The first time Merlin woke to see himself standing in the doorway of his chambers, he was startled so badly he tumbled out of bed.
The Merlin who hovered by the door held an expression very similar to Arthur’s the majority of the time – specifically the eye roll and the tug of a smile as he looked at Merlin sprawled on the floorboards. He appeared only a few years older than Merlin was currently, slightly broader in the shoulders, his face fuller.
“Not long from now,” the Merlin at the door said, his eyes holding a certain sadness at the edges, “Arthur will ask something of you that you are not prepared for.”
Merlin blinked up at this other man, taking in the speckling of grey in the hair over his ears, and how otherwise there were so very similar. “What?”
His older self – because that’s who the man had to be, there was no other explanation – sighed and sat down on the bed, not bothering to explain how he’d got here or the intricacies of time travel or alternate universes. He simply ploughed on as though he knew Merlin would catch up eventually. “You will make a mess of everything you have with Arthur and it will break something between you.” He scowled down at Merlin as though all of his life’s problems could be blamed on things Merlin hadn’t even done yet.
“You will! You will take away what should have been.” A shadow passed over this other Merlin like a dark memory. “You’ll regret it for a long time to come.”
“Are you really—” He couldn’t quite manage the rest.
“They call me Emrys now,” he said, his face sombre. “Even Arthur only calls me Emrys. But, yes. I am you.”
Merlin looked into his own eyes and felt the truth of it.
“He needs you,” Emrys said. “And you — we — need him. I’ve been reliving that day for many years, wishing I could try again.” He stood and began to pace, stopping every few steps to yank at his hair. Merlin recognised every movement as his own. He could feel the frustration in every choked word as though he were saying them himself. “It was too late for me. I couldn’t fix it.”
“But not for me?” Merlin said. His mind raced to catch up with what was happening. Arthur knew of his magic. In the past few months he’d grown to accept it, even let Merlin use it as a tool to protect Arthur and all of Camelot.
His older self managed a weak smile. “Not for you.”
Emrys pulled a book from his satchel and tossed it onto the foot of the bed. It was thick, tugging at the blanket with its weight. Merlin sat up, staring between it and the man who was walking back and forth around the room, growing more and more flustered.
“It’s inside of you,” Emrys said, hitting that whip-fast rant style that Merlin knew all too well. “Everything that Arthur wanted from you, it’s inside you to give to him. You just weren’t ready!” He wasn’t looking at Merlin at all, talking to himself with an ease that said he’d had this conversation many times without an audience. “You needed more time. And Arthur. Damn it, Arthur. Too embarrassed to give me time...” He spun to stare at Merlin. “He thought you were ashamed of him. He thought I was mocking him. He never asked again. Never let you talk about it.”
There was deep hurt in that look. Merlin felt it crushing down on him; he understood it, understood how it would feel even if the rejection hadn’t yet touched him. It was a deep seeded fear since his first years in Camelot, Arthur’s rejection. Even now that they were friends. That Arthur knew of this magic and he had a place of honour among the court, the fear of losing it all in a moment had never faded.
Merlin’s throat ached as he swallowed. “What can I do?”
“This book will teach you things, ways of using your magic you’ve never considered. Take your time. Learn to understand how a man... how a man like Arthur might—” Emrys stared out the open window, his face going eerily pale in the silvery moonlight. For a moment he appeared made of stone, the sad line cut into his face for eternity. “Arthur is a complicated man in many ways. There is so much I didn’t see before.”
Merlin lifted the tome into his lap and traced his thumb along the spine, letting the latent magic in the leather heat his fingers.
“If you open your mind, you will understand how Arthur needs you,” Emrys said, blinking away his thoughts. He turned to door. “I will be back in a week’s time to answer your questions, but I will not be able to come again. This is our only chance.”
Merlin wanted to stop him, to ask him so many questions like how he’d been able to return and what had Arthur asked but he held himself to only one. “Why are you doing this?”
Emrys pressed his eye closed and stayed silent for a long time with his body half turned to the door like he might flee rather than answer. “I’m changing my own past,” he said at last, “because I cannot live in my present.”
“Of all the things you could choose to change, why this?”
“You’ve made many mistakes in the years since you came to Camelot.” They stared at each other; Merlin knew they were both seeing a few too many faces and failures flashing through their memories. He wondered how many had been added in the years that separated them. “Time travel is complicated. Some things aren’t meant to be changed. Some things weren’t meant to go wrong in the first place. You can do this.”
He touched the rough wood of the door, his lips forming a thin line. “You were meant to be this for him.”
Merlin watched the broken version of himself silently creep from his room like a spectre. He stared for a long while, wanting to not believe what he’d seen but the rawness of Emrys’ voice had been too familiar, the weight of the book in Merlin’s hands too real. He stared at its unmarked cover until dawn, knowing it held answers to his questions, but not yet brave enough to open it.
He raced up the stairs and through Gaius’s room, not stopping until he had the mysterious book in his hands. He flopped onto the bed and cracked the spellbook open to a random page. He’d expected sketches of plants and herbs, flower petals that granted you glimpses of another’s thoughts or maybe descriptions of magical creatures he’d never dreamt of — the sort of things contained in the books he had on his shelf. He hadn’t expected...
He slammed the book shut and got up to bar his door, his heart pounding.
He hadn’t ever seen anything like this. He opened the book again, and it fell open to the same page. His eyes fixed on the inky lines of the drawing and his brain tried to catch up with what he was seeing, even though his body was already reacting.
The first sketch depicted a naked man bound to a tree, bound by the tree. The tree itself was reaching out and gripping the man’s wrists, his legs, spreading him open, vulnerable in the most intimate of ways. Merlin shut the book again.
He stared at the cover, trying to understand how this could related to a fight he would have in the future with Arthur. The puzzle pieces didn’t fall into place.
How this book would ever fix things, Merlin couldn’t fathom. Merlin was never one to trust easily, and trusting a future version of himself was no easier. But he couldn’t deny his own curiosity so he began again, starting from the beginning. He opened up the first page and began to read. There were no drawings and he set about learning the first spell he found.
He squawked as he cast and made his own shirt disappear. He hoped it was folded in his closet right now, because he only had so many shirts. After that, he decided to read a bit more before testing out any other spells.
It became quickly apparent that the types of spells of this book all revolved around a single purpose. A purpose that Merlin had never before associated with magic. It wasn’t that he didn’t think about sex. He thought about sex. Sex with Arthur, even. He had, on occasion, slipped his hand beneath the covers at night and wondered what it would be like to have permission to touch Arthur as he wished. But Arthur had been so stiff and reserved since Merlin had told him of his magic. They were still close, Merlin always at Arthur’s side on hunts, at council, in battle. But there was something in Arthur’s eyes, something always holding him back. Merlin had assumed Arthur could never be quite comfortable with magic. Let alone the kind of intimacy this book implied.
The more he read, the more lost he became. He’d never imagined magic like this. On the surface it appeared to be used as torture, humiliation of the worst kind. Merlin couldn’t fathom using magic to degrade in such a way. That Arthur... no. There had to be a mistake, especially as the next page depicted a chastity spell. Merlin face grew hot at the sketch beside the incantation, a young man with a golden lattice work of magic between his legs, his back arched, mouth open in agony. Or was it pleasure? Merlin shifted uncomfortably. He’d been hard since he’d seen the first picture of the naked man tangled and helpless in the branches of a tree.
He read on, his mind warring between his instinct to call this deviant and cruel magic, and his desire to understand.
He found his answers, at least part of them, in a chapter on magical restraints.
When there is trust between partners it began, being held against one’s will can be a deeply erotic experience. Even those in positions of authority who would not otherwise allow themselves to give up control find a heightened intensity in sex when that control is taken from them.
Merlin read the passage and stared at the words for a long time after he’d finished, thinking of everything and nothing at all. It felt like his world had just shifted a few feet to the left and he had to scramble to situate himself properly again.
There were a lot more words on the topic peppered throughout the chapter between the enchantments, potions and yet more illustrations — which never failed to leave Merlin distracted. The author of this book took the subject very seriously, it seemed. Based on the length of the chapter in comparison to the others, Merlin surmised bondage was a favourite topic.
There were spells to pin a lover’s body to a wall, leaving them naked and spread, unable to move. Spells to use a man’s belt to wrap around his own wrists and trap him. Spells to enchant the four posts of a bed to reach out and grab each limb. This book had been put together by someone with passion and love for this type of magic. The sketch on the last one looked so shockingly similar to the bed in the king’s chambers that Merlin had to take a moment and get himself a cup of wine before continuing.
He settled back into bed, lying on his stomach, his hard cock trapped against the mattress as though he could ignore it. If bondage had left him itchy-hot and restless, the next chapter was blatantly shocking.
Shape shifting: Bestiality. These pages were different. The topic was darker, containing sketches that stole Merlin’s breath away: a sorcerer turning into a wolf and mounting his lover; a snake being enchanted to twist up a woman’s leg and press inside her; the covers of a bed animated to become long tangling tentacles as though a man could wrestle for his virtue against his own bed. Merlin felt like a mace had hit him dead in the centre of his chest as he read about pleasures and desires he’d never imagined, still didn’t understand, yet ached for.
Merlin’s hips rocked against the mattress as he continued to learn, to open his mind to possibilities. Not all shape shifting involved full transformations. There was even a spell to alter a man’s cock to create a canine-like knot that would lock a man into his lover’s body with his release. The two bodies, the text described, would be joined and inseparable until the knot shrank. The intimacy of such an act overwhelmed him. He scrambled for his laces, unable to resist any longer. He hadn’t even tried any of these spells yet, but knowing they existed, knowing he could try them, that maybe someday Arthur might...
He squeezed his fist around the base of his cock and gave a rough tug. His eyes were trained on the worn pages, the intricately detailed sketches, the careful words of warning and suggestions as he began to work his cock. Merlin stared at the wolf hovering over the man’s body. He could imagine him rutting, thrusting hard and fast, and taking his own pleasure while his lover gave up all control to the feral beast.
His fist flew at a pace more frantic than he’d ever used on himself. His eyes squeezed shut, images still dancing behind his eyelids, every sketch blurring in a tangle of debauchery as his body grew tight. Tiny explosions of pleasure burst behind his eyes and he came, filling his hand until it was slippery-wet as he worked his cock. He shivered, collapsing to the bed, his cheek pressed to the open page. He struggled for breath as his sweat cooled and he slowly came down from the intensity of his orgasm.
He’d managed very little sleep. Arthur had asked him several times if he was all right and Gaius only raised eyebrows as he left his dinner half-eaten in his rush to ‘go to bed early.’
He began to understand his preferences the more he read and attempted spells. There were a few that he favoured heavily and practiced until they were rote. He’d ruined four belts perfecting his control of one spell in particular, one he knew would come in handy.
Other spells were more difficult to practise on himself. Retaining the right level of control over his magic whilst distracted — not to mention half-afraid that he’d land himself stuck in a certain position until morning and how would he explain his predicament when Arthur came looking for him — was certainly challenging.
Emrys smiled, eyes crinkling to small slits. “I’d hoped it would capture your interest.”
Merlin coughed, cheeks hot. “Pretty boring stuff, really.”
Emrys hummed. “I know it was unexpected but are you comfortable? Do you feel ready?”
“I don’t even know what you want me to be ready for.”
“It’s better if I don’t say and let it happen naturally. I’ve already changed too much.”
“I’m not sure that makes any sense. Did I hit my head a lot in the years...”
“It’s about learning spells without knowing how or why you will use them — I know you know how to do that.”
“You should practice,” Emrys blurted out as though the thought just occurred to him and he was surprised he hadn’t already figured that out. “It’s different doing the spells to someone else. You need to read their face, know when you are pushing too hard or not enough.”
“Are you— Would you be okay with that?”
Merlin was so okay he was practically vibrating with it. For the last few days his magic was so alive, simmering just beneath the surface of his skin like it wanted to come out and play. He'd had to walk away from Arthur earlier that day when he felt his palm itch to reach out with his magic and let it roam over his skin like a caress. The spells he’d learned were meant to be shared.
“I want to do this,” Merlin said. “I want to get this right. For Arthur.”
“He never turns to anyone else for this, you know. He would never trust anyone but you.” Emrys sighed, defeated. “Until he didn’t trust you any more either.”
Merlin’s heart ached to see this future laid out before him, to see the sadness radiating from the man he would become. After Arthur had accepted magic he’d thought, finally things would be different. And they had been. Albion was being formed beneath his watch, Camelot was flourishing and Arthur... Arthur was happy. He was lonely, maybe. He was king, and with that came the stresses of any ruler. But he had Merlin and his knights. And even though he’d never married, never pursued any of the ladies of the court, never let his relationship with Gwen develop into anything more, he did appear happy.
“You were meant to be this for him.”
Merlin nodded, though he knew he didn’t quite understand yet. If Arthur wasn’t content in his life, if he needed more, if he needed this... He squared his shoulders. “Then I'll learn how to be what he needs.”
“I’m here to see that you do.”
A thrill of challenge rose up in Merlin at the teasing in Emrys’ voice and he knew exactly where to start. He began with the belt; a whispered word and Emrys’ belt unlatched. A wave of his hand and each end wound its way around Emrys’ wrists, tugging them behind his back.
His older self looked down at the animated band of leather, his face splitting in a broad grin. Merlin recognised relief there, as though he’d wondered if maybe travelling through time to give advice wouldn’t be nearly enough to convince anyone of something like this.
The ends of the belt joined the wrists together, snaking around both, and Emrys winced as the leather tightened and knotted itself. Merlin watched his cheeks flood with colour and understood for the first time what it meant to read the desire on someone’s face.
“Very nice,” Emrys said, struggling against the hold of the leather behind his back. “That was the first I learned.” He smiled, slow like a young boy playing at being naughty for the first time. “It’s still my favourite.”
Merlin mirrored that smile back to him. “Kneel on the bed.”
Emrys nodded and struggled up onto the narrow cot. Merlin spared a moment to wish he’d taken Arthur up on his many offers to grant Merlin proper chambers and with it a bed more suited for his position at court. It hadn’t tempted him though. Gaius was getting older and needed someone close. This room suited him fine.
Not the least of which because it took so long to find him, he rarely had visitors.
Now, though, he longed for Arthur’s four-poster, for the rich red of the king’s coverlet. It would fit the mood. He grinned and closed his eyes. After a moment’s concentration, he opened them again to find a scarlet cover beneath Emrys’ knees. It pooled on the floor around the edges of the small bed.
“Oh,” Emrys said, staring down at the blanket, his cheeks matching the colour. Despite the slight grey of his hair, with his mouth agape, his eyes wide and pleased, he looked incredibly young.
Before Emrys could say anything more, Merlin moved on, seeing if he could surprise his older self with a bit of innovation. He said the spell, a small variation of the previous, and the length of belt that remained twisted itself around Emrys’ ankles. Emrys immediately spread his legs to keep his balance and he was forced into an arch, his hands hovering only a few inches above his feet. He looked down at the pull of the buttons of the coat his still wore.
“Did you forget something?”
Merlin had. But he swallowed that response. Confidence, the book had emphasised. “No,” he said as a spell from the first chapter sprung to mind. With a wave of his hand, Emrys was naked.
Merlin hadn’t expected to be quite so turned on by this. It was himself after all, not a partner, not Arthur naked on the bed before him. He hadn’t any right to be feeling suddenly flushed, really. He was simply being taught magic by an older version of himself, no matter how erotic the topic.
But seeing Emrys pale and naked against Arthur’s red coverlet, he found himself struggling against his own desires, wondering how it would feel if the roles were reversed and he were the one on the bed at another’s mercy. Merlin’s cock was already heavy between his legs, distracting him. He shook off his thoughts.
The hair on Emrys’ chest was greying, more so than that on his head. But his chest was muscled and firm, his stomach flat. No more than a handful of years separated them.
“You are doing really well,” Emrys said. “Better than I did my first time.”
“You practiced this then?”
Emrys held his gaze, unapologetic. “I had to learn somehow.”
“With... others?” Merlin wasn’t sure why he was surprised. It was obvious in retrospect. “Not with Arthur.”
“Never with Arthur.”
“Did he know—”
Emrys looked away then and Merlin didn’t bother finishing the question. His gut twisted as he watched Emrys’ mouth purse as if that would contain his emotions. “That was the day I started researching time travel and stopped researching knowledge that would only benefit the past.”
“I’ll fix this.”
Emrys looked up. “I know you will.” He shivered.
Merlin picked up the spellbook and paged through it as he walked the room. He didn’t really need inspiration. He’d already decided what he wanted to try first, but Emrys needed a moment and reading your partner was key, after all.
He let Emrys struggle for a bit, the strain of the position making sweat glisten on chest. His cock, which had flagged a moment ago, began to thicken again.
Merlin grinned and sat on the bed, his knee just a hair’s breadth from Emrys’. “I’ve always loved the feel of this blanket.” He dug his fingers into the soft velvet.
Merlin closed his eyes and let his mind drift with richness of the fabric beneath his fingers. “I’ve dreamt of what it would be like to feel it against my naked skin.”
“I know.” It came out choked this time.
Merlin sighed, wistful. He ran his hands over the blanket, his words pouring over the smooth material; his palm heated with each pass. A low rumble of anticipation echoed from Emrys’ chest and Merlin knew he’d made the right choice of spells.
The blanket began to move, shifting, dancing beneath his palm. Emrys’ legs opened wider, his cock now stiff – as stiff as Merlin’s own – swayed heavily. With a whispered word, the blanket sprang up off the bed. Velvety red vines began to creep up Emrys’ knees. Emrys shuddered as one stretched out to stroke his inner thigh.
“I’m going to try something.”
“Okay,” Emrys said, swallowing thickly beneath the vine winding around his throat like a collar.
“Tell me—” Merlin cleared his throat and tried again. He didn’t know why he was shaking. “Tell me to stop if—”
“I will.” Emrys gnawed his bottom lips as the vines crept higher. “Do it.”
Merlin’s heart thundered in his chest as he reached out. A wispy tendril of magic split from his fingertips. It swam through the air, jittery as a minnow until it hovered over the tip of Emrys’ cock.
Emrys stared at it, wide-eyed, his hips shifting in a constant jerky motion, egged on by the red vines twisting around his body. “Yes,” he breathed, not looking up, not even daring to blink.
Merlin exhaled a shaky breath and concentrated. A prickle of sweat trailed down the back of his neck as he imagined what he wanted the tendril to do next. A moment later, he watched it happen. The tendril twisted itself into a spiral over the red glistening tip of Emrys’ cock and reached out for the slit. It tapped at the opening once, then twice before sinking down without hesitation, like a seamstress threading a needle with practised skill.
A strangled cry came from Emrys’ throat as the tendril burrowed deeper. He sucked in breath after breath, like the room didn’t have enough air, like his lungs couldn’t keep up with his body’s needs. Through it all, his eyes never left the tip of his cock where the tendril continued to disappear inside of him.
“I can’t,” Emrys gasped, his hips rocking forwards, his legs spread wide. “I can’t—” He started up at Merlin with watery, pleading eyes and flushed skin. “Please – I need—”
Merlin hadn’t planned any further than this. There were so many options, his mind spun with them. He looked down at Emrys’ glazed eyes, his trembling body and suddenly he realised he no longer wanted the distance of magic between them. He wanted to touch this man who’d devoted his life to fixing a mistake Merlin would be sure to never make.
He stepped forward and knelt on the bed before his older self. His hands closed on Emrys’ hips and he felt the vines begin to creep up his wrists until it was hard to tell where Merlin stopped and Emrys began. He leant forward and pressed his lips to the warm wet tip of Emrys’ cock. His own magic tingled beneath his lips. He lapped at the slit and felt the frisson of heat from the magic sunk inside the shaft. It tickled his tongue. As he licked again, searching deeper, Emrys made a sound like a choked sob.
Merlin wanted to touch himself but the vines had imprisoned his hands and it felt too right to direct them to stop. Instead, he focused on the shattered man in front of him waiting for Merlin to put him back together.
He licked again and again, chasing at the tendril with his tongue as if he could reach down inside. It teased him, like this was a game, slipping just out of reach and sinking down. He laughed, pursed his lips and began to suck at the hole, pulling the tendril from where it was buried deep within Emrys’ cock.
Emrys cried out, pressing himself harder against Merlin’s lips until Merlin’s mouth was filled with magic, and his lips and chin were dripping with come. He licked and sucked all there was until Emrys sagged like a broken doll.
Merlin quietly dispelled the magic binding Emrys, laid him out on the bed, and held him as he shivered through the aftershocks. They lay beside each other as they calmed. Goosebumps rose on Emrys’ skin as a breeze from the open window cooled the overheated room.
Merlin’s lips tingled and he licked at them. “Are you alright?” His hard cock he ignored. This moment wasn’t about his own pleasure. Not today. Not until he’d earned it.
“You studied,” Emrys said. “I wasn’t sure. I mean. I knew you’d want to. But you didn’t just memorise spells, you understood the book. More than I ever hoped.”
There was something in the word choice that struck Merlin. His head snapped up from winding the abandoned belt around his hand and he remembered how the one sketch with the four poster bed had looked so much like the king’s chambers. “It’s you, isn’t it? You’re the author of the book you gave me.”
Emrys nodded. “It started out of frustration,” he said, rising from the bed and making his way to the chair where his clothes lay neatly folded. “I watched Arthur turn inward with each growing year. He found release in his own ways. Sometimes taking risks he shouldn’t. I needed to understand him. I needed to understand how I had failed him and I began to research.”
Merlin watched him dress, how Emrys buckled his boots in the same odd way Merlin always did. Always would, apparently.
“What I found surprised me. I — we — have a natural talent for this type of magic. Maybe Arthur sensed that long before I discovered that about myself.”
Emrys reached out, taking the belt from Merlin’s outstretched hand and putting in on.
“But as I said, he gave me no second chance.” Emrys huffed, half-frustrated, half-broken. “Even a hint of an offer was enough to send him off hunting without me for a month.”
“He should trust us more,” Merlin snapped, unable to resist defending himself. People made mistakes. They should be forgiven.
“I’d bruised his pride too deeply when I’d scoffed at the idea of anyone wanting magic like this. He’d taken a chance opening up to me, even though I hadn’t realised at the time that’s what he’d been doing. Then a few months ago he’d walked in on me practising with one of his knights.”
Merlin grimaced and Emrys bowed his head, not looking ready to share any more of that tale. “What happens now?”
“Now you wait and get it right.”
With a bow, one Merlin was now so familiar with giving Arthur in court, Emrys slipped out the door. He left the book behind.
With his bow still taut and his eyes still trained on the place the buck had been, Arthur said, “I will still be a better hunter than you when I’m ninety.”
Merlin snorted, enjoying the easy camaraderie between them even more now that he understood how precious it was. “That’s because I don’t want to hunt.”
“Not because you are terrible at it?” Arthur lowered his bow and shook his head, a sly smile pulling at his lips. “This is hunting, Merlin. Spears and arrows. Your magic won’t do you any good.”
Merlin laughed, emboldened by the last few weeks. The new magic he’d learned had raised his confidence to new heights, even if he’d only used it in the privacy of his own bedchambers. He called the buck back with the lure of an imaginary mate.
Arthur’s eyebrows rose; Merlin smirked.
Arm stretched out, Merlin muttered a now familiar spell, and the vines at the buck’s feet began to grow and twist until its legs were tangled. The buck whined, eyes wide with fear as he was held still, unable to break free from the vines that had captured its legs, holding him in an unbreakable grasp.
From the corner of his eye, Merlin watched Arthur’s reaction as the buck struggled, helpless under Merlin’s power.
Merlin let his magic flow from his fingers, and gently stroked the buck’s flank until the beast calmed, accepting his capture peacefully.
Arthur stared openly at Merlin then as though he’d never seen him before, never understood the versatility of magic. A bit high on the moment, Merlin gave Arthur a cheeky wink, and directed a vine to twist around Arthur’s calf, just tight enough to draw his attention.
Arthur blinked down at the greenery binding him in place and swallowed. His cheeks were very pink.
Merlin smiled. “Just because I have a creature at my mercy, it doesn’t mean I would ever be cruel to it.” He released the vines, and the buck stayed, letting Merlin’s magic soothe him for a moment before darting off at twig snap.
Merlin paused, feeling the weight of the book he carried. Before he could hesitate too long, his eye caught the rich scarlet of Arthur’s bed across the room. It beckoned him as clearly as the dragon had called his name the first night he’d slept within the castle walls.
He stepped inside and barred the door.