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Jerusalem

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“I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.”
-William Blake, ‘Jerusalem’

When Arthur woke on the plush carpet of the unfamiliar suite and pulled out his mobile to discover that it was Monday and not, in fact, early Sunday morning, a prickle of fear descended his spine. If his father, the King, ever found out about this . . . but then what exactly had happened in the hazy last few days? There were several sleeping forms he didn’t recognise passed out on the beds, one of them snoring.

He stumbled to the loo and grabbed a bottle of mouthwash from the basket of toiletries, then ran his hands under the tap to dampen and smooth his hair. Dark circles under his eyes announced he hadn’t slept long.

Leon had left several messages of increasingly panicked tone. Fuck, he only had an hour to get himself from wherever he was to his weekly meeting at Buckingham, and the fact that he’d managed to evade his security detail thus far was nothing short of a bloody miracle. He located one of his missing trainers half-hidden under a bed and pulled it on as he called for his car.

Arthur entered his father’s office steeled for battle. During the ride to the palace, Leon had informed him about the package that had been delivered the previous morning, but he suspected it was much worse than he’d imagined when the King didn’t offer him a word of greeting. Uther Pendragon was not a forgiving man, and his glare told Arthur all he needed to know. He was a disappointment, a disgrace. Then he saw them: the latest round of incriminating photographs spread across his father’s desk like a deck of lewd playing cards.

Arthur naked on a billiard table swigging from a bottle of liquor.

An unnamed woman, also naked, half-wrapped around him, his hand cupping her left breast.

His face mashed against the lips of a man he didn’t remember. Naked, again.

Snorting a line off a very shapely bare leg.

All of the pictures were from Arthur’s last visit to the States—a probably ill-advised stopover in Vegas that had turned into a debauched three-day party in the penthouse of some Hollywood starlet. At the time, and under the influence of booze and coke, he hadn’t even noticed that one of the attendees was a photog, but now evidence of his ‘diplomatic visit to America’ graced the front page of every rag in Britain.

The Crown Prince’s Royal Bender

Prince Arthur’s International Relations

The Prince Swings Both Ways in Vegas

And the most painfully stupid, courtesy of The Sun:

Little Artie Likes to Party

Arthur squinted at the ridiculous headlines through the agony of his hangover as his father raged. Apparently there was also a video, which the Royal Family’s team of publicists had barely managed to suppress, not without a bit of financial incentive.

“Arthur,” the King said, his brows drawing together, “do you find it amusing to make a mockery of your position?”

“No, Father.”

“To say I am disappointed in you would be a woeful understatement. This,” he said with a gesture towards the newspapers and pictures, “is pathetic, foolish, misguided, irresponsible—childish. Need I go on?”

“No, Father.”

“And moreover this is the last time something like this will happen. I will not be put in this position again, not for you, not for anyone.”

“I promise, Father. You have my word.” Arthur said. He should have been more prudent, but he was young, only eighteen, and there’d be plenty of time for responsibility once he was King. Still, he felt himself shrinking under the force of his father’s words.

“I’ve heard your promises before. They mean nothing, obviously, so we’re going to have to try more . . . decisive tactics.” The King leaned forward and pressed his intercom. “Send in Mr. Emrys.”

Arthur straightened up and and turned his eyes to the door. A few seconds later it opened and the King’s personal bodyguards ushered in a tall, gangly man with the most ridiculous ears he’d ever seen. He looked a bit out of sorts, glancing from the King to Arthur, as if he was suddenly surprised to be standing in the palace and in front of the Royal Family: what was left of it, at least.

“This is Merlin Emrys,” the King said.

“Hello,” said the man, who was upon closer inspection more of a boy. He couldn’t be more than eighteen himself. With his dark hair, pale skin, and large eyes, there was something almost otherworldly about him. If Arthur was feeling generous, he might even have called the boy attractive despite his ears. Only he wasn’t feeling particularly generous this morning.

“Merlin—you have no objection to me calling you by your Christian name, do you?” the King asked, though he didn’t really appear to be interested in the answer. The boy shook his head. “Fine, then. Arthur, I have appointed Merlin as your personal guard, to replace your regular security detail. Since they’re clearly unable to perform their duty.”

“What—him? Ridiculous!” This boy, Merlin, looked barely able to stand on his own two feet, let alone provide any sort of protection. And the King hadn’t meddled with Arthur’s personal coterie since he was a child.

“Please refrain from shouting,” his father said. “It is of the utmost importance that what happens in this room remain secret. And you’ll soon see why. Merlin, a demonstration please?”

The boy tugged at the collar of his jumper, obviously nervous. He shifted on his feet. A few moments passed and his father sighed with impatience. And then Merlin reached out his hand, his blue eyes turning luminous and golden. The pictures on the King’s desk vanished.

Arthur gasped, realising he’d lifted halfway out of his chair. “A sorcerer!” Never in his life had seen magic performed before him; no one would have dared. His heart thumped in his chest, sending blood whooshing through his veins and leaving him more than a little light-headed.

Merlin’s eyes had gone back to normal, and he lowered his gaze. A faint colour had risen on his high cheekbones.

“Yes,” said the King.

This, even more than the unfortunate photographs and his father’s severe manner, arrested his attention. There was nothing unusual about Merlin, per se, except that he wore a hideous jumper and his hopeless trousers were too loose. “But you—you said you’d never have one on your staff.”

The King frowned, stood up, and came around the desk. Even well past middle age, he cut an imposing figure, and Arthur recalled being a terrified small child at the end of such a disciplinary gaze, when it hadn’t taken his father more than a glare to send his pulse racing. “You forget yourself, Arthur. It is not your place to contradict me, especially given the damage your reputation has already caused. But, if I must justify myself, my views have modified given the circumstances. I’ve tried everything to rein in your impertinent behaviour. Everything but this.”

The gangly boy—Merlin the sorcerer—stiffened.

“What do you mean?” Arthur tried to keep his tone neutral, but his father detected the imperiousness latent in the question.

“Merlin is a Level One Magic User. And he’s only recently returned to England after being trained abroad for several years.”

“A Level One?” There was awe and fear in his voice, which he promptly staunched. Only a handful of L1s remained in Britain, and those who did rarely left their homes. Ever since magic had been properly outlawed when Arthur was a boy, most of the more powerful sorcerers, or Magic Users as they preferred to be called, lived their lives in seclusion lest they be accused of wrongdoing and hauled off to prison.

After the nation-wide riots in the 1990s, which had arisen from within an enclave of powerful sorcerers opposed to the government’s increasing regulation of magic, prejudice against magic and MUs had grown worse. For good reason, some thought. Nearly four hundred people from both sides had died during the suppression of the violence, including his father’s beloved older brother, King Ambrosius. That had been almost twenty years ago, but still tensions lingered. Most MUs lived their lives in constant fear of being targeted by hate crimes.

And yet here his father was, inviting an MU—and an L1, at that—into their midst. It didn’t make sense.

“From now until the foreseeable future,” the King said, “Merlin will serve as your personal attendant and guardian. Night and day.” The emphasis on ‘night’ was unmistakable. “I have given him the authority to make sure you do not disappoint me or the kingdom again.”

“I thought you said he was going to protect me.”

“He will. From yourself.”

“But you can’t—this isn’t—” Arthur said, tripping over the words as the full ramifications of his father’s decision hit home. Not only had the King decided to hire an MU to watch over Arthur, he was endorsing the illegal use of magic to do so. “Give me one more chance.”

“You’ve had your final chance, Arthur. This charming prodigal son routine you’ve cultivated with the public is wearing thin. It’s time you fulfilled your duty and stopped carousing around the world with your trousers around your ankles.”

A faint chuckle made Arthur glare to the left, but either he’d imagined it or Merlin had schooled his features—luckily.

“To avoid controversy,” the King said, “Merlin will be introduced as your new attendant. And of course Leon has been apprised of the situation. I trust you can keep at least this sensitive matter out of the public domain.”

Arthur’s mind whirred, the remnants of his rough night sloughed off. Personal attendant… And—authority? “What kind of authority?” he demanded, the beginnings of worry creeping in. Of the MUs he’d known at school, none had ever actually used magic; indeed, many of them feared their own powers, having grown up in an era where most people viewed them with mistrust. And now he was to live with an openly practicing sorcerer.

“Merlin is an obedient servant to the crown,” the King said, regarding the boy as if he were a horse or dog. Merlin remained staring at his feet. “I assure you there is no danger at all. I’ve assigned him rooms adjoining yours. He is to maintain your safety and use his discretion regarding matters of state security when necessary.”

“You mean you’ve given him leave to force me to behave. Is that it?” Arthur’s voice rose, and he glared at Merlin. How dare he waltz in here expecting Arthur to obey him? And his father, acting like Arthur was a common criminal, to be detained at will by someone he didn’t even know with powers he’d always mistrusted. It was inconceivable.

“Don’t be impertinent. Arthur, you defy me in this and make no mistake about it, I will cease to consider myself your father.”

At that, Arthur shoulders slumped. He looked at his hands, aware of Merlin’s eyes upon him and hating that they were full of pity.

***

Outside in the corridor, Arthur quickened his pace towards his wing of the palace with Merlin trailing behind. Neither of them spoke. Arthur rarely stayed at Buckingham; he preferred Clarence House, but his father had made it clear that at least for the time being, he was to lodge in the palace. Under surveillance, was more like.

“I can’t bloody believe this,” Arthur finally said, thinking more out loud to himself than addressing Merlin. The boy answered anyway.

“So . . . uh, Sire. C-Can I call you Arthur?”

“No.”

“Okay. What shall I call you then?”

Arthur spun on his heel, stopping Merlin up short so that they nearly ran into each other. Merlin took a few steps back, blinking rapidly. This was one of the most powerful sorcerers in England? Un-fucking-believable. He looked ready to bolt or faint under the strain. The initial reaction of awe and fear that Arthur had experienced when he’d learned about Merlin’s identity had all but vanished.

“My title is His Royal Highness, Prince of Wales.”

Merlin frowned. “That’s a bit of a mouthful, innit?”

He couldn’t help it; his jaw dropped open at the cheek. “You will address me with the respect afforded my position.”

The boy recovered himself, hand clutching at the base of his throat. “I’m sorry, Your Highness. I don’t blame you for being irritated, what with the King threatening to disown you. Your own father! If I were in your shoes I’d probably hate me, too. And I’m sorry; I do talk too much when I’m nervous. It’s one of my worst qualities.”

During the babbling, Arthur’s attention had been drawn to the boy’s lips, trying to focus on the nonsense they spouted, but now he tore his eyes away and said, “do shut up, Merlin.” He stomped down the hall and left Merlin staring after him. What he needed now was a stiff drink—or three—and then a nap. A long, long nap—hopefully when he woke up he’d be back in his own bed and this whole thing would fade like a dream.

“As you wish,” Merlin said, again at his heels. Arthur thought he detected a little less enthusiasm under the assent.

“And no Princess Bride references, please. Your unoriginality is unsurprising but annoying, all the same.”

Merlin looked at him, confused. “Right.”

“Sire.”

Right, Sire.

“Right, Sire,” Merlin said.

“Gooood.”

They continued down the corridor that Arthur knew like the back of his hand. He’d spent the first seven years of his life here, and then once he left home for schooling he’d been back for holidays and summers until he graduated Eton.

He tried to recall happy times spent within these walls but could bring none to mind. There was always his father, distant and imposing in his memory, and the frail queen, his mother, before she’d died.

“Wow,” Merlin said, interrupting his morbid thoughts. “Never thought I’d be moving into a palace.” The sorcerer was gazing around like a wide-eyed country boy, which perhaps he was. Arthur realised he didn’t know a thing about Merlin except for his penchant for insolence.

“I suppose not. Where are you things, anyway?”

“They—the staff said they’d bring up my bags. I don’t have a lot, you know, just some clothes.”

Arthur eyed Merlin’s wardrobe distastefully. “I hope they don’t all look like that.”

This earned him a frown, but no reply. Arthur watched Merlin’s profile as they finally came upon his personal wing—he seemed to be experiencing a kaleidoscope of emotions, all of which appeared on his expressive face. Not exactly the most imposing figure. And this was the person who was supposed to keep Arthur in line, prevent him from going out and making a royal debacle of himself? Well, perhaps he wouldn’t be so hard to evade after all.

Nothing ever changed here. Arthur’s rooms were just as he’d left them, lavish and impersonal. He wasn’t surprised to find Leon in his study and a cluster of attendants unpacking cases he hadn’t filled himself. They moved with efficient, practiced motions, and for a moment Arthur watched helplessly.

“There you are!” said Leon, eyes tracking between Arthur and Merlin. “Sire, I’ve taken the liberty of bringing some of your favourite books, and of course your computer and video game console.” He gestured towards the large flat screen television where the PlayStation was already attached.

“Thank you, Leon.” He thought he might have heard another chuckle from Merlin, and he felt his face heat in spite of himself. Just because he was the Prince didn’t mean he couldn’t entertain himself as others did.

Leon went on about various things and Arthur listened with half an ear, the other bit of his attention warily focused on Merlin. The boy was walking about his rooms, assessing; his earlier nervousness seemed to have evaporated. The eyes that regarded Arthur now were business-like and assured. His gut clenched with unease as Merlin raised a hand and whispered something he couldn’t quite make out—

“—in your rooms by ten o’clock,” Leon said. “At least until the King is satisfied you’ve modified your behaviour.”

“A bloody curfew.” He rounded on Leon, furious.

“Yes, Sire.” Leon winced and stepped back, but the guilt on this face only made Arthur angrier. The King, Leon, and this boy-sorcerer thought they could control him, the future King of England. He was a prince, for fuck’s sake.

“And I suppose I’m to have no—overnight guests.”

Leon bit his lip.

“Fuck!” Arthur kicked the giant English oak wardrobe in the corner of his bedroom that he’d always hated. It had belonged to Queen Victoria and as such was worth an obscene amount of money, but it looked like an ornate coffin.

All around him the flurry of activity continued, people ignoring his little outburst as they’d been trained to do. “Out!” Arthur cried. “All of you get out. I’ll finish unpacking my things.” He enunciated each word, trying to regain some of his dignity—probably impossible, since they’d doubtlessly all seen the photos by now.

And just like that the room emptied. Except, of course, for his cheeky, lanky, annoying warden. The boy stared at him, lips slightly parted; he appeared nervous again, as he should be.

“You too. Bugger off.”

“Um,” Merlin said, chewing on his bottom lip. “I’m sorry, but the King said—”

“I don’t give a rat’s arse what the King said.” Arthur grabbed a pile of clothes from the bed and turned toward the wardrobe. “Go to your room and leave me alone. Now. I have no use for you, and you can rest assured that I won’t try to escape. What’s the bloody point? For all I know there’s an armed guard waiting outside.”

He could hardly believe that instead of leaving, Merlin came closer. “Look. This isn’t the most ideal . . . situation. But I think we could, you know, get along. Be friends, even. I won’t—try to control you if you just work with me—”

In spite of the conciliatory tone, Arthur bristled.

“I don’t know who you think you are,” he said, injecting all of his rage and indignity into his tone. “But you must be stupider than you look if you think the two of us could ever be friends. You work for my father against my own will and I will not take this lying down.”

A tense silence fell over the room. Arthur waited.

“I wouldn’t expect you to. But I think we should make the best of things—”

Arthur waved his hand. “That’s easy for you to say. What did my father promise you? Power? Money? A better taste in clothes?”

“You can be rude to me all you like,” Merlin said quietly. “You can insult my clothes and my intelligence if it makes you feel better. It doesn’t bother me. But maybe if you took the time to think about someone else for a change you might realise that it doesn’t all revolve around you. You assume you know who I am, but you don’t. You don’t know the half of it. Not everyone is born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Sire. I don’t want to be here any more than you want me here.”

Merlin’s statement, instead of angering Arthur further, puzzled him. Not want to be here? What MU wouldn’t want to have this kind of control over the Prince, especially a L1 who, as was well known, naturally sought power? It didn’t make sense, but before he could ask for clarification, Merlin had turned and silently exited the room through the door adjoining their chambers.

***

The next morning, Arthur woke early feeling quite refreshed. He stretched and sat up, smiling for no reason until he recognised his surroundings; instead of the simple, clean lines of his room at Clarence House, he lay on a giant canopied bed. The red and gold wallpaper glared at him and he glowered back, remembering the day before. There was no doubt his father had over-reacted; perhaps now that tempers had cooled they could have a more civil conversation. He reached for his phone and let it ring, but the King didn’t answer his personal line. Arthur tried his father’s assistant, his head bodyman—nothing. He’d been blacklisted, he realised, and it hurt, which was ridiculous. By now he should know better.

A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts. He considered telling whomever it was to piss off, but the door was already opening.

“Good morning, Sire,” Leon said, bringing him his cup of black coffee and bacon buttie. “Busy day today.”

“Oh?” Arthur said. He noticed Merlin had trailed in behind, looking everywhere but at him.

“First you have brunch with the Duchess of Cambridge and her nephew. You remember Sir Ethan.”

“I do. He’s a bore.” Arthur yawned and took a sip of coffee, watching as Merlin’s eyes darted over to him and then back to the opposite wall. He had dressed more appropriately today, but his clothes didn’t fit him. Despite the fact they were most certainly not friends, Arthur would have to ensure Merlin got a suitable wardrobe if they were to be seen in public together.

“After that, there’s a meeting with your advisers about the financial crisis in Europe, then the club at four for polo, and tonight a benefit dinner for the Veteran’s Affairs Society—”

“Wait, financial crisis?” Arthur held his hand up.

“The King would like you to start taking on more responsibility.”

“Hmm. So I am to be let out of my rooms, after all.”

“Yes. Of course, Mr. Emrys will attend with you.”

“Of course.” Arthur sighed and glanced at Merlin, who now seemed to be gawping. When he noticed Arthur’s attention, he lifted his gaze and blushed before averting his eyes and tugging on his shirt collar. Arthur looked down, noting the covers had fallen away to his hips, exposing his bare chest. Wonderful. Merlin was a prude.

“And that’s all. We’ve got your navy suit pressed for this afternoon’s activities, and then tonight is formal dress.”

“What about him?” Arthur asked, gesturing towards Merlin. “He can’t go out like that.”

“Mr. Emrys’ wardrobe is being seen to, Sire.”

“Good. Good.”

A soft voice interrupted Leon before he spoke again. “Call me Merlin, please. It’s just . . . I’d feel more comfortable.” It was the first thing he’d said, and Arthur was struck again by how young he seemed.

Leon smiled, obviously charmed. “Okay, then, Merlin it is.”

They finished going over the week’s schedule—each day was more of the same, benefits and public events which all seemed equally dull—and then Leon excused himself, leaving Arthur with his breakfast and a sullen Level One MU.

“I’ll just be going, then,” Merlin said as he started towards the door to his room.

“Wait.”

Merlin froze, and Arthur tried to put the thing that had been puzzling him all night into words.

“You said yesterday that you didn’t want to be here any more than I wanted you here. What did you mean?”

Something shadowed passed across Merlin’s face, but it was gone before Arthur could name it. He hated that it only fuelled his curiosity.

“Oh, nothing. Doesn’t matter,” Merlin said with a shrug.

“Is my father keeping you here against your will?”

“No, no!” Merlin answered quickly. He shook his head.

“You puzzle me, Merlin. If I wasn’t so convinced you were pea-brained, I’d even go so far as to say you’re a mystery.”

“There’s nothing mysterious about me, Sire. The King asked me to serve my country and I accepted.”

“But you know it’s illegal for you to use magic, even at the King’s request.”

Merlin swallowed. “I’m hoping—that you’ll. That I won’t have to—”

“You’re hoping I’ll behave myself so you don’t have to restrain me, is that it?”

“Something like that.” Merlin flushed, the colour spreading down his cheeks to his throat and up to his ears. He pulled at his collar as if it were strangling him and then, seeming to notice what he was doing, dropped his hands and looked Arthur in the eye.

“You must think very highly of me, then.”

“Not really.”

Arthur glared, and Merlin’s eyes widened so that he resembled a deer in hunter’s sight.

“Not really, Sire?”

***

The day went off tolerably well, but by the time the benefit ended, Arthur’d already begun to chafe under his new restraints. It wasn’t just Merlin’s presence; his intake of wine had been severely restricted at dinner, and afterwards he’d been immediately chauffeured back to the palace to make his ten o’clock curfew.

On a normal night he’d be calling his mates and making plans, going to an exclusive club or party—but now he had nothing to do but face his empty room. Imagining the fun he was missing put him in an ill temper, and so he ordered a bottle of whisky from the kitchens. If he couldn’t get out, he’d make the most of his solitary confinement by getting pissed and having a wank.

After he’d made the call he was left with Merlin, whose new tuxedo suited him. His frame seemed less gangly now that he wore fitted clothes. During dinner Arthur’s eyes had been drawn to him more than once, but he’d quickly looked away, not wanting to give the sorcerer the wrong idea. He was only marvelling at how well he’d cleaned up, really.

“You’re going to get pissed, then?” Merlin asked.

Arthur didn’t appreciate the comment. He undid his tie and flung it over the closest chair, unbuttoning his collar so he could finally breathe. It was over-warm in his chambers. “That’s the plan. Are you going to try and stop me?”

“Not unless you try to leave.” The words were quiet, but firm. Arthur wheeled around.

“Oh really? And how, may I ask, will you do that?”

“Arthur—”

Despite the warning tone, Arthur took a step nearer. “I didn’t say you could call me by my name.”

“Sorry.”

Arthur stalked closer, intent on blowing by Merlin into the corridor when a rush of warm air collided with his body and forced him backward, inexorably. He could no more fight it than he could have a tidal wave or hurricane. Fear seized him, making him struggle, but the more he fought the stronger the hold became. It wrapped around him and held him until his body relaxed, too tired to fight and mesmerised by the golden colour flashing in Merlin’s eyes.

Once released, he sagged against the bed behind him, his knees giving way to a host of conflicting emotions. One of the most pronounced of these was surprise. Now that Merlin’s golden eyes had reverted back to blue, he looked as fearful as Arthur. He trembled, and for a moment Arthur had the impulse to soothe him.

He almost stepped forward, but froze with his foot mid-air when Merlin extended his hand in warning. His lips thinned into a grim line.

“Don’t come any closer.”

Suddenly he realised that Merlin hadn’t restrained him to block him from the door; he’d been acting in self-defence. It was that awareness that reined in Arthur’s own instinct to lash out.

“I wasn’t . . . I wasn’t going to touch you,” Arthur said, still breathing hard. If he had doubted Merlin’s authority before, now he understood that underneath Merlin’s guileless exterior something very powerful lurked, coiled and waiting.

Merlin frowned. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.” One of his hands settled at the base of his throat and clutched there.

Neither of them spoke, but they stared at each other, mutually confused, until a rap at the door signified the whisky had arrived. They remained quiet until the attendant left, and then Merlin turned to where Arthur stood fingering the glass bottle that had been deposited on his nightstand.

Merlin broke the stalemate. “You’ll excuse me, Sire. It’s been a long day.”

“You trust to leave me on my own, then? What if I decide to sneak out?” He poured a tumbler of the whiskey and brought it to his nose, inhaling the smoky peat.

“There are charms on the doors. I wouldn’t—recommend it.”

Arthur sipped. “Ah, so I’m a prisoner once more.”

Merlin gave him a rueful smile, thrusting his hands into his pockets. “We’re all prisoners, in one way or another.”

The firm lines of Merlin’s shoulders hunched as he went out.

***

Arthur dreamt of golden eyes and invisible binds wrapping around him. When he awoke, his head was pounding and his mouth tasted of stale alcohol; he’d drunk most of the bottle. Despite the fact he generally felt like arse, his morning hard-on throbbed insistently against his belly, so he gave in and squeezed, rocking up into it. He’d have given anything for a warm body beside him to take away the discomfort, but he was alone. On the bedside table, his mobile beeped. The previous evening he’d listened to all of his messages, various friends and lovers wanting to know when he could come out and play, and had deleted them all regretfully—except for Gwaine’s. His friend had left a dirty voicemail telling Arthur what he planned do to him the next time they saw each other. Remembering that, he reached for his phone and replayed the message, stroking himself as he listened. It was a sad replacement for the real thing, but it had been a long time since he’d gone without sex.

After he’d jerked off and showered, his thoughts turned again to the events of the previous evening. Merlin said he’d charmed the doors. At the time, Arthur hadn’t wanted to test it, but now in the light of day his fears seemed ridiculous. He strode with intent to the entrance and reached out for the handle, but when he grasped it, it wouldn’t turn. It was almost as if the door had been locked from the outside, but a faint current tingled his palm, reminding him of the way the magic had felt the night before. There was a force there that frightened him, and Arthur made it a point not to fear anything.

He resented it.

Days passed and a routine developed. Arthur woke each day and received his schedule from Leon. He attended his events and meetings, but made his displeasure known obviously and frequently. If his father thought he would capitulate like a coward, he had another thing coming, because Arthur did not appreciate being treated like a prisoner in his own palace. It turned out that Merlin, though he had undeniable power, was not omniscient. He couldn’t follow Arthur into the loo, for instance, and so at a dinner with the ambassador to Spain, Arthur snuck away with a fit waiter and received a hasty blowjob. He carried a secret flask and maintained a pleasant buzz whenever he got too bored, which was often, but never got noticeably drunk in public. These little displays of independence allowed him to maintain his sanity, but really Arthur found no pleasure in them. If Merlin noticed his deviances, he never said anything.

The boy was proving to be a study in contradiction. When they were out, Merlin was deferential and quiet, melting into the background so readily that Arthur often forgot he was there. He never spoke unless spoken to, and if the King was present he seemed to shrink even further into himself. Sometimes he got a lost, faraway expression on his face when he thought no one was watching.

Because Merlin was posing as his personal attendant, for appearances’ sake he’d begun taking on duties for which he had no knack whatsoever, like tending to Arthur’s clothing and keeping his rooms tidied. He brought breakfast in the morning, which was invariably cold due to Merlin’s penchant for dawdling. The boy had apparently decided to make inefficiency an art form.

Arthur noticed other things, as well: how the colour blue agreed with Merlin, especially when he wore the cashmere jumper, and how his cheeks dimpled when he grinned. He liked his tea with milk and sugar and always dunked his biscuits until they were soppy. His long fingers were just as often nimble as clumsy, though of course Arthur would never admit it out loud.

It was easy to forget about the authority the King had invested Merlin with because he so rarely used it. But then Arthur would reach for the handle to his door at night and feel the strange, vibrating power locking him in, and he’d be shocked anew, remembering the warm bonds which had been almost gentle despite their force. It was impossible to reconcile the Merlin who seemed so unsure of himself with the Merlin who’d been in complete control of him that night, the privately talkative and insolent Merlin with the sullen, quiet boy he became in public.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin said one day out of nowhere.

“Why?” Arthur asked, a bit peevish. He’d spent the night tossing and turning, unable to sleep for the claustrophobic feeling of being locked in, and now Merlin was flitting about the room in a most distracting manner.

“I felt you trying to get out last night. I know you probably don’t believe me but I don’t like using my power to control you.”

“Then why did you agree to this?”

“You probably wouldn’t even believe me if I told you. I know you think that MUs are . . . bad.”

“How is it that you know what I think?”

“Because everyone does. And I can tell. I can sense your distrust of it, of magic. Of me. You know, sometimes I wish—” He trailed off with a sigh.

“What?”

“Sometimes I wish I’d never been born.”

Arthur hadn’t expected that answer, or the discomfort that lodged in his chest at Merlin’s sincerity. “Don’t say things like that, Merlin.”

“Why not, if they’re true?” Merlin frowned.

He scrambled for words. “Because I think my father could have done a lot worse picking someone else for your position. Even if I don’t like it, I’m glad it was you.” It was perhaps a stupid thing to say on the heels of Merlin’s morbid confession, but even as he said the words, Arthur realised their truth.

A smile. Not a large one, but a smile all the same turned up the corners of Merlin’s lips. It made Arthur feel strangely warm. Their eyes connected for a beat, and in that time Arthur grew increasingly disconcerted. And then Merlin went back to dusting and Arthur sat pretending to read, mulling over what had just been said.

“Merlin?” Arthur asked, finally giving up and clapping the book shut.

“Yeah?”

“Could you hurt someone with your magic?”

“If I wanted to. But I don’t want to.” He paused, seeming to consider his response. “I suppose it’s like the way you could hurt someone with your fists, hit them and lay them flat, but only if you really meant it. There has to be an intent to harm; otherwise they’re just hands, used for other things.” He wrinkled his nose. “Does that make sense?”

Arthur nodded as the words sunk in.

“I wouldn’t hurt you, Sire.” Merlin said softly.

It was only a couple of days later that the King surprised them both with a visit to Arthur’s rooms. He never came to this wing of the palace, and so when he swept in with a furious expression on his face, Arthur steeled himself for the worst.

Merlin stood to the side, white as a sheet.

“You’ve been explicitly disobeying my orders, Arthur. The other night I received a report that you were—intimate—with a waiter in a public venue with heads of state in attendance. What do you have to say for yourself?”

He really had nothing to say that wouldn’t involve being immediately disowned, and so he stayed silent.

“So it’s true, just as I feared.”

Arthur glanced at Merlin, pissed off but surprised when Merlin gave him an incredulous look and shrugged. It had been Leon, then. Maybe.

“And you,” the King said, directing his attention towards Merlin, who paled even further, his face tinging green. “You have been negligent. I’m beginning to think those who recommended you for this position were wrong. If you don’t rein in his impertinent behaviour, you’ll be sent back where you came from. I will. Not. Stand for this.”

“Yes, Your Highness.” Merlin shrunk back against the wall, looking as though he would give anything to melt through it. Then Uther took a step toward him and Arthur saw Merlin’s eyes flash gold—the King must have noticed, too. He froze mid-stride.

“Do you dare to use sorcery against your king?”

“No, no . . . I don’t.”

“Father,” Arthur said, heart thundering in his chest. “It is entirely my fault. Merlin had nothing to do with this. I tricked him, distracted him so I could slip away. He hasn’t been negligent.”

The statement seemed to calm the King. He paused, regarding Merlin critically. “Is this true?”

Merlin looked to Arthur, and he gave a barely perceptible nod of encouragement.

“Um. Yes.”

“Hmm. Well, then.” His father turned around, facing Arthur again. His expression had softened somewhat, and he made as if to come forward but then thought better of it, hands falling down beside his thighs in clenched fists. “I know I may seem—harsh. But you know I’m only doing this for your own good.”

“Of course, Father.”

And then to Merlin, “This is your last chance.”

The King left the room.

Once they were alone, a heavy silence descended. Merlin leaned against the wall and focused his eyes on Arthur.

“You didn’t have to—say those things. Make excuses for me,” he said softly.

“I know, but . . .” Arthur flustered under that blue-eyed stare. “It was the truth, anyway. I didn’t lie.”

Merlin’s mouth quirked a little, and he seemed to regain his equilibrium. “You can’t really believe I don’t know what you’ve been doing—that I didn’t know about that waiter.” He raised an eyebrow, and Arthur felt a blush heat his cheeks. Stupid, really, to be embarrassed; it was hardly the worst he’d done.

“But you didn’t stop me.”

Merlin sighed, pushing away from the wall and moving towards the settee on the other side of the room. Arthur trailed after him.

Why do you do it?”

Arthur froze as Merlin sat and looked up at him, waiting for an answer.

“Dunno.”

“Hmm.”

There was a knowing look on Merlin’s face that Arthur wasn’t sure he appreciated; it reminded him of his A-Level History tutor, Dr. Kilgharrah, who had a certain expression that could cut right through the most hardened student-criminal and leave him a gibbering mess. How many confessions had been acquired by that look alone was a matter of frequent debate at Pop meetings.

“You think I do it for attention,” Arthur said.

“Is there any other reason?”

“Boredom.”

“So you’re a bored, spoiled prince. And here I was starting to believe there was something more to you. Like maybe your father—”

“Maybe you were wrong.” Arthur cut him off.

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

Instead of walking away, Arthur found himself taking the vacant spot next to Merlin on the settee. He almost expected Merlin to pursue his line of questioning, but he didn’t. Instead, the other boy seemed to be struggling with something else entirely.

“I know you don’t feel comfortable with me, and I don’t blame you. I don’t want to be anyone’s jailor. You don’t know—I can’t—”

Arthur took a deep breath. “What did my father mean by ‘back where you came from’?”

“I really can’t say.”

“Because of my father?”

“Yes. Or else—fuck, I can’t.”

Merlin stared down between his spread knees and tugged at his collar. Arthur watched Merlin’s fingers unclasp the top button of his silk shirt. His skin looked soft and Arthur suddenly found himself wanting to touch—to see if that cheek was really as smooth as it looked.

“I’m sorry,” he said, hoping Merlin knew he was sincere. “For whatever it is, truly. For this whole situation, and the way I’ve treated you, I—”

Their eyes met, something like understanding passing between them. Arthur’s pulse picked up speed as he registered Merlin’s long lashes, the soft curves of his mouth, and finally he had to break the connection lest his heart beat out of his chest.

“Perhaps we can reach a compromise,” Arthur said, fighting to regain his wits.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, clearly neither of us is getting out of this until I start behaving. So I’ll do it. For form’s sake, of course. I’ll stop arsing off and making things worse, you have my word. I’ll do what’s expected and you’ll get whatever reward my father has promised you. But I need something in return.”

“What?”

Arthur winced at the hint of fear in Merlin’s question. Certainly he didn’t think that Arthur would ask for that?

“I want you to take the charms off the doors and promise not to use your magic against me, for any reason. Ever.”

“But . . . if you . . . I can’t just let you—”

“You’ll have to trust me. As I will trust you.”

Merlin was quiet for a while, still gnawing on his bottom lip. Then he took a deep breath and exhaled. “If I fail here and he sends me back, I’ll never see my mother again. I haven’t seen her in almost six years.”

“Bloody hell, Merlin. What happened to you?” Again that urge to touch, to offer some comfort, possessed him. But he didn’t know how, or even if it would be welcome.

“I can’t say any more. I need you to understand what’s at stake for me. This isn’t a game. It’s not about money, or fame, or whatever you might think. I just want to help people like me. I just want to go home.” Merlin’s voice wavered a bit on the last word, and Arthur sighed, certain he wasn’t going to get any more information. Something clearly wasn’t right, though, and his father . . . God what had happened to Merlin?

“I promise I’ll do whatever it takes for that to happen.”

“Okay,” Merlin said. “Then I agree.” And with that, a tentative truce was established between them.

“So does this mean we’re friends?” Merlin asked just before he left.

Arthur’s immediate response was a quip, something along the lines of ‘don’t get carried away’, but he stifled it. He held out his hand instead.

Merlin’s hand was soft in his, the grip firm. He felt the tingle of magic thrum just under the skin where their palms connected.

“I think it does.”

“So can I call you Arthur?”

Arthur sighed. “I suppose you can.”

***

Soon the monotony began to take its toll. Arthur missed going out on the pull, that was for sure, but most of all he missed the distraction it had provided. Being alone so much gave him too much time to think about his life and his future, about why he did the things he did . . . and he found he didn’t particularly enjoy what resulted from that self-reflection. In order to combat it, Arthur tried everything in his power to keep his mind busy, but by the middle of the second month of his confinement, he’d already mastered his entire collection of video games and played more Sudoku than he’d ever admit to another person, and even porn had lost its lustre. Worse, he had become distressingly familiar with Britain’s Got Talent and even found himself rooting for certain contestants. Merlin caught him watching one day, teased him and asked whether it was possible for him to just ring up the judges and decree a winner. Ha bloody ha, Arthur muttered, smiling all the same.

Yes, it turned out that Merlin—when he wasn’t sulking or being insolent or keeping him prisoner—actually had a sense of humour, was pleasing to be around. Since they’d reached their understanding, things had gotten easier between them. After days filled with royal engagements and tiresome meetings, during which Arthur behaved himself, he often invited Merlin to stay and watch a film or have dinner. Sometimes Merlin declined, but more often than not he assented and they spent evenings watching telly or playing cards or other games, which Arthur had the feeling Merlin let him win. He explained it away as desperation for contact with someone his own age, but Arthur began to enjoy Merlin’s company. He found certain things about the other boy exceedingly strange: for one, Merlin hadn’t seen any films from the last five years and knew nothing about current popular culture. When Arthur asked about it Merlin explained that such things didn’t interest him, and though Arthur suspected a much more complicated reason, Arthur joked and accused him of being a snob. Of course that got a laugh out of Merlin, given the source, since you won’t even drink whisky unless it’s been aged twenty years.

And then there were other, less wholesome motivations for wanting Merlin around.

It began one day when Arthur was in the shower having a wank, something he now did with a frequency that was probably bordering compulsive. He was just about to finish when the door to the bathroom opened. Gasping, body rushing with adrenaline, Arthur stuck his head out of the shower to find Merlin fussing with the towel rack.

Merlin!”

The boy whirled around. “S-Sorry.” He stammered, face flushing. “I just forgot you didn’t have any clean towels. I didn’t think you’d notice.” He looked everywhere but at Arthur, biting at his bottom lip in a way that made Arthur’s cock twitch.

He was still holding himself, breath heaving in a way he hoped Merlin would attribute to alarm. “Get out,” he said, in order to refrain from saying something worse. Something like get in.

Merlin backed out of the bathroom quickly, but it was too late. Arthur had already imagined pulling Merlin into the shower and backing him against the cool tiles. Feeling another hand wrap around him or, God help him, that mouth. It only took a couple of strokes until Arthur’s balls tightened and emptied into the drain.

Since then, Arthur would be in the shower with his hand wrapped around his prick, imagining Gwaine or some girl kneeling below, when all of a sudden the face would morph into that of a dark-haired young man with doe eyes. He visualised Merlin’s lips opening to accept him before he painted them with his come. As soon as it was over, however, he would vow that next time would be different; he wouldn’t think such thoughts.

But that was easier said than done. Merlin was always there and looking increasingly tempting in his soft jumpers and fitted trousers, and Arthur hadn’t gotten off in any fulfilling way in far too long. Oftentimes Arthur caught Merlin staring and then blushing when he looked away. That same bashfulness which he’d first attributed to prudishness now seemed to mean something much different. But when they were together alone, Merlin never sat too close, never let their conversation get too personal. It could be that he was straight and simply heading Arthur’s attentions off at the pass to avoid awkwardness. Arthur, however, had never given up that easily. More and more, the only thing making his captivity bearable was the mystery Merlin presented.

One evening after an interminable dinner party, Arthur asked if Merlin, who looked quite fit with his dinner jacket slung over his shoulder and his white shirtsleeves rolled, would like to pop in for a nightcap. He agreed and followed Arthur to the lounge of his suite, taking his usual spot on the plush leather settee on the far side of the room. Arthur poured them two glasses of wine and sat next to Merlin on the small sofa.

“That was pure torture,” Arthur complained, making a show of rolling his neck. He took a sip of wine and splayed his legs out, watching Merlin’s reaction out of the corner of his eye.

Merlin was staring at his glass, gently swirling the wine. “At least the food was good.”

Arthur scoffed. “You hardly ate a thing.”

“I did. You just weren’t watching.”

Oh, yes, he had been, but he decided to keep his mouth shut. “Lord Alvarr was in particularly high spirits. What a complete arse.” The man had been pissed, but of course no one had tried to stop his voluble denigration of MUs. One of the most popular conservative members of the House of Lords, Alvarr came from a prestigious family and had a great deal of political clout. Very few dared contradict him, publicly at least. And the party had been filled with his father’s like-minded cronies and allies.

Merlin murmured something unintelligible.

“What?”

“Never mind. It doesn’t matter.”

Arthur watched the disgust and anger play across Merlin’s face. “No, tell me. I promise it won’t leave this room.”

“It just makes me sick that someone like Alvarr has so much power. No wonder this country is so opposed to MU rights. He has people believing MUs want to take over government and steal jobs; that we want to raise godless children and destroy the family. It’s ridiculous but the scariest part is he sounds so convincing. He preys on people’s fears.” Merlin sighed and took a generous gulp of wine.

“Not everyone is like him or believes the things he says,” Arthur said, tensing when Merlin turned to him with narrowed eyes.

“What about you? I don’t see you out there criticising government policy.”

It was difficult not to be affronted or defensive, but Arthur managed to control those impulses. He sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. “Touché. But I . . . I guess I feel uninformed. I’ve never known anyone else who practiced magic. And my father, well, let’s just say I didn’t exactly grow up with an unbiased view of things.”

“And that’s the problem,” Merlin said. “There’s so much propaganda it clouds the truth. Magic is only as bad or good as the people who use it. I know that sometimes there’s a bad egg, but Magic Users are like anyone else, and why—why should we have to suffer for who we are? For how we were born? It’s not right.” His eyes widened as if he suddenly remembered who Arthur was. “Oh please don’t tell the King I said that.”

“Of course not.”

“Thanks.”

Arthur thought for a while. “People are afraid. They remember the riots.”

“But fear only makes things worse—it’s what stops understanding. And it only breeds resentment in the long run. I know the riots were terrible, and that MUs did terrible things. But that was true on both sides. My father—”

“What?” Arthur prodded gently, wanting him to go on. He sipped his wine and waited.

“My father died in Birmingham. I . . . never knew him.”

“Was he an MU?”

“Yes, but it’s not what you think.” Merlin’s eyes flashed, his tone growing passionate. “He wanted to stop the violence, not contribute to it. He was a pacifist—he never believed that we’d get anywhere lashing out, but he was caught in the middle and ultimately he paid with his life.”

“So maybe the restrictions are a good thing,” Arthur started. “If people are misusing magic . . .”

“Only a very few misuse it, Arthur. Is that a reason to ban it altogether? How is that right? I was born with magic in my bones; when I was a baby I was moving things with my mind. Can you tell me that a baby should be punished for something it can’t even help doing?”

“Of course not—I—”

Without knowing it, somehow they’d moved closer together on the settee. Merlin spoke more quietly now, as if worried they were being overheard. Probably not an unwise fear.

“All of these restrictions, they don’t solve anything. And eventually even the MUs who are peaceful are going to get fed up and revolt. That’s what happened before, and that’s what will happen again. People who are oppressed don’t have any love for their oppressors, even if they might act like they do.”

The words were not meant to wound him in the way that they did, but Arthur felt them like a blow. Of course Merlin would never . . . could never. He was one of them, the oppressors, wasn’t he? Only he’d never known it. Until recently he’d imagined magic as a threatening force being held at bay by necessary, if not entirely just, laws, but now he was seeing things through different eyes, through Merlin’s eyes. Merlin had polished off his wine, and Arthur filled his glass again, considering.

“So what would you propose? If you could change things, what would you do?”

“I’d form a bipartisan committee with MUs and non-magical people to establish new regulations and abolish the old authoritarian laws. I’d work to with communities, providing them with outreach and support for MU children and making sure the general populace is re-educated about the reality of magic, not the fiction. I’d make sure that the MU population felt wanted, like they belonged, like their country loved them. I’d show people how beautiful magic can be.” He choked on the last sentence, turning away from Arthur and taking large mouthfuls of wine. Arthur’s heart ached, but honestly what could he do?

“You’ve thought a lot about it.”

“Of course. It’s . . . my life.”

Emboldened by the wine, Arthur asked, “Show me?”

“What?”

“You said magic can be beautiful. When I felt it . . . that night, when you stopped me from leaving. It was frightening because I couldn’t fight it, but underneath I felt it could be something . . . beautiful.” As you are, he thought, watching Merlin’s pink cheeks flush crimson. It was as if he was seeing Merlin for the first time.

“Um. Okay.” Merlin stood and set down his empty glass as Arthur watched with anticipation. Then he held out his hand.

Mind blank, Arthur took it, allowing himself to be led to of all places—oh God—his bed. Not knowing what to expect, he lay down as Merlin bade him, the anticipation and nerves making his breath quicken. He felt the dip of the bed as Merlin joined him, his face serious and only inches away, and for a moment he thought there might be a kiss. His whole body thrummed with the prospect of it, but he stayed perfectly still, afraid of frightening Merlin away.

Merlin smiled at him. “Tell me about your happiest memory.”

“What?”

“Where were you? Who were you with?”

Arthur thought. “My mother. She died when I was a little boy.”

“Ah, I’ve seen her in photographs. She was very beautiful. And what were you doing?” Merlin threaded his fingers through Arthur’s and again he thought about a kiss. “Close your eyes and remember.”

Arthur obeyed. He had been young, probably five or six, and had been out walking with his mother among the palace gardens. They’d brought a picnic lunch, just the two of them, and spread out a blanket on the ground, where his mother sat as he cavorted around picking flowers. Blue and pink and red and purple, he gathered the colours she loved best and brought them to her in a bouquet, which she’d accepted with fond tears in her eyes. He’d been so proud to make his mother happy that way. Out of them, she’d woven a crown and placed it atop his head, smiling. You’ll be a wonderful king one day, my little lion, she’d said, because you’ll rule with your heart and bring peace to this land.

“Open your eyes.”

Arthur did, and his breath caught in his throat. Above him, playing on the ceiling in full colour, was, not the fragmented memory from his mind, but an even more lifelike vision. He saw his mother laughing, the glow of health still pinking her cheeks. Arthur’s chest tightened as he thought of how she’d changed by the end, grown thin and pale and too weak to walk in the garden.

“How are you . . . how can you . . .”

Merlin’s eyes had gone golden, his forehead furrowed in concentration, but when he saw Arthur turn to him in surprise, he smiled and looked more like himself.

“Do you see? Is it the same?”

The sun was bright and the garden was in full bloom. If he concentrated he could even feel the warm breeze, smell his mother’s sweet perfume.

“It’s . . . unbelievable. I can’t . . .” He didn’t know what to say, aware tears were leaking from his eyes yet unable to stop them. He’d never thought he’d see her again except in his mind, and those recollections had grown so distant as to have all but disappeared. “Perhaps it’s a silly memory,” he said, trying to gain control of his emotions.

Merlin stared at the ceiling with a strange expression on his face. “I think it’s nice.”

Impulsively, Arthur said, “Show me one of yours.”

Merlin exhaled and released Arthur’s hand. He immediately regretted the loss of contact, but realised Merlin was concentrating—the scene was changing.

From what was visible, the house seemed small—cosy—with a fire roaring in the grate. Young Merlin, even more elfin than he was now with a dark shock of hair across his forehead, lay curled next to a pretty young woman with a storybook in her hands. The words and pictures flashed, appearing to come to life before his eyes—it was Merlin’s favourite, the tale of a dragon and his master and their adventures. The woman stroked Merlin’s hair as he began to doze, his long lashes casting a shadow on his cheeks. Home, Arthur supposed, and the woman with the snub nose and the sad eyes was Merlin’s mother. Gradually, however, the memory faded and the ceiling grew blank once more.

On the bed beside him, Merlin had fallen asleep.

***

Bad-boy Prince Reforms?

“What is this?” Arthur asked, reading the headline of the editorial Leon had thrust in front of him.

Merlin gave a little nod. “Just read it.”

It has been over three months since the Crown Prince’s latest batch of hedonistic party photos surfaced, and since then Great Britain’s most beloved and notorious party boy has altered his ways. He has not been seen out in London or elsewhere although reports confirm the Prince has been established at Buckingham these past two months, at least.

Whether this change of behaviour is a change of heart or the result of pressure from the Crown is yet to be determined, but one source close to the Royal Family has suggested that the alteration might be linked to the appearance of a mysterious young man, the Prince’s new personal attendant. The two are reported to spend almost all their time together. Could Arthur have taken a consort at last?

He glossed the rest of the article, which included the official statement from the palace: Merlin was merely Arthur’s newest personal attendant, selected under the most auspicious recommendations. When at last he’d finished, he looked up and met the worried expressions on the others’ faces.

“What are you two moping for?” Arthur asked. “This is what the King wanted.” The plan was succeeding more quickly than anticipated; if all continued to go well, perhaps he’d be out of the palace by Christmas.

“But they think . . . I’m . . .” Merlin flushed as he stammered. “Your consort.”

Arthur shrugged, seeming to dismiss it, though inside he wasn’t entirely displeased. In fact, the idea of taking Merlin as his consort secretly thrilled him.

Leon sighed. “That’s the least of our worries. This isn’t the only paper reporting on the change—I’ve got at least five more back in my office. The press is paying more attention than predicted. We’ve managed to dismiss further inquiry at this point, but speculation will continue unless something is done. The King thinks the best course of action is to remove Merlin from service and bring another MU into his position, someone . . . older and more experienced.”

“What?” Arthur demanded. Beside him, Merlin had grown pale. He was staring at Leon with wide eyes. “That’s preposterous. Who cares about a few measly rumours? They’ll soon die down.”

“Not with Merlin’s constant presence. And we really can’t afford a thorough investigation of the matter.”

Merlin was shaking now, the movement barely perceptible. He looked as if he would speak, but refrained, his hand clutching at his collar the way he did when he was nervous.

“I demand to speak with my father.”

***

The King sat in front of his chessboard when Arthur arrived at his quarters. He barely made any acknowledgment, with his eyes focused on the pieces and his lips pressed together in concentration.

“Father,” Arthur said. “What is this I hear about dismissing Merlin?”

“Yes. It is already done. I need only inform him of the fact.”

“But why? Just because of some ridiculous rumour? Anyone with half a brain would know it’s untrue.” He tried to keep his voice even, knowing that yelling never got him anywhere with his father, but it was difficult. The King didn’t even glance his way.

“All of the effort I’ve put in to reclaiming your good name, the name of our family, will be lost if Merlin’s power is discovered.”

“But how will that even happen? No one knows who he is or why he’s really here.”

“It’s too risky, Arthur. And aside from that, for you to be intimately associated with a servant in your employ is just as unseemly. What you do in the privacy of your own rooms is your business, but after you attend university you will be expected to take a wife.”

Arthur’s mouth dropped open and his face heated. It wasn’t often that his father brought up his sexual inclinations. But worse than that was the reality of his life already mapped out, a suitable girl waiting in the wings. He knew some of the candidates for the position of Queen and didn’t fancy any of them. And the unyielding look on the King’s face demonstrated he considered the matter settled. Arthur thought fast.

“Father, Merlin has been an excellent service to you; he’s thwarted me at every turn without fail. The other night I was planning an escape during the Lords’ dinner, but Merlin stopped me. If not for him I’d be back in America by now.” Of course it was a blatant lie, since Merlin hadn’t had to restrain him at all, but the King didn’t need to know that.

That got the King’s attention, at least. He raised his eyebrows and drew his folded hands to his lips.

“Indeed.”

Arthur kept his stare steady, his mind whirring. “Yes. And I have a counter-proposal. Part of the interest stems from my recent change in behaviour. Here in London it’s easy for people to see, and it’s made all the more odd by my residence in the palace. I think conjecture will die down if I leave the public eye for a bit. Behave like a typical eighteen-year old. But with Merlin there to keep me in line.”

“And what do you propose?”

“A holiday, for myself and a few mates. We can go to Fells Keep for Christmas and Merlin can come along. You don’t need to sack him.”

Fells Keep was the Royal Family’s remotest residence. It was a hunting lodge—lodge being a loose term, as it was really more like a small castle—in the midst of the Scottish highlands. The King used it mainly as a retreat for deer stalking, but Arthur hadn’t made the trip since he was fifteen. It was a few miles away to the nearest village, inhabited by only about five hundred people. They’d be in the middle of nowhere.

“Hmm.” The King crossed his arms. “You seem very eager to preserve your jailor’s employment.”

Arthur thought fast. “Only because this wasn’t his fault and he deserves another chance. All he wants is to serve his crown and country.”

“Is that so? The boy is loyal?”

“Yes, extremely so. He always speaks of how he admires you.” It was the baldest lie he’d ever told his father, but Arthur knew one of the King’s weaknesses was flattery. Uther smiled slightly.

“Very well. You will leave for the Keep tomorrow. Merlin may stay on. For now.”

“Thank you, Father.”

“Oh, and Arthur?”

Arthur turned at the door, his hand clasping the knob.

“When you return to your rooms, send the boy to me.”

It was with some reticence that Arthur did what he was instructed, though he did make a point to tell Merlin of his lies to the King in case of interrogation, giving him full leave to embellish at will. Merlin regarded him as if he were some kind of alien, but nodded, then turned to leave with slightly slumping shoulders.

While Merlin met with the King, Arthur called and made plans with some of his schoolmates who were on Christmas holiday from university. Percival, Lance, and Gwaine all immediately agreed, eager for some time away with the mate they hadn’t seen for months. Gwaine even joked that if it hadn’t been for the telly and the occasional news item, he would have thought Arthur dead.

When he hung up and went about collecting items to pack, the reality of the situation finally struck him. Somehow he’d procured both his freedom and Merlin’s company in a remote location. A swell of joy pushed from the inside of Arthur’s chest, but before he could dwell on it for long he was distracted by Merlin’s return.

He gave Arthur a tight smile. “Packing?” he asked.

Arthur nodded, tossing the shirt he’d been folding onto a pile. “What happened? What did my father say?”

“I’ve kept my job for now, but just barely.” Merlin ran his fingers though his hair. “He asked me if what you told him was true, about trying to escape.”

“And?”

Merlin sighed and flopped onto the bed, resting his head on his hands. “I told him you were an insufferable malcontent.”

“Oh really, Merlin?”

“Mmm-hmm. I said that I could barely get a moment’s rest for all of your attempts to make a debacle of yourself.”

“Did you now.” Arthur didn’t know whether to laugh or throw a pillow at him. Instead, he launched himself next to Merlin and faced him on a propped arm. The space between them was charged with energy, and Arthur was close enough to make out each one of Merlin’s long lashes. “What else did my father say?”

A pause. “Oh. Nothing.”

“You’re lying. Tell me.” It was so easy to tell when Merlin wasn’t telling the truth it was a small miracle the King had believed him.

“Oh, it was nothing, really. Just that I better behave. Anyway, that’s not what matters. You . . . you stood up for me. I don’t know how I can repay you for that.”

Arthur flushed, embarrassed about where his mind went. They were quiet for a minute, looking at each other. Merlin’s eyes were wide as if he had the same thought, or at least had gauged it from Arthur’s reaction, and Arthur’s breath quickened. It would be so easy to lean into it, press their lips together, but before he could move Merlin rolled over onto his back and broke the spell. Arthur restrained a weary sigh.

“Give me your hand.”

“What?”

Merlin’s eyes were faintly tinged with gold. He was looking at the ceiling.

“Oh,” Arthur said, finally understanding. He mimicked Merlin’s position and took his hand, trying his best not to run his thumb against the back of it. His stomach twisted with excitement.

“This time I’ll go first.”

Arthur nodded, his mind quieting as the scene unfolded above them—gorgeous, rolling green hills and meadows. And then cliffs, a long strip of narrow land extending into the sea. It was an odd sensation, to be on one’s back and looking down as if from above; Arthur could even see tiny figures walking across the rocks. He could smell salt in the air.

“I know that place,” Arthur whispered. “Worm’s Head, right?”

Merlin grinned, looking unearthly with his flashing eyes. And God help him, Arthur’s groin stirred.

“My mum and I used to go all the time. It’s my favourite place.”

“I haven’t been there in years.”

“Me neither. Okay, now your turn,” Merlin said, switching the subject as he always did.
“If you could go anywhere in the world, be anywhere right now, where would it be?”

Arthur thought long and hard, but his traitorous mind kept looping back to the very room they were in. Flustered, he tried to tug his hand away before Merlin saw. But the magic had already begun to work. Above them on the ceiling were their mirrored forms, hands clasped, and all around them Arthur could feel his own desire shimmering in the air. Merlin’s eyes turned golden bright. He gasped.

“Sorry.” He closed his eyes and hoped when he opened them he’d discover this was a dream. But then he felt it, another force just as strong as his own want, foreign and familiar. Merlin. The image on the ceiling flickered and got stronger as if amplified by the power of the sun.

And then it faded. His hand was released.

“Oh, Arthur,” Merlin said, his voice soft. “You are such a wonderful thing. But I just can’t.”

“It’s okay. I understand.” Moving to get up, Arthur couldn’t meet Merlin’s eyes. He swung his feet over the side of the bed and rubbed his hands over his face, suddenly exhausted. Merlin’s desire had been just as strong as his. He’d felt it. “It’s an early start tomorrow,” he said.

“Right, well. I better finish packing for the trip.” The bed behind him shifted and then stilled as Merlin got up. “Arthur?”

“Hmm?”

“Are we all right?” His voice was so worried. Arthur made himself look, made himself nod.

“Yeah. We’re all right.”

***

When Leon knocked at the door at half-past six the next morning, Arthur grumbled his way to the shower. Under no circumstances would he let himself think about the night before. What had happened had happened but now he had to deal with reality, and reality included being marooned with Merlin in a remote lodge for a month. After he was washed and dressed, he grabbed his bag and joined Merlin and Leon in the hall.

“Hi,” Merlin said with a tentative smile. He wore a blue puffy coat that made him look even more like a boy.

“Hey.”

“All set?” Leon asked, twirling the keys.

“All set.” It would be a long drive, since they’d decided to avoid the airports in order to circumvent nosy reporters.

“Does your father know Gwaine is coming along?” Leon asked as they made their way to the back staircase. His raised eyebrow didn’t leave any doubt as to his meaning.

“I’m sure he does by now,” Arthur said. And if he hadn’t objected, he probably was trying to maintain that semblance of normalcy they’d discussed. His dalliance with that particular friend wasn’t exactly a guarded secret. “It’ll be good to see him,” he added, feeling just a little vindictive. He watched for Merlin’s response out of the corner of his eye, but he kept his expression neutral.

“Just behave yourselves in public,” Leon said.

Arthur rolled his eyes and nodded. After years of readily available sex, this recent dry spell was testing the limits of his self-control. But Gwaine wasn’t the one he wanted.

His friends were as they’d always been; as members of the aristocracy, they’d known each other since they were young, attended the same events, the same parties, the same schools. Fucked the same girls. He’d missed Gwaine with his boisterous, often inappropriate comments, Percival with his calm demeanour, and intelligent, thoughtful Lance. Leon watched tolerantly from the front seat as the rest of them bantered, recounting recent exploits that Arthur had missed and recalling old times.

Arthur felt giddy to be out of the palace after so many months, but after a while he realised that Merlin was sitting silently with his headphones on. He’d hardly spoken a word except for introductions. Because none of his friends save Leon knew about Merlin’s magic or the reasons for his presence, they believed the story about Merlin the personal attendant. Well-meaning as they were, his friends were of a certain class and not disposed to socialising with servants, so they treated Merlin like they would any other person in a service position: as if he wasn’t really there.

They stopped at services to use the loos a couple hours into the journey, and Arthur turned to Merlin while the others were still outside.

“You all right?”

“Fine.”

“Are you sure? Because you seem a bit quiet. I’m used to you nattering on about everything and nothing.”

Merlin scowled. “I said I’m fine.”

That was all that could be said of it, because soon their company had rejoined them. Gwaine sat to his right and threw his arms across the back of the seat, looping one around Arthur’s neck and pulling him close.

“Missed you, mate,” Gwaine whispered so that the others couldn’t hear. His lips gently grazed Arthur’s ear, sending an inadvertent tremor through him. To his left, he thought he felt Merlin stiffen.

“You too,” Arthur said. It had always been a matter of opportunity and convenience between the two of them, and so of course his friend probably expected to carry on as they usually did under such circumstances. Hell, maybe he should have a go, after all. Release some tension. But then he caught the sullen look on Merlin’s face and gently disengaged himself with a quick duck from under Gwaine’s arm.

After that, Merlin seemed to relax, and Arthur responded in kind, listening more than speaking to updates in his friends’ lives. Lance had apparently started seeing someone—a girl named Gwen whom his parents disapproved of, as she was a commoner, but by whom he seemed absolutely smitten. Percy and Gwaine had spent a couple of weeks in Paris earlier in the term, where some of their mutual friends had enquired after Arthur.

“Didn’t know what to tell them,” said Gwaine. “It’s not like you just to disappear without so much as a word.”

“I had some . . . things to take care of.”

“The King mad about those pictures?”

“You could say that,” Arthur replied with a roll of his eyes.

“At least you’re free now. We’ll have a bloody good time of it, yeah?”

A chorus of agreement erupted all around.

As they drove, the landscape changed; the distance between farms grew, and the topography became hilly, dotted with thick stands of trees. The narrow road followed the River Dee for most of the way, winding through small villages and past glens. In the distance Arthur spied a loch he recalled fishing in once when he was a child. Though it was still early in December, snow already blanketed the ground in thick swaths of uninterrupted white. The mist rolled between the mountains down to the road.

Merlin let out a little gasp when they dipped into a particularly scenic glen, and Arthur followed his eyes, watching with approval as Merlin’s sullen expression softened. He wondered what Merlin was thinking, and realised he didn’t know if Merlin had ever been this far north. His mother, Arthur had learned, lived just outside of Cardiff, where Merlin had grown up. He still hadn’t managed to discover more than that, because any time he brought up Merlin’s childhood or inquired about his life since he’d left England, Merlin found some way to change the topic or end the conversation.

Soon everyone except the two of them had dozed off, finally succumbing to the effects of the early start. Arthur pretended to read the book he’d brought along, keeping one surreptitious eye focused on Merlin as he exhaled onto the glass of the car window, painting tiny frost animals with his breath. Shyly, he glanced at Arthur, who looked just in time to see a perfect icy lion cub disappear. He grinned, knowing he should probably warn Merlin to stop in case the others woke, but he seemed so content . . . and Arthur liked that he felt so comfortable showing Arthur his magic.

When they arrived at the estate in the evening, the weather had turned exceedingly cold and the air smelled of snow. Even in the darkness the snow refracted and, with the help of the moon, illuminated the exterior of the lodge. Arthur smiled at the weathered stone facade and the icy remnants of his mother’s wild rose bushes that lined the walk.

The main caretaker, Gaius, and his wife Alice were at the door when they came in, tracking snow on their trainers. Gaius was around eighty, at least, but he had the eyes of a much younger man. He had been living here for over forty years, but he and Alice had never had children. When he laid his eyes on Arthur, he shook his head and smiled.

“So happy to see you, Sire,” Alice said, curtsying. Gaius was less formal.

“Come in, come in,” he said, ushering them inside and shutting the door behind them. “It’s been ages, Your Highness. You’re quite grown.” He clapped Arthur on the back. “And who have you brought with you?”

They made introductions all around, and then the house was filled with laughter and conversation as people divested themselves of coats and found their way into the drawing room, where a fire was already roaring in the grate. Arthur watched as Merlin took in their new surroundings. Apart from Leon, he was the only one who’d never been here before; he wrinkled his nose in distaste when he noted the four-point buck hanging over the mantle, one of the King’s many hunting conquests. If they had been alone, Arthur might have teased him for being sentimental. A delicious aroma came from the kitchen—probably Alice’s cock-a-leekie soup, a favourite of Arthur’s.

After a hot toddy to warm them, Arthur suggested they get settled. It was strange, how much like a holiday it felt. He supposed it was.

“Which room is mine?” Merlin asked once the others were out of earshot. The lodge had two main stories. The master bedroom, which Arthur would take, was at the end of the hall on the right, and there was a small adjacent room for the King’s attendant.

“For appearance’s sake you should probably kip in the room adjoining mine. But it’s . . . small. If you’d rather take another, it’s fine.” Maybe Merlin wouldn’t be comfortable rooming so close to him after what he’d seen on the ceiling.

The hot whisky and tea had pinked Merlin’s ears and cheeks. He was wearing Arthur’s favourite blue jumper.

“No, that will be fine. I don’t mind a small room.”

The house staff had already deposited their bags in their respective rooms, leaving the door between them unlatched. It probably wasn’t polite, but Arthur snuck a peek at Merlin as he stowed his belongings. He didn’t use magic, but hummed a little as if he were enjoying himself all the same. Perhaps things could go back to normal after all.

Arthur flopped down on the bed and stared up at the vaulted wood-beamed ceiling. He already felt more peaceful than he had in weeks, but then he’d always loved this place. The last time he’d visited had been for the Glorious Twelfth; he and his father had spent days together combing the hills for grouse—probably the last occasion they’d actually talked to one another, though the King had spent more time critiquing Arthur’s skill with a rifle than anything else. He didn’t share his father’s thirst for hunting.

***

Dinner was exactly as Arthur had suspected: hot soup and buttered bread with apple crumble for dessert. They drank bottles of whisky from the cellar and sat long into the night, well after Leon, Gaius and Alice had retired to their quarters, leaving the boys to be boys, Arthur supposed.

“So, what can we do to liven things up around here?” Gwaine asked, looking around the table. His eyes fell on Merlin. Ever since Arthur had deflected Gwaine’s earlier advances, his friend appeared to have set his sights elsewhere, much to Arthur’s discomfort.

“What we need are some girls,” Percy said. “It’s all well for you lot,” he motioned at Arthur and Gwaine, the notorious bisexuals of the group. “And you, with the new girl.” He indicated Lance. “But what about me?”

“We can go into the village,” Gwaine said.

Lance shook his head. “Not tonight in the snow.” Already a few inches had fallen, blanketing the already rough road to town.

“Another night, lads,” Arthur said. He’d been careful to watch Merlin’s face during the exchange, but he had maintained a stoic expression. It was generally agreed that they’d spend the night in, deciding on poker, and Arthur went to the game room to retrieve the chips, stacking up a hundred pounds’ worth for each player.

Merlin shook his head. “Arthur, I can’t afford—”

At that moment Arthur realised he had no idea how much the king was compensating Merlin for his services. From the nervous and ashamed look on his face, Arthur guessed it wasn’t much, or that perhaps his pay was contingent upon success. Why had Merlin never mentioned it?

“Can you play?” he asked.

“Of course.”

“Well, then don’t worry about it. I’ll cover your bets.”

Merlin looked like he might protest again, but then he nodded and accepted his chips. It soon became clear, however, he had no need for Arthur’s assistance. Merlin won nearly every hand, the last with a remarkable straight flush.

“If I didn’t know better, mate,” Gwaine said, groaning as the last of his chips disappeared into Merlin’s cache, “I’d say you were a bloody cheating MU.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Merlin asked the question lightly, but underneath Arthur recognised his irritation. It was a tone he’d used often early in their acquaintance.

“They just caught a bloke in Liverpool, didn’t you hear about it? He was playing billiards for cash and swindled the entire bar. Turns out he was an MU, and he was using magic to hustle the crowd.”

“So just because one man cheats, all MUs do?” Arthur asked.

“Well, they have the power, don’t they? If no one can tell if you’re honest, why would you be?”

Merlin cut in before Arthur could respond. “For yourself.”

“Ah, that’s rubbish, don’t you think? If I—”

“That’s enough, Gwaine,” Arthur interrupted. He knew his friend didn’t really mean what he was saying, but alcohol had a way of loosening his tongue and making him into a git.

“All right, all right.” Gwaine grinned. “Anyone for a dip in the hot tub?”

Merlin immediately declined, and while Arthur was tempted to do the same and follow Merlin upstairs, he was well aware of how suspicious it would look—usually he was the last to bed out of all of them. And so he joined his friends outside in the boiling tub, and while the lot of them drank and talked, his mind drifted to where he’d rather be.

***

In the morning, Arthur was roused by the bright sunlight beaming in from the large window to the right of his bed. He groaned and stretched, body immediately reacting to the scent of coffee and food in the air.

He drew on a pair of trousers and headed for the loo adjoining his room with Merlin’s, but paused when he heard someone singing. Badly. Crossing his arms, he stood and waited for the door to open. Merlin wasn’t expecting to see him there, and startled. Arthur stifled a laugh.

“You git!” Merlin said. “You were listening to me make an arse out of myself.”

“Singing isn’t one of your strong suits, I must confess.”

“You are horrible,” Merlin said, trying to get by. Arthur blocked his way, extending his arms across the doorframe.

He tisked. “You don’t mean that.”

They were standing close together, and Merlin was dressed, but fresh from the shower. He smelled like aftershave, and Arthur imagined nosing along the soft edge of his jaw. And then he realised what he was doing and stepped back to let Merlin pass.

Their shoulders brushed as Merlin exited the bathroom, and just when Arthur thought he would continue to his room, he turned.

“You stood up for me last night,” Merlin said. “For MUs.”

“Of course. I do listen to the things you say.”

Merlin smiled, but his eyes were more expressive. They shone. “Thank you.”

The next couple days passed in a relaxing haze made possible by Alice’s comfort food and the Keeps’ substantial wine cellar. They watched crap films and played billiards, and even broke out the snowmobiles one afternoon, which resulted in a nearly disastrous race between Percival and Gwaine. At night, they made ritualistic use of the hot tub. Merlin never joined them.

Arthur’s head lolled against the back of the tub, his head fuzzy from too much wine. He wasn’t used to drinking this much anymore, he supposed. He wondered what Merlin was doing, if he went straight to bed or if he lay awake. If he wanked. Even the thought of it had his own cock at half-mast.

His reverie was intruded upon by a toe-poke, dangerously close to the groin.

Gwaine grinned at him. “You seem different, mate. What’s going on? Problems with the King?”

He mustered his most convincing smile. “Nothing. No, I’m quite all right.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you, what made you hire an attendant?” Percy asked. “You’ve never had one before.”

“I know why he hired Merlin,” Gwaine said with a lascivious grin. “You can’t fool me, Pendragon.”

“Whatever you’re thinking is ridiculous.”

“Oh, you don’t mind if I have a go, then?”

“You bloody well will not have a go,” Arthur nearly roared, surprising himself and his friends, who faced him with matching expressions of alarm. “Sorry. But no,” he said, quieter now. “Merlin is . . . innocent. And he doesn’t need you corrupting him.” There was no way he would stand for anyone else touching Merlin.

Gwaine lifted his hands in surrender. “Yes, Your Highness.”

When Percy and Lance got out to piss and get more wine, Gwaine moved closer. “What about us?” he asked. “If you’re not shagging him, wanna mess around?”

Underwater, Gwaine’s thigh slipped against his, and his breath was hot against Arthur’s cheek. His semi started to fill. Arthur swallowed as a hand gripped his leg near the groin, massaging into the muscle.

“You’re tense, mate. You should let me help you out.”

In the distance, Arthur could hear his friend’s voices as Gwaine kissed him. A warm tongue invaded his mouth, and for a moment Arthur’s allowed it to happen. But then he was moving away, muttering apologies. He climbed out of the hot tub with an awkward erection.

“What’s gotten into you?” Gwaine asked as Arthur grabbed for a towel.

“I don’t know.”

Arthur made his way to his room still dripping from the tub. The wine and hot water had made his head throb, and he was looking forward to the warm oblivion of clean sheets. He was still partially hard, though, and that would have to be dealt with first.

The room was dark save the glowing embers of the fire, which Merlin must have stoked before he went to bed. Arthur dropped the towel to the floor and stood in front of it, fully nude. He wondered how wise it would be to tell his friends the truth about Merlin’s powers. They were going to be here until January, over three weeks away, and it would be easier if his friends knew—but, though he trusted them, there was risk involved. Scratching his belly and balls absently, Arthur turned his attention to his cock, giving it a stroke. He sighed at the feeling and squeezed himself at the base.

Turning from the fire to climb into bed, Arthur froze when he noticed a figure curled near the bottom.

Merlin lay still clothed, his knees gathered up to his chest. Arthur stood and stared, not knowing whether he should rouse Merlin or let him sleep, when the sensation of being watched must have gotten through to him even in his unconscious state. In the low light of the fire, Merlin blinked and came awake.

Rather than startling, though, he stretched and smiled languidly.

“Hi,” he said. “There’s no fire in my room and this one was so nice. I must have just drifted off.” It was then he seemed to notice that Arthur was naked. He bit his lip. “So, I’ll just be . . . going then.” Still, he made no attempt to leave, and his eyes raked over Arthur’s body. Maybe it was the wine. Instead of shrinking with embarrassment, Arthur stood without covering his obvious arousal.

“Arthur,” Merlin whispered. His eyes latched between Arthur’s legs.

It was enough.

Moving with intent, Arthur climbed onto the bed and straddled Merlin where he lay, then paused a moment to savour the sensation of finally being where he wanted to be. Every movement was deliberate, considering—waiting to give Merlin a chance to object. But he didn’t, just gazed up at Arthur through heavy lashes.

Arthur had never been shy about his body, knew that people found him attractive, but still it gave him a heady thrill to have Merlin eye him with approval, a small smile curling on his lips.

“Why don’t you stay?” Arthur asked. When Merlin didn’t protest, he leaned down and took his mouth.

In all of the times Arthur had imagined their first kiss, it had always been chaste, sweet, and fully clothed. This was nothing like that. Merlin’s mouth opened to his, and their tongues tangled in a dance that spoke of months of mutually frustrated desire. He covered Merlin with his body and rolled them onto their sides, sighing with approval when Merlin hooked one of his legs over Arthur’s hips to draw them closer. His cock chafed against the rough material of Merlin’s trousers, but the length of Merlin’s mirroring hardness rendered the discomfort insignificant.

He didn’t know where to touch, wanted everything. His hands gripped the slim waist, cupped the taut arse and slipped under his jumper to greet warm skin. Merlin’s fingers played in his hair and scratched down his back. They clutched at each other, hips hitching, their mouths locked together, too hungry to last. Arthur’s fingers scrabbled to get at the hard bulge trapped in Merlin’s trousers.

“Can we . . . these need to go.”

“Fuck yes,” Merlin said. When they kissed again he could smell their arousal mingling as he undid Merlin’s fly and applied his hand to the hot flesh inside. And then the trousers were gone with a flash of yellow eyes.

Merlin was lovely in the dim light, his slim body unfurled and offered up to Arthur’s gaze. Arthur decided he must kiss Merlin everywhere, from the jut of his hipbone to his well-muscled calf. His feet, his soft belly, his hard, long cock and tight balls. But it was Merlin’s mouth, swollen from their earlier kisses, that Arthur returned to again and again, sucking in the sweet bottom lip and moaning as Merlin responded, taking the kiss over and thrusting his tongue against Arthur’s.

Their erections drew together like magnets, sliding against one another with tantalising friction. It wasn’t enough. Taking them both in hand, he kissed Merlin and swallowed his groans as he worked their cocks with practiced motion, letting his fist slide over the heads, feeling the slick there and the way they grew harder with impending release. Merlin was helpless now, whimpering and clutching him, his mouth slack and eyes knit in concentration. Arthur held him close with his free arm as he worked them over, thrusting against Merlin’s cock, his own orgasm rising. He looked down into the bowl of their joined hips and was frustrated by the darkness, wanted to see but could only feel as the first slick evidence of Merlin’s climax coated his hand. The man in his arms whimpered brokenly as he spurted between them, and that warm seed was all Arthur needed to finish. He came, hard, his cock jerking in a rhythm that matched Merlin’s panting breath, hot against his neck.

It was a muddle, but a glorious one, and Arthur laughed and shuddered as he milked the final drops from their spent cocks.

And now the slide into awkwardness as Merlin started to retreat.

“No, hey.” Arthur grasped his wrist, so delicate, and pulled him back down, trying to hold on to the intimacy he’d so long wanted.

Merlin met his eyes with an unsure stare.

“Stay with me,” Arthur said. “Please.”

“But . . .”

“There are no buts. Not tonight. I decree it. I am the Crown Prince, after all.”

That got him a smile, fond. As if unaware he was doing it, Merlin touched his hand to Arthur’s face.

Arthur kissed him again. This time, without the urgency of sex, it was sweet. Merlin’s mouth was soft, his tongue lazy. They kissed and kissed and Arthur held on tightly, heedless of the mess between them until Merlin magicked it away.

***

Merlin was gone in the morning. It was not without a pang of disappointment that Arthur showered, washing the remnants of their night from his body, then dressed and followed the smell of a full Scottish downstairs.

All of his friends save Gwaine were around the long table, piling their plates high with Alice’s breakfast. He scanned the room for Merlin, but didn’t see him anywhere. The disappointment he’d felt when he’d woken alone intensified, but then he heard voices in the kitchen.

“Come on, have something to eat,” Percy said, taking a giant forkful of egg.

“In a minute.”

Arthur continued on to the kitchen where he found Gaius, Alice, and Merlin standing around the stove. Alice had something in a pot, and she was holding out a spoonful for Merlin to taste. He did, first sticking the tip of his tongue out to test the heat.

“It’s delicious,” he said after he’d swallowed.

“Alice’s pudding is the best in Scotland.” Gaius beamed proudly at his wife and wrapped his arm around her shoulders.

“Oh you old flatterer,” she replied, smiling.

“Don’t we all get a taste?” Arthur asked from the doorway. The three turned and saw him there, and various greetings were exchanged.

Merlin, whose hair was mussed and looked like he hadn’t slept much, wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“I’ll talk with you later, my boy,” Gaius said, patting him on the back. “Come out to my workshop after lunch.”

“Okay.”

“Come on, Merlin,” Arthur said. “Don’t you want breakfast?”

As they walked back to the dining room, side-by-side, Arthur couldn’t stop himself from saying, “You left.”

“I . . . didn’t know if you’d want me to stay.”

“I asked you to stay.”

“But you were pissed last night.”

Arthur frowned, taking in Merlin’s profile. He didn’t like the dark circles under his eyes. From the other room, a loud, familiar voice told him Gwaine had finally risen and joined the group. He glanced over his shoulder and, noting they weren’t observed, tugged at Merlin’s arm so that he was forced to follow Arthur into the larder off of the kitchen. Once they were alone with only the baking goods and spices to overhear, Arthur cleared his throat.

“Is that what you think last night was, that I was drunk and wanted a one-off? I could have that with Gwaine. But if you’ve noticed, I’m not interested.”

“He is remarkably persistent.”

“He’s harmless, really. But—” Arthur paused, realising the need for full disclosure. “He kissed me last night.”

Merlin paled.

“It didn’t mean anything. I stopped it because I want you.”

The other boy was quiet for a moment as if processing the information. Perhaps he shouldn’t have said anything. “This,” Merlin finally said, gesturing between them. “It can’t possibly work. You’re the Prince for God’s sake and I’m . . . well . . . you know what I am.” He spoke in a hush, but the words were emphatic. “I can’t let myself get . . . involved.”

“It’s a little late for that, Merlin,” Arthur said. He crossed his arms and frowned, not knowing how to stop Merlin from slipping away.

“Your father—he told me to stay away from you.”

“To hell with my father. I want you and I think you feel the same. I felt it, the other night at the palace. Tell me if I’ve got it wrong.” The strength of the desire in the room had been too palpable to be based on his emotions alone. Even now he could feel it, the way the air had seemed to vibrate with intensity.

Merlin met his eyes. “You haven’t got it wrong. But there’s so much you don’t know.”

“Then tell me.” Arthur’s voice was kinder now. He stepped forward and lifted Merlin’s chin gently.

“I can’t.”

“Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter.” He recognised then that he trusted Merlin entirely—he’d kept his side of the bargain and never used magic against Arthur. Even now, when it was so clear he’d rather flee then stay here and have it out, he didn’t. “But you can trust me. I hope you know that.”

Merlin’s eyes gleamed with the far-away, distant expression he sometimes wore. He didn’t say anything, but nodded slightly.

“This isn’t something I’ve ever done before,” Arthur admitted. “Wanted to be with someone.” He traced the line of Merlin’s jaw.

Just like the night before, their mouths fit together perfectly, like the ebb and rise of the tide, there was give and take in the kiss, both surrendering, both commanding. Arthur hugged him close, feeling the tension drain from Merlin as he finally gave in and relaxed against his body.

“We’ll take it slow,” Arthur said, his voice hopelessly fond, not really meaning it but saying it all the same, wanting to put Merlin at ease. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew this was a bad idea; it would be complicated and dangerous. Worse than any of that, though, was the thought of losing it.

“What about the others?”

“Do you object to telling them?”

Merlin hesitated a moment. “I don’t know. What would we say?”

“We’ll give them the truth. Part of it, anyway.” Something had possessed him, the need to announce to the world that Merlin was his, starting with his mates.

“Um. I . . . still feel a bit—maybe we should just keep it between us for a while? If Leon finds out won’t he tell the King? And I promised not to touch you. He’ll send me back.”

Back where, Arthur wanted to ask, but he knew Merlin wouldn’t tell him. “Goddamn my father.” Arthur sighed with frustration, nodding. He supposed Merlin was right. “Very well, we won’t tell anyone. But does that mean there’s something to not tell them?”

A little smile crept back onto Merlin’s face. “Yes.”

They held hands as they walked into the dining room, but before they turned the corner, they parted, each taking a respectable distance from the other. It pained Arthur to let him go.

***

“You spent an awfully long time with Gaius today,” Arthur said later that evening, once he was alone with Merlin back in his room. All day he’d longed to be with Merlin away from the others, to be free to touch him. He was curious, too, about why Merlin had disappeared soon after lunch into the small lodging that Gaius and Alice called home and had not emerged until dinner.

“He’s a sweet old man,” Merlin said, adding a log to the fire with a dismissive flick of his wrist.

“Yes, I’ve always thought so. But what could you possibly have to talk about?”

“Nosy, nosy,” Merlin said, turning back to him. Then he cocked his head, hands on hips. “You mean you really don’t know?”

Arthur was at a loss. He shrugged.

“Gaius is an MU, Arthur. Level Two.”

“You can’t be serious.” It was incredible that someone he knew, or thought he knew, could have hidden such a huge secret.

“He doesn’t practice anymore obviously.” Merlin moved to sit on the settee to the left of the fire. Arthur didn’t waste a moment in joining him. “But he has a lot of knowledge, especially of potions and healing. I’ve never had the chance to talk to someone like me so . . . freely.”

There it was again, the unspoken thread of difference between them that wove through many of their conversations. Arthur thought better than to follow it now. What worried him more was that Gaius knew about Merlin’s powers.

As if expecting his objection, Merlin smiled ruefully. “Don’t worry about Gaius. He won’t tell a soul. And he doesn’t know the King hired me to guard you.”

“We should probably keep it that way.”

Merlin nodded, then turned back to the fire. “But there’s something else . . . I think he suspects about us.”

“Oh really?”

“Maybe I talked a bit too much about you. I don’t know. But sometimes MUs can sense things that other people can’t.”

At this point Arthur figured a person, MU or no, would have to be blind not to see how he felt at least, as he was often unable to keep his eyes off Merlin when they were in a room together.

“Can you?” Arthur asked. “Feel things?”

Merlin blushed slightly. “Sometimes.”

“Oh, that would have been good to know ages ago, Merlin.”

“What, and ruin all the fun?”

Arthur groaned in embarrassment, and then grabbed Merlin’s wrist and pulled him closer. “So you knew.”

“I knew you wanted me. I didn’t know why. I thought it might be because I was convenient.”

“If that was ever true, it’s not anymore. You don’t still think that, do you?” He fingered the prominent veins on the underside of Merlin’s wrist.

“No. Not after you stood up for me to the King. And the way you try to understand about Magic Users.”

“I am trying to understand. But there are still so many things I don’t know.”

Merlin rested his head on Arthur’s shoulder. The pressure of it, along with the crackling wood-fire, was comforting, and Arthur felt his body relax.

“Maybe you can come with me and talk to Gaius one day. He’s trustworthy, Arthur. I feel it.”

“Does my father know about Gaius?” The King had always been fond of the old man; indeed, the caretaking position at Fells Keep would probably have changed hands long ago were it not so. Sometimes Arthur thought that if his father hadn’t been the King, that he and Gaius would have been friends.

Merlin nodded. “Mmm-hmm. But he made it clear after the riots that Gaius wasn’t to continue practicing. According to him he’s kept his word. He says he can barely feel his power anymore.” There was a displeased note to his tone that Arthur would have once called insolent. He supposed it was, still, but now at least he understood the frustration behind it.

“Well . . .” Arthur said, kissing the top of Merlin’s head. “Maybe you can learn something while we’re here. And yeah, I’ll go with you and talk to him.”

The fire was warm now, and with Merlin snuggling closer Arthur felt the beginning stirrings of arousal. He breathed in the clean scent of Merlin’s hair.

“He was teaching me about local herb lore,” Merlin said, tracing the seam of Arthur’s trouser leg with his forefinger. “Do you know that there’s a flower that blooms for only a day which can be used to prevent miscarriage?”

“No.” Arthur didn’t care too much, either, but Merlin’s excitement was plain. He nattered on for a while about herbs and poultices and medicines, seemingly unaware of the riot he was causing in Arthur’s trousers with each mindless sweep of his fingers. Soon, Arthur’s cock pushed against his fly in protest of being neglected. Merlin continued to talk but his movements got bolder, more intent, and soon he was rubbing the hard erection with pulling squeezes.

“Shit,” Arthur hissed, eyes rolling back as Merlin traced the head. He let his legs fall open wider.

“Look at me,” Merlin whispered, nipping at his earlobe.

Arthur did, eyes darting from Merlin’s to the place where he was straining for touch.
He’d often seen Merlin like this, focused, controlled, and confident, when he was performing magic. But now Merlin was kneeling between his spread thighs and using his nimble fingers to release Arthur’s cock from his trousers. It sprung up, dark with arousal, and Merlin grasped it at the root, his eyes never leaving Arthur’s.

It started with small swirls around the head, a tongue dip into the slit—teases that made Arthur’s hips hitch as he fought the urge to force his cock deeper into Merlin’s mouth. Merlin licked him, pulled back his foreskin and flicked his tongue against the taut, sensitive bowstring underneath. Being forced to watch, not to give into the need to close his eyes, was the sweetest form of torture. Merlin’s lips were full and wet, and he spread them wide, taking the first few inches inside and sucking, hard. He looked up at Arthur through the dark fringe of his lashes, and then he set to work, bobbing on Arthur’s reddened cock while he pumped the base with his hands, holding his balls firmly and using one finger to gently prod against the soft furl of muscle behind.

Arthur could feel the build already, knew it wouldn’t take much longer, and he watched with mesmerised fascination as Merlin took him deep, his tip hitting resistance at the back of Merlin’s throat. He couldn’t stop the embarrassing moan that slipped out as his cock swelled, trapped in the perfect heat of Merlin’s mouth. Teeth gently scraped his shaft and Arthur hissed, watching Merlin go at it like this was all he’d ever wanted, eyes golden and full of desire. He pursed his mouth over the tip and pumped his hand, encouraging Arthur to move his hips.

“Merlin,” Arthur gasped in warning. His hands rested on Merlin’s head, caught on the brink of orgasm. “I want . . .”

“What?” Merlin released him and spoke with swollen lips.

“I want to come inside you.”

“God. Yes.”

“Fuck,” he said, remembering. “I don’t . . . I don’t have anything. I . . . We need a—” He thought about Gwaine—yes, he’d definitely have condoms. Shit, but—

“We don’t need—”

“Yes, Merlin. Yes we do.” Arthur tried to stand, groping to pull up his trousers, but Merlin caught his wrist and looked up at him with a smile.

“No we don’t. I know a spell. It’s for protection . . . if you trust me.”

Sitting back down with his legs splayed open, Arthur nodded with relief, said “of course,” slipping his hands down and along Merlin’s shoulders. He was bleary-eyed with arousal as Merlin clambered out of his trousers before straddling him and taking the base of his cock in hand. Things happened quickly. Merlin slicked himself with lube—that had appeared from . . . magic probably, he guessed from the fading embers of Merlin’s eyes—and slowly sank down onto his prick. That first tightness was unbearable. Arthur groaned, head falling back as Merlin took him all the way in.

“I . . . I . . . ”

He was so close to coming, bursting with it. His balls ached but still he tried to hold on, to wait for Merlin as he started to move, rocking forward, his breath hot and ticklish against Arthur’s neck. They clung to each other and Arthur sought Merlin’s mouth, mashing their lips in a messy kiss, desperation tightening muscles that wanted to move. He was vaguely aware of the pleasant-painful scratching of Merlin’s stubble, the rasp of the hair of their thighs together, but above it all was Merlin clenching around him, being inside, the unbelievable wonder of such a thing.

“Oh, fucking hell,” he said, losing it. He gripped Merlin’s hips and gave into his need to thrust, drunk on the sight of Merlin’s body arched on his lap, his head thrown back. One of Merlin’s hands flew over his hard cock as he begged Arthur to fuck him harder. Arthur did, and it proved too much for his self-control. With a few more quick thrusts he started to come, Merlin’s own release a heady scent and heat between them.

They kissed again, sleepy and languid with tongue, Merlin’s limbs trying to weld themselves around Arthur on the too-small settee. Their hearts thudded together, each one an echo of the other.

“Arthur,” Merlin said, his breath hot against the bare skin of Arthur’s neck.

“What?”

“Gaius said he has books that I can use to study.” The only sound in the room was the crackle and hiss of the fire. A log fell, knocking against its comrades and sending up a shower of sparks into the flue.

“You should.”

“Really?”

Arthur pressed his lips against Merlin’s damp brow. “I’m not my father, Merlin. I promise you that.”

***

The next day, Arthur’s friends decided they’d like to visit Aberdeen for some more riveting nightlife, and Arthur and Merlin stayed behind. Once the others were gone, and with Leon constantly in his room on conference calls, Arthur and Merlin were free to be more openly affectionate. It was a relief to be out of constant surveillance for the first time since they’d met. Although Arthur enjoyed mucking about with his mates, he found himself wishing they’d extend their stay beyond the few days originally decided.

Arthur spent afternoons with Merlin in Gaius’s workshop. Mostly he sat and watched while Merlin poured over the ancient texts that filled Gaius’s library, books that hadn’t been confiscated during the Great Purge twenty years before. Merlin had been born to study, Arthur thought; he had a level of concentration that Arthur had never achieved, even in his favourite subjects (of which there were admittedly few). Sometimes Merlin would come across a passage he didn’t understand and then he and Gaius would have a conversation that left Arthur either falling asleep from boredom—for instance, the rationale behind why mungroot has to be added after the safflower but before the lavender—or else completely enraptured, as when Gaius told stories of what life had been like in his youth, when MUs were free to practice.

“What we’re doing here is highly illegal,” Gaius said one day as Merlin worked through a particularly complex spell that had him frustrated. “If anyone found out we could all be imprisoned. If your father knew—”

“Father won’t find out,” Arthur said. Gaius joined him at the table for tea while Merlin continued practicing completely oblivious to them, swearing whenever he got it wrong.

“You’re not like him.”

“No. I’m not. I think I once wanted to be. But not anymore.”

“You have too much of your mother in you. She was never as narrow-minded as Uther about magic.”

People only rarely mentioned his mother around him. Arthur nodded, hopeful Gaius would go on. He didn’t. “So if you disagree with my father why do you stay here, work for him?”

“That is a long story, my boy. Your father is not a bad man; he’s a misguided one. When his brother was killed he took it hard, and then he lost your mother. Perhaps if she’d lived he would have been different. I often hoped that by staying on I’d be able to influence him, but he rarely comes here these days. He wasn’t always so hard-hearted.”

If his father had been different in his youth, Arthur didn’t remember. He couldn’t imagine the King ever listening to Gaius, or anyone for that matter; it wasn’t for nothing the press had nicknamed Uther the Iron King.

Gaius sighed. “It’s a shame that Merlin should have such power, such potential to do good with his magic, and yet be forbidden to use it. I must confess I worry for him.”

“What? Why?”

“For someone like Merlin,” Gaius lowered his voice to a quiet whisper, “repressing magic has a damaging effect on the soul and the body. It’s much like a flower needs, space, air, light and water to grow. Without those things, the flower withers. I’ve seen it in others more powerful than myself.”

And Merlin was like a flower, flourishing now that he had freedom and these new tools at his command. Every day he seemed brighter, warmer, lovelier. Something cold and unpleasant squeezed at Arthur’s chest.

“What happens to them?”

Gaius sighed. “They are the ones who go wrong, Arthur.”

“The MUs who started the riots—”

“Yes.”

But before Gaius could continue, Merlin gave a little shout from the corner of the room.
“I’ve got it! I’ve got it! Watch me!”

And with a flash of golden eyes, a cup was transfigured into a tiny white kitten. It mewed, looking lost, and Merlin scooped it up. “Look!” He held it against his chest, beaming proudly.

“Well, well,” Gaius said, chuckling. “Alice will be put out she’s lost one of her mother’s china cups, but perhaps the little one will be a good mouser.”

The room erupted in laughter.

***

Arthur had never been one for holiday sentiment. He enjoyed the food and the parties, but decorations and carols and good cheer was nonsense, and he didn’t care if that made him a humbug. But there was something quite endearing about Merlin’s excitement, so when Merlin came to him with wide, excited eyes and told him they were going to find and chop down a Christmas tree, Arthur had to fight back his smile.

“Who’s going?” he asked.

“Me and the lads.” They’d returned from Aberdeen a couple of days before, tired, hung-over, and satisfied.

Arthur smiled at the familiar way Merlin referred to his friends. Now that the initial awkwardness had worn off, Merlin had been adopted into the group with the greatest enthusiasm.

“And you,” Merlin said as he grabbed Arthur’s hand.

“Me?” Frowning a little, he let himself be dragged off of his warm, comfy bed and towards the stairs.

“Yes, you. It’s bloody Christmas and I want a bloody tree.”

“Can’t you just conjure one up?”

Merlin glanced back over his shoulder but he didn’t release his grip. “Probably. But this is much more exciting. And I rather fancy the idea of you wielding an axe.”

“Fine,” Arthur said with a long-suffering sigh. “But know that I abhor Christmas.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Oh really? I hadn’t noticed.”

They set out after breakfast, following a trail that Gaius had recommended up to the top of one of the more densely forested hills. The day was warmer than the previous few, and snow busily melted off of branches and turned into muddy slush beneath their feet as they tromped up the path. Merlin’s ears, however, still managed to adopt an alarming shade of red, and so when the others went up ahead, Arthur tucked them underneath his woollen cap, grumbling about frostbite while Merlin batted his hands away and accused him of being a mother hen.

Lance laughed and clapped him on the back once they resumed their pace, whispering, “You’ve got it bad, mate.”

“What?”

“Don’t think we don’t know what’s going on. We’re not that thick.”

“Oi!” Gwaine turned around, grinning. “Do these two still think they’re fooling anyone?” He rolled his eyes and gestured to Merlin and Arthur.

“Why do you think we went away?” Percy added. “Couldn’t deal with your moony eyes any longer.”

“I don’t—moony—” Arthur sputtered.

“We think it’s brilliant,” said Gwaine, kicking his foot through the snow. “This way we don’t have to compete with you when we’re out on the pull.”

“Don’t . . . tell anyone. Right?” Arthur said, still flustered. He glanced at Merlin, who seemed strangely calm.

“Don’t worry, mate,” said Gwaine. “Your moony eyes are safe with us.” And with that, the topic turned again to the fit lass he’d shagged at an Aberdeen club.

The tree Merlin selected was one of the ugliest Arthur had ever seen—it was crooked, and its branches were short and sparse in the places they should have been long and full with needles. But Merlin loved it, and none of the group had the heart to veto his choice. Arthur watched, feet soaked and probably coming down with a cold, as Percival chopped the hideous thing down and Merlin looked on with a glee bordering mania.

Later that day, once the sorry tree was decorated (courtesy of Merlin, Alice, and Gaius), Arthur slipped his arm around Merlin’s slim waist and pulled him close. The rest of the group had gone downstairs to the billiard room, leaving them alone. Somehow in the last few months, his friends had developed tact. It was a little disconcerting.

“Happy now?” he asked.

Merlin looked from the tree back to Arthur. “It’s been so long since I’ve had a tree for Christmas.” His voice held a trace of sadness. “I know you don’t care, but thanks for humouring me.” The white kitten, which Merlin had named Aithusa, was batting one of the dangling ornaments with its paw.

“Why won’t you tell me what happened to you?” Arthur asked.

“I don’t want to ruin this.”

Arthur nodded, but even so the excuse rang hollow. Sometimes he worried Merlin still didn’t completely trust him. At night he’d occasionally wake to find Merlin curled into himself at the edge of the bed, as if he were trying to escape or afraid of being too close. And once when they had just begun to make love, Merlin had frozen and pulled away, his face blank. Though he’d recovered himself in a moment, it was long enough for Arthur to stop what was happening, recalling that fear in Merlin’s eyes when they’d first met. Arthur had held him all night long.

“You wouldn’t ruin anything.” He didn’t want to pressure Merlin, but at the same time he felt like was missing something huge, something fundamental.

“I might.”

“Jesus, Merlin. I don’t know what you think I’m going to do, but I’ve got to tell you, I feel like I’m floundering here. I never know if I’m saying the right thing, doing the right thing. I feel . . . maybe I could help.”

Merlin sighed and closed his eyes. When he opened them, there was just the faintest gold around the periphery of his pupils. The heat around them increased as if they’d both been enclosed in an invisible blanket. This was what magic felt like, Arthur thought wildly. Perhaps it was the way Merlin’s love felt.

“Do you know,” Merlin said, “that until I met you, I hadn’t performed magic for myself in over six years?”

Arthur had assumed that wherever Merlin had gone after he’d left England had been more liberal regarding magic. He didn’t understand. “What do you mean?”

“The place I was sent was a secret service training school for MUs. It was so top secret, I don’t even know where it was; somewhere in Europe.” Merlin let out a weary laugh and pushed himself gently away from Arthur’s chest. “A school,” he said again, as if testing the word and finding it distasteful. “That’s what they called it. It was really a prison.”

Merlin sat on the edge of the settee nearest the tree, which looked a bit better under yards of tinsel and decorations. Aithusa hopped over to Merlin’s feet and gave an expectant mew, and Merlin picked him up. The kitten curled into a ball and fell asleep, purring loudly.

“When I was twelve years old, MI6 sent a man to my mum’s house. He told her I’d been selected to go to a special school because I was so gifted. Everyone wanted to attend this school, he said. I’d be taken care of there, given the best of everything—all expenses paid. We were poor after my da died, barely hanging on, and here comes this man with promises and brochures and . . . you know the laws against MUs here. And I was powerful. Sometimes I couldn’t control it. My mum, well, she was worried about me and she believed him. A lot of parents did. But most of it was lies.”

Arthur sucked in a breath at the expression on Merlin’s face. His brows knit together as if he was thinking hard. Then he sighed. “I was so excited. Even though I was sad about leaving my mum, I wanted to be with people like me, you know?”

Merlin looked to him as if begging to be understood. Arthur could only nod, but he felt as if he were outside of himself, looking down from a cliff ready to free fall. The suspicions that had niggled his mind over Merlin’s deflections since they’d met seemed not only real, but terrifying in their potential devastation.

“So that’s how I wound up at the Compound. That’s what we called it. And that’s when I found out what it really was—that MI6 was rounding up magical children and training them. But we weren’t permitted to use magic except at the discretion of the teachers. During the rest of the time kids were punished, first with detention or withholding privileges. And then, when we got a new headmaster . . . it got bad.”

The tension in Arthur’s gut became dread. He tried to steel himself for the worst.

“We were all given collars like dogs—they worked through really dark magic. You couldn’t take it off, even in your sleep. And if you used magic when you weren’t supposed to you got shocked. It hurt, worse for more serious offences; you could feel it in your whole body, and it happened even if it was an accident.” Merlin shivered, his eyes far away. Unconsciously, his right hand had slipped to his throat, and it fluttered there for a moment before he drew it down to his lap and clenched it into a fist. Arthur winced.

“I told you how I used to be when I was little. I moved things without even knowing it. Well, that certainly stopped once I got collared. They tried to make us afraid of ourselves . . . like you would train an animal.”

“Jesus. Merlin.”

“And me. They’d heard about me, what I could do. I think they thought I was . . . very powerful. But even then I knew I couldn’t show them the truth, so I hid it. When they asked me to do—really big things, I pretended to try, but I didn’t. I did just enough so they’d know I had power, but I always held back.”

“Smart lad.”

Merlin flushed. “I wanted to tell my mother, but all of our correspondence was monitored. We had to behave and act like all was well. And that wasn’t all. Once our powers were harnessed like that, the guards could do anything. Did do anything they wanted. And we couldn’t . . . There was no way to stop them.”

Arthur felt the bile rise bitter on his tongue. “They didn’t—”

Shaking his head, Merlin looked away, eyes filling with tears. “Not me. I had a friend who wasn’t so lucky.”

“I can’t believe this,” Arthur said, outraged. “The government might be flawed but what you’re telling me is vile, despicable—inhuman. I can’t believe this would be condoned.”

It was not the right thing to say. Merlin gave him a bitter look. “You don’t believe me.”

Arthur rushed over to Merlin and took his face between his hands, searching his eyes and trying to find the connection they shared. “No, of course I do. Please, I’m just trying to understand. Help me understand.” He grasped Merlin’s hand to make his meaning clear, and Merlin nodded.

Above them on the ceiling, a window to Merlin’s memory opened up, showing them a nondescript three-story grey building. There were bars on the windows. Outside the building the day was equally cold and grey, and uniformed children grouped together in huddles in a fenced-in yard. The air was thick with sadness and fear, but the children’s faces remained impassive.

A cruel-looking man watched from a squat tower. Yes, like a prison.

Another flash, this time Arthur recognised Merlin immediately. He was much younger, probably in his early teens. He stood in what appeared to be a dining hall, holding a tray of unappetising food. In front of him, a cohort of older boys loomed threateningly, and then behind Merlin, Arthur noticed a smaller boy with close-cropped hair.

“Will,” Merlin whispered.

Arthur turned his attention back to the scene above. The boy behind Merlin was sobbing, the front of his uniform stained with the remnants of his lunch. Merlin’s rage was fierce. With a flash of his eyes the bullies went flying backward across the room. Arthur watched, horrified, as Merlin clutched at the steel collar around his throat, his face crumpling in pain as he sank to the floor. A few seconds later another large bloke materialised over him, his face cast in a vicious sneer. No one even attempted to intervene, and Arthur held his breath, but the scene faded before he could see anything more.

“Sometimes the other MUs were worse than the guards,” Merlin said.

And Arthur remembered what Gaius had told him, about MUs going bad when their magic was repressed. He shuddered as one more ceiling-memory unfolded.

This time Merlin was lying in his bunk alone. There was a large bruise on his right cheek, and his eye was swollen shut. Arthur felt his bile rise.

“Oh God. Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked, voice hoarse.

The images on the ceiling flickered and disappeared, and Merlin’s eyes returned to their regular blue. He was breathing heavily, though, his face dazed as if still lost in those horrible visions.

“We’re not supposed to talk about it. These people, they can do anything, and there are eyes everywhere. And I don’t . . . like to.”

Neither of them spoke for a long while, and Arthur held Merlin as warm tears wet his shoulder, his whole body thrumming with a cocktail of violent emotions. Merlin made no noise as he cried. It was worse—so much worse—than he ever could have imagined, and he knew he’d never forget what Merlin had shown him. The sounds of his friends laughing cut through the silence, making it both heavier and lighter; none of them had ever had to deal with such horrors. They, and Arthur himself, had lived lives of wealth, privilege, and blissful ignorance. Even now a deep shame filled him as he considered the contrast.

“I’m so sorry,” Arthur said, feeling helpless.

“The effects . . . I’m still nervous sometimes when I use magic without an order. Like I expect the shock. But it’s gotten better, though, being here. Being with you.”

Arthur thought back on all of the times he had witnessed Merlin performing magic. The idea that anyone could take that joy from Merlin, make his magic something that hurt, inspired a murderous rage. “I’ll kill them.”

“That’s how I used to feel. But now I know it wouldn’t change anything. It would only make things worse.”

“And then you were sent here.”

Merlin nodded, collecting himself. He stroked the kitten on his lap. “I behaved myself. I was a good, diligent student. All the while I was burning inside, but I knew it was the only way I’d get out. And I was convincing. When the King asked for an obedient pupil, I was the lucky one selected.” The words were toneless. Merlin hung his head. “I had to get out of there . . . help my friends. I figured this would be the best way. But look at me now. I’ve not done a thing.”

It had all begun to make sense, the pieces fitting together in an alarming fashion. “They’re training MUs for government service. Like puppets.” Arthur tasted the words on his tongue. What a hypocritical load of bollocks. For the first time in his life, he was entirely disgusted with his country. There could be no redemption for it.

“Yes,” Merlin whispered. “They want our power, but only if they can control it. And they reward their loyal servants well. You’d be surprised at how many MUs are in the Secret Intelligence Service.”

“Brainwashed.”

“For the most part.”

“You must hate me. Hate all of us—I can’t even imagine what that must have been like, to be used in that way. I’m so sorry.” His throat felt gravelly, the words meaningless. But then Merlin was sliding over to him and he was the one being comforted. Aithusa woke up from his slumber and clambered back down off the couch, disgruntled that his nest was moving.

Arthur wrapped his arms around Merlin and squeezed, maybe too hard. His eyes leaked and he didn’t even think to be embarrassed. “Thank you for telling me. I promise . . . I’ll do whatever I can to stop this.”

“We’ll stop it.”

Arthur nodded. They needed a plan, but right now he just needed to hold Merlin, to know he was safe. “We’ll stop it.”

***

Arthur lay awake that night with Merlin sleeping peacefully at his side. The revelations of the day weighed upon him, and the trajectory now was at least partially clear. He needed to confront his father, and soon.

But he realised the need for a careful strategy, too, if they were going to get this school shut down. As an MI6 project, it would be Merlin’s word against the word of high-ranking government officials. They might easily dismiss his claims as those of a disgruntled MU trying to rile up the public; it wouldn’t be difficult, especially if the circumstances of Merlin’s father’s death came out. Arthur also had to wonder how much his own father knew about the way the school was operating. Although Uther was a ruthless man, part of Arthur refused to believe the King would allow such abuses to be carried out unchecked upon mere children. And then there was the fact that the same government that had outlawed magic was using magical people for its own ends. Even the most hardened anti-magic citizen would see the duplicity inherent in that, Arthur hoped.

Yes, they needed time to plan, but they had to work quickly as well. He’d never felt an impulse so keenly. Merlin still had friends at this school—friends who were suffering. And then there was the matter of their personal relationship. It was going to be a difficult battle.

But first there was Christmas, and for Merlin, a long-deserved present. Arthur schemed.

When he jerked awake a few hours later, he felt as if he’d hardly slept at all. His dreams had been filled with strange visions, nightmarish in intensity, and he wrapped his arms around Merlin, seeking comfort in his soft warmth.

Merlin’s dark lashes rested on his cheeks. He responded to Arthur’s touch by moving closer and slotting a leg between Arthur’s thighs, mumbling something unintelligible. Arthur held him and watched him sleep, his protective instinct rising until he knew there was nothing he wouldn’t do to keep Merlin safe.

Reality had begun to creep into their holiday, and the rest of the group had begun growing restless.

“Can’t we go down the pub tonight?” Gwaine asked with a wink. “Or are you the only one allowed to get laid, Your Highness?”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “It’s been a week now for you, yeah?”

“A week’s long enough!”

Finally, though, they agreed they could use some time out of the house, and so they readied for an evening out.

Before they left, however, Leon took him aside.

“Your father won’t be pleased about this, Arthur. About Merlin.” After Arthur’s friends had figured out the truth, it was only a matter of time before Leon caught on.

“I know. Don’t—don’t tell him. I need to be the one.”

“You know I care for you as well as the King. I’ll leave it to you. But you’re expected to marry a woman.”

Arthur sighed heavily. He hated being reminded of it, especially now with so much else on his mind. “I know.”

“But does Merlin?”

The beginnings of a tension headache made his temples throb. Couldn’t he have time just to enjoy this? He’d never had—

“It’s something to think about,” Leon said, interrupting his train of thought. “I like Merlin, too. If you care for him like I think you do perhaps it’s better—”

“Leave it be, Leon.”

“Apologies, Sire.”

***

The drive to town down the winding road from Fells Keep took a little under an hour. Spirits were high, and though Arthur’s conversation with Leon weighed on him, he eventually found himself relaxing. They discovered a village pub filled with old men and old women and dogs, all of who greeted the newcomers with the hospitality and sincerity of country-folk. A few asked for pictures, and Arthur obliged, but mostly they were left to themselves, collecting around a giant oak table near the fire. There was one girl, a barmaid named Sefa, whom Percy took an immediate liking to. They stayed for three rounds, all on the house, though Arthur made several attempts to pay. The people would have none of it; it wasn’t every day the Prince himself graced their village tavern with his presence. Arthur felt a bit abashed with Merlin there. At one point not so long ago he would have been dismissive of the adulation, if he had even bothered to consider it at all, but now he was ashamed. Were any of these people MUs? And if they were, did they secretly resent, even hate him? What would they do if they found out about the Compound?

The temperature had dropped once again, and when they left the pub it was already well below freezing. Arthur climbed into the driver’s seat with Merlin to his left while the others clambered drunkenly into the back.

Later, he would remember the exact moment with perfect clarity—the moment the deer appeared in the headlights of the car, the impulse to slam on the brakes, the screech of the tires as they tried, and failed, to gain traction on the slippery black ice of the road. He would remember the yell from the backseat, the lurch of the car as it started to careen over the embankment into the ravine below.

He would remember how everything stopped.

When he came to, Arthur expected pain. He gasped, frantically groping at the door to get himself out, to help the others to safety.

It was only then he realised that the car was back on the road quietly idling like no accident had occurred. But there had been a deer. There had been a—

“Arthur, are you okay?” It was Merlin’s voice. Still reeling from what had—or hadn’t—happened, Arthur turned in his seat to find Merlin staring worriedly at him.

“Holy fuck,” came a voice from the back.

“What happened?” said another.

“I saw—you—” Lancelot sputtered, staring at Merlin. “You stopped the car.”

“Can someone please explain to me why we’re not at the bottom of that hill over there?” Gwaine asked. “What do you mean he stopped the car?”

Noting the situation was getting a bit out of control, Arthur cleared his throat. Merlin was eying him warily, as if he was concerned Arthur would be upset. Upset for very likely saving their lives.

“Are you all right?” he asked Merlin.

“I . . . yeah. I just . . . I don’t know what I did. I think I might have,” he paused, then whispered, “stopped time.”

“You saved us,” Arthur said. “I couldn’t—we almost—” He looked to the right of the car, where the ravine ran steeply down into black nothingness. In the best-case scenario, the car would have been completely totalled. In the worst . . . well.

Merlin was hugging him now, kissing his face again and again. “Oh God, I don’t even know what I did or how.”

“Okay, if you lovebirds are finished talking nonsense can someone please tell us what in the bloody hell is going on?” Gwaine complained. “I may be pissed, but I’m not that pissed.”

“Calm down,” Arthur told his friends. “I can explain. But everyone needs to relax.”

So he did, mostly, saving Merlin’s more recent revelations and the initial details of their meeting for another time. He simply explained that Merlin was an MU and that there was nothing to fear. Jaws dropped open. The three men in the back regarded Merlin with expressions of awe.

“Bloody hell, mate,” Gwaine said. “You’re a sorcerer, then, eh?”

Merlin nodded, tugging at the scarf around his neck. “Yeah.”

Arthur cleared his throat. “He prefers the term Magic User.”

“Well, I’ll be buggered.” Percy stared at Merlin as if he were an alien.

Lance just smiled and leaned forward, clapping Merlin on the arm. “I knew you’d have to be someone pretty special to catch Arthur’s eye.”

After the initial shock had worn off, they continued home; Arthur was careful to drive well under the speed limit, keeping his eyes focussed on the road ahead, though Merlin’s hand rested reassuringly on his thigh. They were mostly quiet, each trying to come to terms with the events and admissions of the night.

Merlin had stopped time. Maybe even reversed it. In all of the lore and stories Arthur had heard since boyhood, the ability to stop time or reverse it had only been attributed to the rarest and most powerful of all MUs, and he couldn’t recall an instance of this gift being recorded in recent history. It made him wonder how formidable Merlin’s power truly was—perhaps greater than all of the other MUs in Britain, maybe even the world. And if Merlin hadn’t even been free to hone his skill, his potential was still mostly untapped. Already he was performing feats that a few months ago Arthur wouldn’t have believed. The thought thrilled and terrified him, but he didn’t dare bring it up in the crowded car. If his father knew . . . The thrill of fear at Merlin’s power turned once again to fear for him. People are afraid of what they don’t understand.

That night he dreamt vivid, peculiar dreams—Merlin with golden eyes leading him down a twisted path through a forest dense with trees. There were sounds coming from the wood, wild animals and something more sinister, but still the trail continued, moving deeper into darkness. Despite the strange surroundings, he was unafraid. Their hands clasped tightly together.

He awoke in a sweat as if he’d been in a fever that had broken in the night. Beside him Merlin dozed with his mouth slightly open, his breathing heavy. Almost snoring. Arthur smiled, his heart rate slowing as he watched Merlin’s lips smack together. He moved closer and rested his hand on Merlin’s stomach, feeling the rise and fall of his breath and rubbing the trail of hair just under his navel. A morning erection was tenting the blankets, and, unable to help himself, Arthur ran his hand down the silky-hot length of it.

Though neither of them slept nude regularly, they had fallen into bed the night before in a frantic state of desire, and neither of them had bothered to dress afterwards. The low burn of want that always seemed to be simmering with Merlin around flared again in the pit of his stomach. Arthur slipped under the blankets to take Merlin into his mouth.

Merlin’s cock was heavy and full against his tongue, salty because of the dried semen they hadn’t bothered to clean. It didn’t matter. Arthur closed his eyes and licked the soft spongy head, then took it deeper, his body tight with anticipation as Merlin began to stir.

“What . . . what are you doing. Oh, God. Arthur.” Merlin’s hands tangled in his hair as he came awake, lurching into the heat of Arthur’s mouth. Arthur grinned and sucked, humming a line along the underside of Merlin’s cock towards his balls.

He loved this, the way the sack drew up tight between Merlin’s legs as he lashed it with his tongue, the plump, soft skin just underneath. Merlin keened and lifted his legs and Arthur took the hint, lapping at the swollen taint, the furl of muscle that he’d fingered open the night before, but was once again taut and unyielding. He pressed his tongue against it, coaxing it to relax, using his thumbs to spread the little hole wide. All thoughts fled save one, to put his cock there. To plunge into the depths and fill him again and again until it hurt, until they couldn’t move from this bed and Merlin was his forever.

Underneath him, Merlin was whimpering, asking for more, but Arthur wanted to take his time.

He watched in fascination as the muscle yielded to one finger, then two. He slid his tongue around the stretched rim and worked his fingers into the velvet heat, pushing up to find the spot he’d discovered last night. Never before had he done this for another lover; never had he wanted to put his mouth every place he could reach. He suspected he tasted the remnants of his own release as well, an arousing thought.

“Fuck,” Merlin moaned out the word, his arse taking Arthur’s fingers. “Fuck me, Arthur.”

Not yet, Arthur thought as he groped for the lube to slick his fingers and then, returning to his place between, pushed three inside. He groaned as the tight hole clenched around the intrusion, anticipating the squeeze on his cock. By now he knew what Merlin liked, what rough, urgent movements would make him come, and which teases would make him cry out in delighted frustration. And so he played, letting Merlin ride his hand how he liked and then pulling away, giving his cock a few hard sucks and letting it slap wetly onto his belly. His own erection was rigid and leaking against the sheets, but he ignored it to focus his attention on the boy beneath him.

Merlin’s whole body was taut, straining towards a release that Arthur continued to withhold, but he knew that the game depended on Merlin’s assent. It would be so easy for him to take control of the situation, take what he wanted, but he didn’t—Merlin had kept his promise to never use magic against him, and Arthur’s chest hurt at the thought of it, how good a person Merlin remained after all he’d been through. Any other man would have been homicidal. How he still retained his optimism, his ability to trust, was beyond Arthur. It was a strength and purpose of mind that he didn’t understand and certainly didn’t possess himself.

Looking up, he drank in Merlin’s full lips and the curve of his jaw, his dark eyes. They were edged with gold as they often were during sex, as if the magic inside of Merlin was trying to get out, to escape from his body along with his release. Arthur wanted that, for his magic to flow freely without pain, and so he drove deeper with his fingers, watching Merlin’s cock jerk and strain upwards. With a grin, he licked the firm ridge of the head with the flat of his tongue. He traced a wet line up Merlin’s belly towards his navel, and then moved so he could tease one nipple into a peak.

“Please, Arthur.” Merlin whimpered, thrusting his hips erratically, his face flushed. Arthur would always remember Merlin trusting him with his body and his pleasure, how beautiful he was, and how he wished to be able to recall the memory at any moment. What a gift that was. Or a curse, he was reminded, thinking back to those horrible memories from the Compound. With his power, would Merlin ever be free from them?

Perhaps there was something to be said for forgetting.

When he finally relinquished the game and entered Merlin with a slow, long slide, he gasped. Merlin’s irises were completely golden. Arthur needed to kiss him like that, feel the vibrations of power barely restrained as he started to move, driving deeper with each stroke. He held Merlin’s face between his hands as he fucked him, willing him back so that he was fully there, and the gold gradually faded again until Merlin’s lust-blackened eyes met his.

“Yes, fuck,” Merlin dug his fingers into Arthur’s back hard enough to mark, the sensation a direct line to his cock. He thrust harder, encouraged by the hands on his arse, but it wasn’t deep enough, he couldn’t get far enough inside. He stilled his hips and then gently swivelled them, again remembering this was supposed to last. Merlin’s breath was rapid, his pupils blown with lust and emotion so raw it was Arthur’s turn to close his eyes against it, and still Merlin demanded more.

He pulled his cock back, feeling the head slip beyond the tight ring of muscle, and then with quick, sure movements, flipped Merlin onto his stomach and plunged inside. Pulling Merlin’s hips back and slamming home again and again elicited the response that he hoped for, and he could feel the contractions beginning as Merlin writhed on his cock. When he pressed down on Merlin’s spine he arched like a cat in heat, presenting himself just as wantonly, one hand working himself to completion all over the sheets below. Arthur lost his mind to the rut and emptied with wracking spasms, his body singing with the warm, familiar touch of Merlin’s magic.

“That was . . . intense,” Merlin sighed, laughing as Arthur fell upon his back.

“I’m not done with you yet.” He cupped Merlin’s spent cock with his hand and rolled them to their sides so that their legs were spooned together. With a hiss, he pushed his own softening cock back into the hot clench of Merlin’s body.

Wriggling a bit, Merlin said, “You’re mad.”

He kissed Merlin behind his ear, just where the hair was softest, and then he began to move with tiny, tight motions, just enough to harden himself again. It didn’t take long, not with Merlin in his arms and his magic moving in waves around them.

“Want you to come again,” Arthur said.

“Oh God . . . I don’t think I can.”

“Please.” Arthur sucked wet kisses on Merlin’s neck, running his hands everywhere until Merlin pressed back against him. His eyes had gone an unearthly pale gold, a shade Arthur had ever seen before. Something moved deep in his belly, an almost painful flare of arousal that made his cock twitch, questing forward. “What is . . . oh.” It hit him again and his eyes rolled back in his head. The orgasm that had at one point seemed distant was suddenly there, just out of reach. His body went hot all over.

“Is it okay?” Merlin asked. His voice was breathless, just a hint of worry in his tone. “I can stop.”

Arthur couldn’t even reply; he was too busy hunching his hips, trying to get closer. Merlin’s magic was inside of him, all around him, joining them together. He angled his head to reach Merlin’s lips, panting as he started to fuck in earnest. Pulsating flares of magic licked him everywhere like a thousand sucking mouths. Merlin’s cock was hard and leaking in his hand and the sounds he was making, the sounds. He wondered if it were possible to die of pleasure.

Once they had spent themselves again and could barely move, Merlin laid his head on Arthur’s chest, threading their hands together.

“I’ve been working on something I wanted to show you.”

“What?”

“Look up.”

There on the ceiling was something Arthur didn’t understand: a vision of himself and Merlin, older than they were now, outside of Fells Keep in what looked like autumn. Arthur had his arms around Merlin, resting his chin on Merlin’s shoulder from behind, a contented smile on his face. Merlin had grey hair at his temples. He looked rather distinguished.

He gasped. “Is that—the future?”

“Gaius says the future is unpredictable. It changes depending on the choices you make, sometimes because of chance. But right now, yes. This is ours.”

***

Prince Arthur and His Sorcerer?

Recent conjecture about the identity of the young personal attendant seen with the Prince has resulted in a shocking revelation. An exclusive interview with a palace informant has disclosed that the man in question is one Merlin Emrys, son of the deceased L1 MU Balinor Emrys, who died during one of the more brutal riots in defence of his kind. Emrys has been studying abroad for these last six years, but the details of his personal life are as of now sparse. However, the informant maintains that Emrys has performed magic on more than on occasion within the palace walls. The Magic Control Office has promised to investigate the allegations, though neither the Prime Minister nor the King could be reached for comment.

Uther Pendragon has long been a supporter of limiting the rights of Magic—

It was only a tabloid article, but the real news outlets would start investigating and then the truth would be everywhere. Arthur was enraged; the alleged informant could have been any number of people working in the palace. But he didn’t suppose it mattered now. What did matter was making sure that Merlin didn’t fall victim to Uther’s threat to send him back to the Compound.

“What do you mean you want me to leave?” Merlin said later once they’d had a while to digest the news. The entire household was busily making plans for the return to London. Already Arthur had received three phone calls from the palace, all of them demanding his immediate return for damage control. But there was no way he was going to risk Merlin’s arrest by taking him along.

“Just for a while,” Arthur said, “until I can speak with my father and get things sorted.” In fact, with Leon’s help Arthur had already procured false passports for Merlin and his mother, as well as an offshore bank account for their use. This had been intended as a Christmas gift, but now they wouldn’t be here for the holiday after all. Merlin held the documents in his hands, looking down on them with disbelief.

“But—”

Though they were alone in the kitchen, Arthur lowered his voice so that the others wouldn’t overhear through the open door. “It’s not safe for you, especially now that people know you’re an MU. They could arrest you for using magic if this informant decides to testify. Or worse.” Only a month before Merlin had come to Buckingham, a young man had been murdered in Leeds for practicing magic in public. They’d never caught the perpetrators, and Arthur suspected the authorities hadn’t bothered looking too diligently, either. But Merlin still looked worried. “What is it?”

“I can’t just run away to save my own neck. If they do arrest me, it’ll be my chance to let the world know what’s really going on.”

Arthur shook his head, adamant. “I swear to you that we’re getting that place shut down, but we don’t need you to martyr yourself to do it. There’s support for your cause in this country and I think that we might have the power to change some things, but first I need to speak with my father, and I can’t do that if I’m worried about you.”

Merlin’s eyes flashed. “I appreciate that, but do you know how patronising you sound? I’ve survived for eighteen years without your help and I’ll continue to live without it, thank you. I don’t want these.” Merlin tossed the passports onto the worktop.

“Merlin, please.”

“No.” Merlin shook his head, and crossed his arms. “All this time I’ve been forced to stay in hiding and I won’t do it anymore. This is my life. I’m going back to London with or without you and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”

“If they arrest you—”

“Then they do. I know I haven’t done anything wrong, whatever the laws are. And maybe this will get people to think about the way they’re treating Magic Users. The truth about the Compound has got to come out. I have to think that people will listen. And . . . I’ll understand if you can’t . . . if you have to distance yourself from me.”

Arthur’s readied protest died on his tongue, so shocked was he at Merlin’s statement. “Do you really think I’m not going to stand by you?”

“Well, you obviously want me out of the way—” A gesture towards the bank statement and the passports.

He was truly at a loss. “I just wanted to help. I want you to be free.” He’d thought so long and hard about Gaius’ words, his warnings about what would happen to Merlin if he were forced to give up his magic. There could be nothing more terrible than that, even if it meant losing him.

“I know. I know you do.” They were quiet for a moment, and Arthur’s hands curled into fists. He’d had so many other, more pleasant plans for Christmas, only two days away, and now it was very likely that Merlin would spend the holiday in prison.

Merlin took a step closer, and then he was pressed against him, arms wrapping round. Arthur held on and breathed the smell of Merlin, feeling the planes of his body. He sighed. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have done all this without telling you. I’m just worried and I’ve never—” The words died in this throat, locked there.

A commotion in the other room made them break apart.

Gwaine’s voice. “No, not without a warrant—”

And then the kitchen was flooded with people—three county constables and a man in a suit and tie, who Arthur recognised as Cenred Hastings, one of the heads of the Magic Control Office. Behind them, Percy, Leon and the others had materialised, looking on with concern. Gaius was pale as a sheet, Alice clutching his arm.

“Mr. Merlin Emrys?” Hastings asked, his severe face cast in a frown.

Merlin released Arthur and stepped forward, his chin thrust forward in defiance. “I am Merlin Emrys.”

“You’re under arrest for the illegal use of magic.”

***

Later, Arthur would remember those first couple of days in a nightmarish blur. Even in the midst of his imprisonment in the palace at his father’s behest, he’d never felt so helpless. With Merlin in custody, Arthur had an extra vigilant security detail reinstated, and everywhere he went he was hounded by questions from the press: did he know about Merlin’s powers? Was Merlin dangerous? Was Arthur himself enchanted? He answered them all with clipped stock answers, not wanting to damn Merlin by saying something unwise. To make matters worse, on every side he was advised to distance himself from the case. It would be devastating for the monarchy and the country if Arthur was seen as sympathetic to the unlawful use of magic. People might even react violently. They were scare tactics, Arthur knew, but effective ones all the same.

His father was resolutely silent on the subject, refusing to talk to Arthur at all except to warn him to stay silent about Merlin and his recent occupation, again for the sake of the monarchy.

Worse still, all of his inquiries about Merlin’s case were met with ambiguous replies. Yes, Merlin was fine, but Arthur couldn’t visit him. Finally, after two days of unbearable silence, Arthur was finally able to get through. He grasped his mobile close to his ear, weak with relief.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m . . . I’ve been better, I guess. What about you?” Merlin’s voice sounded ragged.

“Fine, completely fine,” he lied. “Worried about you.”

A silence.

“The lawyer they’ve appointed me has advised me to take a plea bargain. She says if I admit to performing some basic spells, I’ll get off with a slap on the wrist. Worst case scenario, a few months in prison.”

“No. That’s unacceptable. Did you tell her about . . . ?”

Merlin scoffed. “Yeah, well. She didn’t believe me. And she says the public won’t either. There’s no proof, just my word against theirs. I guess I never realised before how few people actually know about what’s going on. She’s probably right; no one else will stand up with me.”

“I will.”

“Oh, Arthur. I know what I have to do . . . I just . . . I really wish I could see you.”

Arthur felt the words deep in his gut. It was absolutely insufferable that he should not be holding Merlin this very instant. All of those nights back at Fells Keep swirled around in his head, making him sick with longing.

“We have to get you a lawyer—a good one—and I think I know just the person.” There were several high-profile lawyers who’d won causes for MUs in the past few years, but the one who came first to mind was Morgana LeFay. A cutthroat woman with sleek dark hair, she’d recently gotten an MU accused of murder acquitted on the grounds of self-defence.

“I can’t afford—”

“Merlin.”

“Arthur—”

“Let me help you. I can’t stand by and do nothing.”

A pause and a bit of static on the other end of the line had Arthur worried he’d lost the connection. But then Merlin said, “Okay.” He could hear the relief in Merlin’s voice, and at that moment, he realised he’d say anything, do anything to make this right again.

“I miss you.” His throat had gone tight. “It’s going to be all right.”

Somewhere in the background he heard the voice of a guard tell Merlin time was up.

“I’ve got to go. I . . . miss you, too. Merry Christmas.”

It took a few seconds after the phone went dead for Arthur to realise that it was indeed Christmas Eve.

***

Morgana LeFay was even more stunning in person than she was on the telly, dressed in a sharp navy suit, her hair pulled severely from her face, and Arthur experienced a few moments of awe before he could speak. Her office was stylish and modern, with ceiling to floor windows so spotlessly clean as to be almost invisible. He glanced around, uncomfortable under her piercing stare. She wore thick mascara that showed off strange, sea-green eyes.

“Thank you for making time for me,” he said. They’d managed to set up a covert appointment away from the watchful eyes of his handlers, but they only had a limited amount of time.

“It’s not every day I get a call from Prince Charming about a magic case,” she said. “Sit down, handsome.”

He did as she asked, taking the seat across from her.

“So this Merlin Emrys chap,” she said, eyes narrowing cat-like. “He’s a good friend of yours, hmm?”

Arthur flushed. “A good friend, yes.”

Her smile was just a little bit feral. “Tell me everything.”

Arthur did, and she listened, her expression remaining stoic even through the descriptions of the Compound and the tactics used there. Once he was finished, she steepled her fingertips and leaned closer.

“And he’s willing to come forward?”

“What, you mean you believe me?” Arthur couldn’t contain his surprise.

“Of course I do, Charming. Merlin isn’t the first MU from that place to come to me for help.”

“You know of others?”

“I know of some, yes. But no one has been prepared to speak out publically until now. We’ll have to move fast so they don’t know what’s coming. It’s a good sign, for us at least, that MI6 hasn’t intervened yet.”

Arthur froze. “What do you mean?”

“Obviously someone wants to teach your boy a lesson, Charming. This arrest reeks of scare tactics. Does Merlin frighten easily?”

“No,” Arthur said after a moment’s pause. “He doesn’t.”

***

The King looked as if he’d aged ten years since the last time Arthur saw him. His forehead was wrinkled as he considered the documents on his desk, the latest barrage of reports dealing with the scandal that, in the three weeks since Christmas, had rocked the British government and the monarchy to the core.

This time, however, the disgrace was not Arthur’s.

After Merlin had brought his story to the press with Morgana’s help, an independent investigative commission had been convened, and the findings had been horrifying. Over two hundred children and teens had been released back to the care of their parents, and the stories were becoming grimmer each day: tales of abuse, of rape, of torture. Some of the MUs who’d been working in secret government service jobs throughout the country, who’d been afraid to speak out before, began to tell their stories. The public was outraged and calling for reforms, but there was a long way to go. People distrusted MUs and some worried that this new disaster would spark a new series of riots. Though Arthur was intent on stopping that from happening, he couldn’t do it alone.

“You can’t tell me you didn’t know about the tactics the Compound was using for training these children,” Arthur said.

“I knew about the training, yes. In principle it was a sound idea. Is it my fault that things were not handled with more care—that they got out of hand? I maintain my belief that it is sometimes necessary to use force to accomplish things, Arthur. You will understand one day.”

Arthur could barely speak for the bitterness that welled within him. “I will never understand. And I’ll never be like you.” Some of the stories that had come out of the tragedy had made Arthur violently ill. Though Merlin had never himself been raped, he’d been beaten, often badly. And he was one of the lucky ones. “It’s a miracle Merlin is alive at all, not to mention all of the others.”

His father cleared his throat. “I know this boy has you enamoured of him, Arthur, but his ideas are dangerous. Sorcerers may have their uses, but they are not to be trusted.”

“It’s you who can’t be trusted, Father.” Arthur stood, brushing the fronts of his trousers off. He had somewhere to be.

“You cannot see him again.”

That’s where he was wrong. Merlin had spared the King one fragment of his reputation; he hadn’t divulged the details of his original employment, maintaining instead the previous cover that he had been taken on as the Prince’s personal attendant. Arthur had a feeling Merlin’s rationale was far more complicated and savvy than simple kindness. It made for a rather substantial bargaining chip regarding their relationship, and his father knew it.

“Funny. You may be my father and the King but you can’t tell me what I can and can’t do, not anymore. I will see Merlin again. I love him.”

“Love.” The King scoffed.

“Yes. And I’m going to do whatever I can to make this country free again—for everyone.”

“Hmm. Help them and we’ll see how you’re thanked for it one day.”

But Arthur didn’t listen to any more of his father’s objections; he was already walking towards the door.

***

The drive to Wales helped Arthur clear his head; as he drew closer his anxiety sloughed off, replaced by bone-deep excitement. He would see Merlin again today.

It had been almost two weeks since Merlin’s release after the dismissal of the allegations against him, and overnight he had become a celebrity. His handsome face was splashed across every magazine and newspaper in Great Britain. Morgana had played things brilliantly, casting Merlin as a peaceful crusader for a new era of hope, justice, and freedom; the public would certainly not have stood for such a brave young hero to be convicted for using magic in the face of all he’d endured. And anyone who heard Merlin speak could not doubt his sincerity. Arthur would be forever in her debt.

The country seemed to expand before him as he followed the M4. He’d managed to slip away without his handlers knowing, after all, he was quite practiced at it, and while Leon was sure to have left several frantic messages on his mobile by now, Arthur didn’t want an audience for this particular reunion. When his GPS gave him the directive to turn down Merlin’s street, his belly warmed, heart thumping with renewed vigour.

Arthur felt shy as he let himself through the small white gate and approached the one-story brick house from Merlin’s memory. They’d spoken a couple of times over the phone since his release, but always hastily, and never in private. He could only hope that Merlin’s feelings hadn’t changed since the last time they’d seen each other.

The woman who greeted him was familiar, though older and a bit rounder than she’d been in Merlin’s memories. She had a wide, sweet smile and greeted him like a son, with a hug and a kiss. He accepted them both, ruffled and pleased.

“Oh, it’s so lovely to finally meet you. Merlin has been talking of nothing else since he got home.”

Mum,” came a flustered voice from behind.

Merlin stood in a doorway to what appeared to be the sitting room. He was wearing Arthur’s favourite jumper, his hand absently playing with his collar, and it was the best thing Arthur had ever seen.

“Hi,” Arthur said, unable to look away.

“Don’t be embarrassed, dear,” Merlin’s mum said. Then she gazed up at Arthur. “We both very much appreciated what you said on the telly on New Year’s Eve. It meant a lot to Merlin and to me. To everyone, really, in the magic community.” Her voice broke a bit at the end, and she looked over her shoulder at her son, blinking against tears. “We’ve been through so much, it’s comforting to know someone in your position is willing to speak out.”

Arthur flushed. What he’d said hadn’t been much, just a pledge for the pursuit of equality on his part, a condemnation of the deplorable tactics that had been used at the Compound. He’d also asked the citizenry, both MU and non-MU, to maintain peaceful relations and work together as the perpetrators were brought to justice. “Yes, well, I’m afraid there’s still a lot to be done,” he said. Already he felt warmer, the closeness of the house pleasant as they all adjourned to the sitting room. The air smelled of cinnamon and cloves, like cider mulling.

“But you didn’t have to do that,” Merlin said softly once they’d taken a seat on the settee.

“I did.”

Merlin’s mum said something about going to check on dinner and left them alone.

“Hi, you,” Merlin said, moving closer.

“Hi.”

The circles were gone from under his eyes. He looked healthy and rested and all-around gorgeous. Arthur’s mouth went dry. “I’m so glad to see you,” he said, taking Merlin’s face between his hands.

“You have no idea. I—”

“Wait, before you say anything, there’s something I wanted to tell you. You were right not to run away. I . . . reacted stupidly and I’m sorry if I underestimated you. I just wanted to protect you. Because I—it’s because.” He was stammering now, blushing like a fool.

“Arthur?” Merlin smiled. “Will you please shut up?”

Arthur grinned—now that, he could do. They kissed softly, wanting to take it deeper but restrained by the bustling sounds of pots and pans in the other room. Arthur sighed as Merlin’s tongue dipped into his mouth.

“Missed you,” Merlin said, pulling back for a second, “so fucking much.”

There was so much more to discuss, but now nothing mattered but the soft stroke of Merlin’s tongue and the fact that he was here. Arthur would have kissed Merlin for the rest of the day if Hunith hadn’t cleared her throat behind them.

“Do you boys want something to eat?”

“Be right there, Mum,” Merlin said, still looking at Arthur.

Once Hunith had gone, Arthur almost considered launching into another kiss, but Merlin stopped him. “My mum will kill me if I ruin her supper for the Prince,” he said. “She’s been cooking like a madwoman all day.”

“She doesn’t need to impress me.”

“That’s what I said, but she’s got it in her head that you matter to me.”

“What would have given her that impression?”

Merlin grinned. “I have no idea.”

***
Seven Years Later…

The King and his Sorcerer Make Things Official

After almost seven years of advocating for equal rights and establishing one of Great Britain’s premiere magical charities, King Arthur Pendragon met with Prime Minister Mordred Pierce after the landmark signing of the Magical Rights Bill. The bill, which guarantees all Magic Users the right to practice magic freely so long as it does not impinge on the freedom or well being of other citizens, was ratified in Parliament yesterday by a narrow margin. Merlin Emrys, the King’s long-time companion and soon-to-be consort, also attended the meeting. Mr. Emrys was instrumental in this new legislation, working tirelessly with the public and Magic Users alike to come to an amicable resolution of the long-standing animosity between the two groups.

The two had vowed to hold off their nuptials until the legislation was passed. They plan an intimate ceremony at Fells Keep next year . . .

“Arthur!” Merlin called from beyond the bedroom. Arthur folded and set down the newspaper he’d been reading, then stood and gave himself a quick once-over in the mirror before heading out to join Merlin in the foyer of the flat they used when they wanted privacy away from Clarence House.

“I’m ready, I’m ready.” He threw up his hands and went searching for his shoes, nearly tripping over their cat in the process. Aithusa looked at him with wide blue eyes and meowed before slinking away to hide under the bed.

Merlin, of course, was already waiting by the door and looking handsome in his black waistcoat. With his hair parted and swept to the side, he appeared quite distinguished. Arthur felt a familiar warm desire, and for a moment considered taking Merlin back to bed and bugger the party. He liked this perfectly coiffed Merlin, but he preferred a slightly mussed one.

“I just don’t want to be late.”

“We’re the guests of honour,” Arthur said, slipping on his shoes. “And I’m the King. It’s fashionable for the King to be late.” He was only teasing, though; he knew how much this party meant to Merlin. It meant the same to him. They’d fought so long for their joint cause, had help from so many quarters (oftentimes unexpected ones). And tonight they would celebrate their work and the future that they’d helped create together.

Their victory hadn’t always been assured. Early on, Merlin’s visions of the future had changed all the time. After Uther’s death two years before and Arthur’s coronation, Merlin had been badly shaken by something he’d seen (and refused to divulge to Arthur), but then Mordred had been elected, ending the conservative, anti-magic reign and opening up new avenues for peace, and things had changed once again. They’d stopped looking at the future now, though, and were content to build their own.

Once he was properly shod, Arthur patted his pocket to make sure his speech was handy. He had it memorised, of course, but he still got a bit nervous at these things.

“Ready now, darling?” Merlin asked, smiling.

“You’re so pushy,” Arthur said, reaching out and pulling Merlin close for a kiss. At this proximity, he noted a few grey hairs Merlin refused to acknowledge but that he knew Merlin secretly magicked away each morning. Perhaps today he’d forgotten. If he brought it up, though, Merlin would complain he was seeing things, because really, Arthur, I’m only twenty-six. Merlin’s arms wrapped around his back, but before he could deepen the kiss, Merlin gently disentangled himself and collected their coats with a flash of golden eyes.

“Later,” he said. “I have so many things planned for later.”

“Hmm. What kind of things?” Arthur trailed after Merlin out the door, which Merlin closed and locked by waving his hand. It never failed to awe him, the casual way Merlin used magic without even being aware of it, how it came as effortlessly as breathing. Of course there were other, more dramatic usages that Arthur enjoyed equally, but most of the time it was just this, just a part of Merlin like any other. And now, free.

“Oh, you’ll just have to wait and see, Your Highness.”

Yes, Merlin had become very inventive with his magic during the last few years. Later. Arthur held onto the promise of that word and followed Merlin out into the night.