (This is your intro Merlin, it needs more folklore words and also a thesis. And a concluding sentence. Also more intro) You’re not the boss of me. Maybe my paper is avant-garde. (I am entirely the boss of you. Write it correctly or you will fail and mope on me. I will mock you. You will end up having to sell your ass on the street. I will eat all of your ice cream.)

Since Neal is a criminal and a con man, it is ‘safe’ to make him a trickster and switch (is it ok for you to put safe in mocking single quotes twice in one paragraph? I don’t think it is). Especially since he is partnered opposite the happily married dom Peter whose wife Elizabeth helps cement the safeness (no Merlin. No. Try words that exist in the real world.) Shakespeare made up words. (You aren’t Shakespeare.) While the show plays at being transgressive (Real words Merlin) Transgressive is a real word. (Word’s spell check disagrees with you.) It’s not my fault it’s ill-read by inserting sexual subtext with Peter/Neal/El or Peter/Neal, (because Neal is gorgeous) Arthur I can’t put that in an academic article although it does not allow anything overt. The fans, being on the internet and thus able to exert their agency (what?) Folklore thing. Just go with it more freely, not only make this sexuality overt and expressed, they further transgress by writing El/Neal and Neal/El, using Neal’s fluid nature to challenge and flip dynamic norms. (You need to clarify that the dom’s name comes first in pairings.) The dom’s name always comes first. We live in a dominant centric society. (Is this paper for folklore or gender studies? Just clarify it.)

The trickster, being a trickster and being a switch is untrustworthy because ze is inconsistent (inconsistent. Learn to spell). Dom/sub, female/male, friend/foe, ze is the embodiment of duality. (Are you sure duality is the word you want?) In the case of the trickster culture hero (wait so is this like an actual different typification thing or are you just making things up again?) I do what I want, Thor this allows the trickster to overcome obstacles that others cannot. The culture hero trickster is seen as benevolent and thus must have a tie to a dynamic normative relationship, forming the third point of a triangle and remaining balanced and sane (this sentence is confused. It was wandering down the road and it kept picking up bits and then it had so many bits and was dropping them everywhere.) The mythical trickster is often portrayed in a more sinister light, taking up and putting down gender roles like coats, hiding as one gender and tricking innocents into thinking they are normal—that they even may be soul bonded. (You and commas need to spend some time apart.) The most infamous trickster, Loki, stole Sigyn’s soulbond (do I know who that is?) Norse goddess of fidelity (It’s funny because he stole her away, isn’t it?) That is indeed why it’s funny. away from her fiancé by using his magic to take away her bond and tying it to his own rib, as the Norse believed that the name of one’s soulbonded partner would be carved onto one’s rib (sources disagree on where this belief came from). The Loki/Sigyn myth is argued, by scholars, to have been developed (in part) to explain disorders that could dull or block a ‘natural’ soulbond, or would explain auditory hallucinations that can occur with dysfunctional soulbonds. (Says who?) People. Who know things. Don’t ask questions. Sources come later. Shhh. Sigyn, though she found out Loki’s trick and decided to flee, eventually cleaved herself to Loki loyally. Loki used this faux bond to make himself appear normal, and earn the trust of the Asgardians. The unnatural state of affairs that arose from this began to tear the very fabric of reality apart—eventually bringing about Ragnorak. Additionally Loki was unable to remain faithful to Sigyn, his chaotic nature calling him to submit to the frost giantess Angroboda, with whom his monstrous offspring were born[1]. Of course, Loki’s nature is not entirely malevolent, although that is how he is most often portrayed (because he caused the end of the world.) Don’t be so judgmental. (He caused the end of the world, Merlin.) He was chained up in his kid’s entrails underground while a snake dripped poison in his eyes. That’ll make a guy cranky.

Contrasted with Loki is the Native American trickster Coyote, who while transgressive, (you really like that word) had a place within his own society from which to operate. Coyote uses his disconnect from the dynamic duality to prank and trick the deserving. (Examples?) SOURCES COME LATER. I HAVE A LEGEND I JUST NEED TO FIND IT, OH GOD DID WE LOSE THAT BOOK WHER-here it is.

The question then is, is Coyote written as a positive figure because switches are an accepted part of Native American culture, or are switches an accepted part of Native American culture because Coyote is a positive trickster/switch? (That sentence made no sense at all, actually.) In The Dynamics of Non-Dynamism Patricia Wriggly states that “the actual behaviour and psychological stability of non-dynamic normative persons—be they non-dynamic entirely or dual dynamic, depends largely on the acceptance of their society, as the dynamic atypical will commonly take on whatever role their culture has set up for them (361).”

---
January, 2012

“You can go if you want.” Arthur offered, as another quarter hour passed in the waiting room with no end in sight. They hadn’t let him go in. He was medical proxy, but Merlin was still able to communicate and consent to his own medical procedures, so Arthur was out here. Staring at the bland-boring-beige walls and wanting, somewhat, to burn them down. “We’ll be fine.”

Gwen looked down at her gloves. “I don’t mind.”

Arthur was too tired to argue and Gwen continued to not ask any questions, didn’t even look at him funny. Which meant she had to know something about them was wrong, and tender, and she was just being…nice? Maybe she’d suspected for a while. Maybe they all had. But she didn’t say anything, didn’t look at his wrists and try to catch signs of the bruises welts. Arthur wasn’t sure whether to be thankful for that or not. Maybe she was just saving it up for later. Maybe she was hoping to find out more. What else could they have been doing? The two of them, alone, in their flat, chained up and no one else there for them to blame. Even if this mess had left Gwen thinking they scened together in threesomes, which was more damning than Arthur wanted to deal with.

Jesus, how stupid had they been? Both being tied up, and the keys across the room. That was. They’d gotten too comfortable. What if Merlin had gotten seriously hurt and the mobile had been too far away? What if. He would have gotten the mattress free eventually but. But there were so many things that could go wrong. He should sue the company who made those cuffs. He should.

But Merlin had been hurt, and it was Arthur job to stop that from happening. He’d failed and if he could take all of Merlin’s pain, Merlin could take the sick stench of guilt away from Arthur.

“He’ll be okay.” Gwen lifted her hand to touch his shoulder and then dropped it. “Just. Arthur, I won’t. I don’t know what I saw, and I’m not saying anything, but I won’t ever bring it up again, and you won’t ever need to worry about me. I don’t.” Gwen looked at her own nails and they sat there awhile, silent as too many other people breathed around them. “It doesn’t matter to me.”

Arthur nodded, staring at nothing. Staring at his nails. Morgause and Morgana had guessed, had figured them out with much less evidence and they had… carnival freakshow. Publicity tour. He has a headache, right at the base of his skull, reaching with tendril fingers up to his temples and striking hard just behind his eyes. Gwen had been the first person he could think of who would, at least, be somewhat discreet. He just wanted to take Merlin home, tuck himself over Merlin and just stay there.

Gwen shifted in her seat and continued to sit by him. She inhaled again and he looked over. She’d steeled herself and turned to face him, carefully putting her hand over his wrist. “Arthur, you and Merlin are my friends.”

He stared at her and she looked down at her hand and squeezed. “You are my friends and I. I don’t. I’m happy you trusted me enough to call me when there was a…problem.”

He looked at his feet and nodded. She nodded to herself and let go of his arm carefully, like he’d blow away if she did it too quickly.

There was a sharp pull in his shoulder, a wrenching, horrible pain, before it slowly ebbed away to a terrible, frustrating ache. He jerked in his seat, got up to his feet, and began pacing to try and cover for it. Soulmates tended to heal faster than unbonded persons did, because the pair could spread the injury across the two of them, lessen the severity by half. It’d saved plenty of people from death, turning terminal cancer into something more treatable. It also gave the injured party something nearly tangible and inescapable to hold onto. Rarely did one partner end in a coma that the other didn’t either join them in, or pull them out of.

If Merlin had lost blood, Arthur’s would have been the best for a transfusion, regardless of blood type. Not that Arthur would have been able to convince anyone of that. Or if Merlin lost a kidney and needed Arthur’s or…a thousand ways Merlin could injure himself and not get the best treatment because they were... Because. They-- Or... Or if Merlin got really sick, they’d put him on bond suppressants so his far and away bondmate wouldn’t get any of the adverse reactions to the treatment without full consent and Arthur…

He didn’t panic. He just stared at the drinking fountain and didn’t panic. His chest hurt and he rubbed it absently, fingers rolling over raised, smooth scars and he didn’t panic.

If they, in the future, went to a nursing home there would be no guarantee they’d be in the same room, for all the legal papers they’d signed.

He kept breathing. Kept breathing. He stepped aside as a kid in an arm cast pushed past him to get water. Gwen led him back into the waiting room, and there was Merlin, arm in a sling and shoulder immobilized. He signed something awkwardly, holding a prescription. He smiled when he saw them, said something and Arthur just nodded along, putting his arm around him. They’d never been on painkillers before. He wondered how that would work.

Merlin was safe under his arm. He and Gwen were talking now. Maybe Merlin was trying to spin it, make her forget what exactly she had seen. He was probably attempting to adorable his way out of that one, like he’d had every other thing in their lives, and maybe, maybe by the end of the ride Gwen would have some reasonable doubt.

Freya would have been allowed into the back, had Elyan gotten injured. Hell, in most cases, if Leon had taken the sub he was dating, or (since it was Leon), collared to the emergency room, he would have been allowed in, soulbonded or not. Leon was a serial monogamist who dated one sub extremely seriously for several years until it ended for one reason or another. Ze met zer soulmate, ze moved to Australia, ze got freaked about the level of commitment and fled. One thing or another.

Maybe he should have gotten Leon and Merlin to date. Leon was disturbingly loyal to every single one of his subs, and never had been (no matter how much of a flagrant arseface said sub was to him) the one to call it off.

If Merlin and Leon dated, Leon would probably just grow to accept Arthur and Merlin’s relationship, like he’d accept Kathy stealing (over the course of their three year relationship) thirty thousand dollars from him-- not including the rent he’d paid for her, and how many times he’d bailed her out of the drunk tank. She’d been an actor, apparently, and just moments away from her big break. Arthur had listened to one, singular, over-dramatic, over-wrought monologue and left. And Leon had loved her and given her more money and told her not to worry about it, until she took his telly and ran off with a “director.” They tried not to assume she’d been murdered.

Or Juan! Juan had cheated (over his and Leon’s five years) on Leon, to their knowledge, at least once a month, and they’d fight and Juan would cry and Leon would just take him back, right up until Juan had tried to sleep with Percy and Percy had…well, they’re pretty sure Percy did something to properly, really, scare Juan off, but they couldn’t think of what. But Percy did not sleep with people his mates were sleeping with. Or had slept with. Or wanted to sleep with. Or were related to.

Percy had once pulled over on his way to work to help a sub fix their car, gotten them to their work so he could explain to their (apparently psychotic) boss what had happened, called in to work to his (really understanding because it was fucking Percy, and Percy had helped her do her taxes and cleaned the entire building by himself when the custodial staff had been short-handed) boss and promised to work on his days off in exchange, and taken the newly fired sub out for lunch to make him feel better, spending the entire day together, and then introduced said sub to the group, and when one of Percy’s friends (who Arthur didn’t know) showed an interest that said sub returned, Percy had stepped the fuck off and gotten them a reservation at the restaurant of a chef who he’d saved from drowning. True story.

To date, Leon’s only healthy relationship had been with Priya Shrivastava (two years), and they’d hadn’t been great together, but she had, at least, been in graduate school studying henna art in its traditional and contemporary globalized forms (like how, since henna’s rise in popularity in America, asymmetrical floral vines flowing down from the index finger had become popular in India, especially since the design had been seen on movies stars, even though the asymmetrical design breaks with traditional rules of Indian body art, something Merlin had found fascinating and had interrogated Priya fervently and Arthur had learned far more than he wanted to, as she decorated his hands and arms with a peacock motif. (“No! No peacocks! No peacocks. If you squeeze a peacock his penis comes out and there was a book and Sapphos and sudden bestiality and I’m going to claw my eyes out now, why, why, why do books not have warnings?” Merlin had sobbed upon seeing them. For the next two weeks. Arthur had taken to long sleeves.)) and Arthur had let her practice on him, and take pictures for her projects, because he was the only one of them capable of sitting still. She’d finished her degree and moved back home to Banaras because her family had needed her. Leon had considered moving, but they’d sat on him until he realized there was nothing for him in India, except Priya, and while they hadn’t been able to convince him Priya wasn’t worth it, they had managed to sit on him long enough for Priya to find someone her family found more appropriate, thus renouncing Leon.

If Merlin and Leon dated, then Arthur would just be another thing Leon looked over blindly because he just wanted to love somebody. Arthur decided he might bring it up later. Maybe. Leon was a foundational member of that friend group, if…if they attached themselves like that then…

Then Arthur didn’t know. Arthur was tired, and worried, and he wanted to just…be done with this. It was a terrible secret, and they were terrible at keeping it, and the only way to do it was to just… Gwaine had been someone Merlin had just dated too long, and maybe he’d-- Arthur still didn’t know what Gwaine had thought of them. And Morgause and Morgana had just paid too much attention. They'd had too many cameras on them when they had been being stupid. When they had thought they’d had the crowd on their side. They were terrible at this. That was just the brunt of it. They were really terrible at this.

Probably.... Maybe-- Probably because they were waiting for someone to catch them, Arthur thought.

---
December, 2011

Arthur wakes up to a sudden rush of untempered panic that tastes exactly like muddy pond water. Merlin.

He pushes himself up, rolls out of bed, and maybe Morgause wakes up, and maybe she doesn’t. Arthur doesn’t know how to sleep next to people who aren’t Merlin. He kept waking up in the night, wanting to turn over, but not wanting to attract attention. Wanting to spread out but not wanting to knock his limbs against hers. He almost wondered, somewhere around nine am (and he was still tired at nine am, because he’d been up until five) if Merlin had this kind of trouble, except…no. Merlin never stayed the entire night. He always came home to Arthur.

Arthur can’t find his clothes right away, so he ventures out naked and finds Merlin sitting in what had to be Morgana’s robe, staring down at a file folder. He looks up at Arthur, lips thinned and eyes wide and Arthur goes to see what he’s looking at.

Pictures.

Pictures of them. Arthur tugs them out of Merlin’s hand. Security camera, security cameras at Vulgate, and it was… They’d gotten high off the possibilities, they’d been buzzed off finally, finally being able to just…touch. In. In public and then.

It was Merlin in his lap, in the chair. Kissing. Or, he knows they were kissing. The picture doesn’t show anything explicit. The camera was too far away, and there were too many people, and Arthur and Merlin are so tangled that it doesn’t actually matter what they were doing. If…if Freya was looking at this, she’d just snort and not think anything of it. This is who they are. This is how they have presented themselves.

Merlin would be able to spin it. He’d focus on the outrage of being spied on, or telling them that they were creepy. Or. Or something. Manipulate them right back, because maybe they used their cameras to spy on them all night, but they didn’t need to print the pictures off. Take them home. Make them into one of Merlin’s stories. Merlin would ask what they wanted with the two of them.

“You were snooping?”

Merlin shrugs with a shoulder and frowns at the pictures. “I feel like we’re a job. Or like. One of the…” He trails off, but Arthur hears him anyway. It feels like they’re someone Merlin made up.

“Can’t we just…take them and go?” Arthur asks. And there are. There are notes? It’s in a cipher (“Aimooi qk kai ycii eicmiemqqi ck yiiwqa moaa eiioaek a aciyaw kiqiagkoqe scowg kommikm com qm gcik acm qa qmkiwk kommikm aawmoqam qamiiikmqam qm qk moi saw moiw ycqi aicoag iaeo cmoii moam kocowg ci iuayqaig eaim ck moam eaa ci iuewaqaig…”) and Merlin could probably break it if he wanted, but then they’d need to take it, and that would be more telling than…than playing it off…

“They might have copies.” Merlin says, frowning. “I found this.”

“And we need to do something about it.” Arthur says.

“No, I mean.” Merlin looks around. “They could have hidden it better, but they didn’t. I found it.” Merlin taps the photographs, licks his lips, thinks, standing in the kitchen of a penthouse they just went to. Like morons, because they just... Thought it’d be okay. Are a little bit too close to living in fantasy than is healthy. Maybe if we go here we’ll find those two people who will accept us for who we are.

And who knew. Maybe they would. Maybe they already do, but they have pictures. They have notes. And that is… it makes Arthur’s skin crawl and he knows better than to stay somewhere his feet are telling him to leave.

“They wanted you to find it?” Arthur doesn’t know what any of this means except that they need to go. They didn’t give either of those two their mobile numbers, and if they just…if they just go then they might. Maybe Morgause just watches anyone her sister wants to sleep with. It makes sense. A sort of creepy kind of sense, given the cipher notes

“Maybe.” Merlin said, “They didn’t follow us home. They just took what was available. And it’s not a very clear shot.” It isn’t. There’s just there, in the image, and they could be doing anything. It’s not a close-up. Most of the rest of them are just…of them. Being normal. Affectionate, yes, but they always are. Close, but it’s a club. People get lost in those.

They could just leave. Not come back, and if either of those two find them…deal with it then. That’s a terrible plan.

Merlin writes something on the bottom of the notes section and closes the folder. “Go get your clothes, I’m going to get mine.”

Arthur looks up and Merlin is still scowling at the folder, so he sneaks into the bedroom, collects what clothing he can find, and Merlin creeps out about as sneakily, though Arthur suspects that that is not, in fact, his shirt. Merlin checks everything is in his handbag.

“What do we—”

“We won’t.” Merlin says with a tone of finality and he looks at Arthur, and then the bedroom door and he doesn’t actually hide the longing. It’s there. It. Arthur doesn’t know what it tastes like, because he wasn’t there for that formative memory, but he feels it and Merlin doesn’t try and hide it from him.

“We could—” Arthur almost suggests, but. No. They can’t. Not with the pictures and the notes and the…everything. It’s dangerous and Arthur doesn’t know if they’ll ever find someone to tell. If. If now they’ll just be more careful and Merlin will just stop sleeping with anyone at all because it’s been too many close calls too soon. “You liked them.”

Merlin wraps his coat around himself, gives Arthur’s back to Arthur. “If we want to tell someone that is our choice. No one gets to make it for us or…or take pictures or…” Merlin thins his mouth into a line. “They let me find that, I think, so we’d know they know and…I don’t know. I don’t know what their endgame was but I’m not.”

They slip out the door and Merlin isn’t angry. He was angry for just a flash, just…a moment, and then he’d written his note and was fine again. Arthur doesn’t ask him what he wrote, just watches Merlin shove his hands into his coat pockets, stare at nothing, and manoeuvre them onto the streets, losing themselves in the crowd.

“What now?”

“We go home.” Merlin says, keeping his distance, and Arthur tucks his hands in his pockets. “We think about how to. What to do now. They could find us if they really wanted to, but. I’ll.” Merlin looks tired and so Arthur tugs him in, lets him rest his head against his shoulder. No one is paying attention, and Merlin looks heartbroken enough for it, anyways. “I want to go home.”

“I’ll get us there.” Arthur says.

---
January 2012

They drove home quietly and Arthur waved a hand to Gwen. She didn’t try and follow them out, but she took Arthur’s wrist again and squeezed. He nodded and maybe, might have tried to smile. He didn’t... He didn’t really know. He walked Merlin up to their flat; the lift was still broken, so they took the stairs, slowly. The flat was unlocked, still, and Arthur looked around. Nothing looked obviously stolen, the telly was still there, so he locked the door behind him-- checking to see if it worked. It didn’t. He wondered how long that’d been broken. He put the chain on and wrote a note to himself on the counter to call the landlord. Maybe Gwen had broken the door down.

He gets them to their bedroom, navigating the spindly towers of books and piles of probably dirty laundry. He removes Merlin’s trousers. Stopped. Took off Merlin’s shoes and socks, put the socks in the hamper. The trousers in the hamper. Shoes by the door. He kept the shirt on. It was too big, thick weight and with the right amount of buttons. It made Merlin look small, or fragile. Or maybe that was the heavy white sling, keeping his arm right next to his side. Arthur rubbed the fabric and tried to feel better. He usually felt better when Merlin was in his clothing. That usually worked. When no magical feeling of comfort and safety rushed in, Arthur settled for tucking Merlin into bed, putting the right amount of pillows under his head and pulling the blankets to his chin.

He stood. He began cleaning. The room needed to be cleaned. Arthur had been working more, and Merlin was in the middle of a project about something, something, something in expressive culture, something as seen by the variants of, something, something, that followed the volitional, temporal action of something taken in the context of globalization and something, something, something caused the emergence of art with something foci and something, something, something super space ray death lasers.

Merlin let him clean without comment; let Arthur leave and put a load of laundry in, let Arthur come back and hold up books so he could say whether it was okay to put them back or not and where they went if it was. He even let Arthur sweep and vacuum and then stand in the middle of their, comparatively, clean room and stare down at his feet, five seconds from alphabetizing their surprisingly large CD collection, or reorganizing the stuffed animals Merlin had brought along with him, worried about their mental health because Toy Story was a terrible thing to show someone like Merlin. He’d cried over all his toys and promised he loved them and Toy Story 2 had brought them all down from the top of his closet as hugged every single one of them and cried about the ones he’d thoughtlessly and cruelly given to charity shops and boot sales.

Toy Story 3 had triggered an actual mental breakdown, Arthur thought, but that was better left unconsidered. Arthur moved Beary and Nala to snuggle a little more, since they were dating. Or siblings. Depending. Identities were…malleable.

“What do we do?” Merlin asked as Arthur fiddled with Scarlet O’Hara’s hat, letting her put a hand on Ollie The Otter of Oinksville (he was an otter raised by pigs. It was quite tragic, but had saved them from a fair few aerial attacks, seeing as pigs couldn’t look up.)

“She said she wouldn’t say anything.” Arthur looked at the display, stroking Mustard’s raggedy and threadbare pelt, remembering him as the Sheriff of Fairly Awesome Land. “I had to. You were hurt. You should have. We could have lifted the mattress and gotten the tie-points and we would have.” Arthur exhaled, squeezing Mustard’s paw and he stared at nothing for a moment. “I couldn’t think of who else to call.”

Merlin was quiet he isn’t angry at Arthur, for all that Arthur is, unfairly (maybe), angry at him for not just…for not just letting Arthur deal with the problem. His wrists ache and he rubs, Merlin reaches and he goes. Merlin pulls him down until he sits on the bed and Arthur sits. “You aren’t allowed to get hurt.”

“Yeah, that rule doesn’t really work.” Merlin sighed and put his hand on his stomach staring up at the ceiling. “I’m a person of action.”

“You are a person of stupid action. You tried to climb a slide with a pocket knife.”

“I saw a play about pirates!” Merlin defended.

“You fell out of the top of a tree and bruised your arm so badly you couldn’t lift it.”

“In the process of befriending a squirrel and thus beginning my squirrel army.” Merlin reasoned and Arthur put his hand on Merlin’s stomach too, because it seemed the thing to do. “It’s good neither of us have wisdom teeth, I guess.” Merlin put his hand over Arthur’s. “I’m going to be fine. You’ll make sure I do my exercises and take the pills and I’ll get to be spoiled rotten for a few days.”

Arthur shucked off his hoodie and trousers, sliding into bed and wrapping Merlin up as carefully as possible, keeping him against the wall, Arthur between Merlin and the rest of the world, mindful of his arm and taking a deep breath.

They sat a moment. “It’ll be better before you know it.” Merlin said, putting his hand to Arthur’s shoulder. “Stop feeling angry at me. I don’t like when you’re angry with me. I’m just going to be loveable until you stop.”

“You’re an idiot.” Arthur grumbled.

“You’re fieldwork, I’m ivory tower, remember?” Merlin rubbed his thumb along Arthur’s index finger. “I’m meant to be the head-in-the-clouds academic, while you’re the world weary—”

“She’ll look at us differently.” Arthur interrupted, “Even if she never says anything, she’ll…she’ll look at us differently.”

Merlin rested his head back against the pillow and sighed. “I know. We’ll. We’ll make up something. Give me time and we can.” Merlin squeezed his eyes shut. “There has to be-- A prank or… A dare. We were drunk? We got a dom and ze…left? Or if we just keep…acting normal she’ll. She’ll make up something herself.”

Arthur stroked Merlin’s back. “It was just the two of us, naked, in a room that doesn’t look like it belongs to either of us, chained up, and, until I went to the bathroom, I was still spackled with come. We smelled like sex. There is nothing else we could have been doing.”

They were quiet.

“We could move.” Merlin offered, after a long while.

“We could tell her.” Arthur counter-offered and they’d…they’d been keeping a secret for long enough that the idea of telling someone was almost heresy.

“We can’t tell-“ Merlin began and then sighed, “can’t move either, really. It’s. It’s a big city. We. We could just…” But they liked their friends. They were the first people who just…didn’t mind that they were all over each other. And. And maybe. Maybe that meant…

“We’re not perverts. We’re soulbonded, and even if we can never recognize, or prove that, it’s true.” Arthur awkwardly managed to get their hands tangled together. “If we just. She wouldn’t be able to blame us. She has a weird soulbond going on. She knows what it’s like.”

Merlin sighed. “But what if. What is she?” Merlin bit the inside of his cheek. “We’re not wrong. And I don’t want you to think we are.” He kissed Arthur’s throat. “That’s why we’re keeping it a secret now. We aren’t wrong. We aren’t messed up. We aren’t a mistake.”

“And maybe we should tell someone.’ Arthur argued. “Maybe. Maybe it’d be nice to be able to kiss each other in front of our close friends without. Panic. And. And we wouldn’t need to flirt with doms, and we could just.” Arthur exhaled and loosened his grip. “Gwen wouldn’t tell anyone. Even if she never talked to us again, she wouldn’t tell anyone.” Arthur ran his hand down Merlin’s ribs. “We can’t…keep hiding forever and escaping once people figure us out.”

Merlin squeezed Arthur’s fingers. “I just don’t want for you to feel like we did when we were teenagers. You were. You felt guilty all the time, and I didn’t know how to fix it, and it wasn’t until we’d been living here that you haven’t. I haven’t felt you feel bad about us. And I don’t want you to feel bad about us, because we’re fine.” Merlin shifted that little bit closer. “So if you want to tell her, that’s good. But don’t feel guilty again.”

Arthur rubbed his thumb over Merlin’s knuckles. “I think. I think as long as we’re hiding it, I’m going to always feel bad about it, because it’s. It’s like we’re ashamed, and I’m not. I don’t know why we soulbonded, and I don’t know what would have happened if we didn’t, but you belong to me, and I belong to you and that. That should be good enough.”

Merlin thought about it and squeezed Arthur’s hand.

“Okay.” He agreed, quietly, shutting himself down and away from Arthur. Arthur lay there in the dark until he followed.