Actions

Work Header

The Other Half Of My Heart

Work Text:

<><><> 


“I would dial the numbers just to listen to your breath,
And I would stand inside my hell and hold the hand of death,
You don’t know how far I’d go to ease this precious ache,
And you don’t know how much I’d give, or how much I can take,
Just to reach you…”


Melissa Etheridge, Come To My Window

<><><>

Arthur Pendragon lay on his childhood bed in his old apartments at Buckingham Palace and stared at the sterile whitewashed ceiling. Despite the luxuriously soft mattress cradling his back, his mind was racing too much for sleep. Besides, Arthur hadn’t been able to get more than a few hours of sleep at a time for several months now. He was used to it. Insomnia was just one of the many ailments that had plagued him since his thirtieth birthday.

As the Royal Family had access to the best medical care in the country, it was generally believed that the Crown Prince of the United Kingdom would be a paragon of health. And before now, it would have been true; Prince Arthur was hardly ever sick, even as a baby.

However, Arthur’s current problems had nothing to do with modern medicine and everything to do with ancient magic.

It was almost seven months past the deadline for the Prince to announce his choice of consort, and yet, he hadn’t. Pushing the limits of the Albion Pact was generally considered to be hazardous to one’s health and Arthur had certainly felt the increasingly disturbing effects of it.

While the truth about his deteriorating health was not widely known, those few that were in the loop were deeply concerned that the breaking of the Pact was imminent.

Just earlier that day, Arthur had been summoned to the Palace for his mandatory check-up with Dr. Edwin Muirden, the Royal Physician. It hadn’t gone well.

 <><><> 

The sandy-haired middle-aged doctor helped Arthur climb onto an examination table in the Infirmary and then attached a cuff to the Prince’s upper arm.

“So tell me, Your Royal Highness,” Dr. Muirden asked curiously as he pumped air into the blood pressure cuff, squeezing Arthur’s arm almost unbearably tight, “Did the new sedative I prescribed help with your insomnia much?”

“Not really.”

Arthur didn’t have the heart to tell the well-meaning doctor that he’d stopped trying any new sedatives. While the variety of medicines he’d tried had virtually no effect on his sleeping habits at night, the same could not be said of the daytime. The final straw had been four months ago, when Arthur had dozed off once while behind the wheel of his car and narrowly missed causing an accident. After that, Arthur had flushed the medication down the loo and refused to fill any more.

Dr. Muirden frowned thoughtfully. “What about the relaxation methods I taught you? Any luck with those?”

Arthur shook his head. It didn’t matter how hard Arthur exercised, how long he meditated for, how many soothing massages he had, or how often he practiced yoga; restful sleep eluded him. Instead, each day, Arthur dragged himself out of bed, a little more bone-weary and exhausted than the day before.

Besides, it wasn’t as if the insomnia was the worst of his problems.

“All right, Your Highness… I’d like to get you on the scale and see how we’re doing with that,” the doctor said. Sighing, Arthur complied. He knew from experience that the news was never good.

When Dr. Muirden saw the numbers on the scale, his mouth puckered up like he’d just eaten a lemon. “Sir, have you been eating at all?” he huffed in frustration.

Arthur gave him a dry, droll look and snarked, “Of course I have. And before you ask…Yes, I’ve been drinking the nutritional supplements and the protein shakes. I must be ingesting close to 8,000 calories a day by now…”

“But…”

“No!” Arthur started pacing agitatedly, his face flushing. “I know how to follow directions, Doctor.” Arthur gave a decidedly dirty look at the closed examination room door, just knowing his father was waiting not-very-patiently on the other side of it. Petulantly, he raised his voice so that it would carry. “Contrary to popular belief, I am neither 5 years old nor a simpleton!”

“Your Highness, please!” Dr. Muirden’s voice was panicked.

Arthur turned to look at him and wondered idly why the doctor suddenly looked as if he were standing at the end of a very long tunnel, and why Arthur felt as if he were floating…

<><><>

When Arthur came to, he was lying supine on the bed in his old room. Damn it. I must have fainted…again. Arthur let out a long silent sigh. The passing out was a relatively new, if rather disturbing, development. As Arthur’s eyes adjusted to the darkened room, he was drawn to the sliver of light from the door left slightly ajar, and the voices speaking sotto-voiced just beyond it.

“…another four pounds,” Dr. Muirden was saying to someone, most likely the King. “And no matter how many times we’ve upped his caloric intake, he seems to be losing the weight more rapidly as the weeks go by.” The doctor’s voice was grave and solemn. “I don’t know what else to do. I’ve never seen anything like it, Your Majesty.”

“What about the fainting?” King Uther demanded. “Surely that cannot be a good sign.”

“The Prince is experiencing wild fluctuations in his blood pressure,” Dr. Muirden explained.

“What can you do about it?” the King’s voice was tight and Arthur could imagine the creases that must have been present between his father’s eyebrows.

Dr. Muirden shook his head sadly. “I have done every diagnostic imaginable, Your Highness. I have seen this condition before, but never with such a sudden and severe onset. In the Prince’s case, I have been unable to find any underlying condition causing it. I started him on some medication to treat it almost a month ago, but it made the instabilities worse, so I discontinued it. In fact, any time I’ve tried treating any of his symptoms with medication, they’ve had an adverse effect. It is an anomaly that has no medical explanation. I can only conclude it is due to the unfulfilled Pact.”

“If you combine the blood pressure issues with the weight loss and the lack of sleep...” the doctor’s voice trailed off timidly.

“What? What are you not telling me?” Uther demanded to know.

“I don’t know how much more stress his body can take before it just…gives out.”

Uther sucked in a breath with a hiss. His voice, when it finally came, was agonized. “How long?”

“If he’s lucky? A few weeks. A month, perhaps,” was the grim reply.

Arthur felt strangely numb at that proclamation. He had known deep down that there was no scientific cure for his problems; that there was nothing the doctors could do. Perhaps he wasn’t surprised because it just confirmed what he’d known for some time: His own body was fighting against him, self-destructing in slivers…and all because of the Pact.

In the earliest days of the British Monarchy, the Albion Pact had been formed in order to protect the balance between the magical and non-magical worlds. The Pact was comprised of three parts. First, the King or Crown Prince was required to choose as his consort a person of magical blood. Second, the Royal Heir must allow his and his consort’s soul to be bonded together by use of the sorcerer’s magic. And lastly, they would be required to produce an heir, which would start the process over again.

It had always been said that, if at least the first two requirements of the Pact were not completed before the Royal’s thirtieth birthday, the consequences would be dire. Eventually, if the necessary steps were not taken quickly enough, the Pact between magic and non-magic would be broken and the King or Prince would die. No ruler in the modern age had ever tested that theory: until now.

Arthur’s strange maladies began just days after his thirtieth birthday, and his health had continued its slow decline in the almost 7 months since. Therefore, based on Arthur’s rather limited experience, it appeared that the rumors were true; eventually the lack of a consort would kill him.

“Would a soul bond cure him?” Uther asked softly.

“I…hope so, but it’s unclear, Your Majesty. As you know, it has been centuries since anyone has waited this long.”

“I need to speak with my son. I need to make him see reason!” Uther blustered, and Arthur could hear the crisp click of the heels of his father’s shoes as Uther stalked toward the door.

Here comes another lecture, Arthur thought, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling. His muscles steeled themselves in preparation.

“Wait, Your Majesty! Please, wait…” The sliver of light became blocked by the doctor’s body standing in the King’s path.

“What!?” King Uther’s exasperation boiled over in that one word.

“I believe that would be…unwise, Your Majesty. To give the Prince the best chance while a suitable consort is located, it is my recommendation that he be exposed to as little stress as possible. It seems to worsen his condition exponentially.”

Now directly in his line of sight, Arthur could see the black shape of his father backlit in the doorway. His shoulders drooped in defeat and he brought a hand to his eyes. Arthur’s heart ached to see his father looking so broken because of him.

When the King found his voice, it was thick with the tears that Arthur couldn’t see. “I…will not upset him. I just want to see my son.”

Dr. Muirden’s voice was also hoarse. “Of course, Your Majesty.” He stepped aside to allow the King to pass.

Uther took a long, bracing breath and squared his shoulders, unaware that he was being watched. Then he stepped forward and rapped lightly on the bedroom door. “Arthur?”

Not wanting to add to his father’s distress by letting him realize that Arthur had heard and seen them, he feigned a sleep-filled tone. “Father?” he whispered.

The door creaked open and a little more light spilled in around his father’s shape. His hand swiped at the switch on the wall and the room was flooded with light from the bedside lamp. As his father approached the bed, Arthur blinked furiously for a moment, trying to get his eyes to adjust to the sudden change.

Gingerly, the King sat on the edge of the mattress, as if Arthur were made of porcelain and would shatter at any moment. Their eyes connected and held them both immobile for a long moment...and then the spell was broken. Uther reached out one hand to softly brush the damp hair off his son's forehead, just as he had done those few times Arthur had been sick as a child.

“Oh, Arthur…” Uther’s voice was so pained that Arthur found himself holding back tears. “What are you doing to yourself?”

“I’m not doing it on purpose, Father. I can’t help it.”

“Has there really been no one in all this time? Not even one person compatible enough for you to bond with?” Even though his voice remained soft, it was evident by the undertone that the King was frustrated beyond measure. He was a man of action, but how could he act if he did not know what to do?

Arthur shifted onto his side and turned his head away, trying to hide the tears that burned his eyes and throat. “Just one…” he admitted, raspingly, painfully. “But he didn’t want me. Not like that anyway.”

“Just say the word, Arthur, and I will set this to rights. I shall issue a summons. No one can refuse the King.” Uther’s voice was urgent and focused now that his energies had a potential outlet.

At this, Arthur turned back over and put a staying hand on his father’s arm. “No, Father. No. Not like that, please. I couldn’t bear it.”

Uther closed his eyes for a long time, took a deep sigh and then opened them again. “Very well,” he relented very reluctantly. “But we will continue our search. There must be someone else you are compatible with. Rest assured that we will find them.”

His father patted his knee in reassurance before pushing himself to a stand. “Rest now, Arthur, and I will see you in the morning.”

Arthur nodded noncommittally and his father left, the door snicking shut behind him.

Arthur didn’t have the heart to tell his father that their search for another consort would be futile. Because almost fifteen years ago, Arthur Pendragon had (quite inconveniently) fallen in love with his best friend Merlin Emrys and—if truth be told—had been pining for him ever since. He hadn’t realized it then, but Arthur now knew that no one else would ever be able to replace him; no one else would ever be enough. For when the person you loved was the other half of your heart, how could there possibly be room for more?

<><><>

Their first meeting had been tactile and visceral. Perhaps Arthur should have recognized that moment as the harbinger of the life-changing upheaval that was to come…but at the time all he’d been was annoyed.

It had been in his first year at Eton. Being the Prince of Wales had no bearing on how much classwork he was given, and he sat for the same rigorous exams as everyone else. His father had drilled into him early on that failure for the Prince of Wales was simply not acceptable, so he threw himself full on into his studies. But, while Arthur considered himself rather intelligent, test-taking was weak spot for him. Often, he required hours of study to perform well on even the most basic exams, so his first experience with midterms was particularly nightmarish.

Luckily, he’d scoped out a prime study spot in his early days at the school. A small table tucked into an alcove at the back of the Ancient Magical History section afforded him plenty of uninterrupted study time. Every time he’d been through the area, it was desolate and empty, making it perfect for his purposes.

His arms full of books, he had rounded the corner of the last stack at a rather fast pace, eager to settle in…and ran into someone else square on. Both of them fell arse-over-teakettle, a mountain of textbooks clattering to the floor between them.

“Oi! Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” Arthur shouted at the lump of boy and books splayed out in front of him as he rubbed the sore spot on the back of his head.

The coltish boy (who seemed to be composed more of knobby knees and pointy elbows than anything else) massaged the side of one bony hip and shot back, “Well, I’m not the only one with eyes, you know. You should have watched where you were going if you didn’t want to get mowed down!”

Arthur bristled at the disrespectful tone. Scrambling to his feet, he towered over the raven-haired boy—who was clearly an idiot—and asked, “Do you have any idea who you’re talking to?”

The young man rolled his eyes theatrically as he awkwardly wrangled his gangly limbs into submission long enough to stand. Arthur was mortified to discover the boy was actually taller than him. “Of course I do! I didn’t grow up under a bloody rock, you know…” snarked his unwitting assailant. The skinny kid made a show of looking around and then added, “Although, I might be mistaken… Where is your fan club today?”

It was an unfortunate side effect of being the Prince of Wales that he seemed to attract a certain amount of unwanted adulation wherever he went. Eton was no exception. Within a week, he had gathered himself quite a collection of posers and idolizers that followed him around practically everywhere. Arthur was never particularly comfortable with it, but had resigned himself to inevitability, and tried to accept it.

But it didn’t mean he liked having it thrust in his face like it was his fault, as if he was courting the attention. Arthur took a step closer, invading the young man’s personal space. “You can’t talk to me like that,” he insisted, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

The head of unruly ebony hair tilted upward, revealing a pair of snapping, sapphire blue eyes over razor-sharp cheekbones, girlishly plump lips, and rather enormous ears…not to mention a stubborn-set jawline. “Well, unless you can show me where it says in the Constitution that it’s illegal to offend the Crown Prince’s delicate sensibilities…I think you’ll find that I can,” he replied petulantly.

Arthur just shook his head and huffed out his annoyance. And then his eyes looked past the offensive boy…and saw that his favorite table was already taken.

Eyes narrowing, mouth gaping open, he turned back and glared at the offending usurper. “But…but, that’s my table!”

Nonplussed, the boy’s black eyebrows rose so high that they were hidden by his untidy bangs. “Oh, I’m sorry…” he mocked in an overly-polite tone, “I must have missed the sign that said ‘Reserved for the Prat of Wales’…”

“Look, whatever…I just came up here to study, all right?” Disappointment and frustration dripped from each word. Arthur crouched down and started searching for his texts out of the massive pile of books on the floor.

“I’ll get those,” the boy said with a voice slightly less frosty than before. With a wave of his hand and a flash of gold in his eyes, the books separated themselves of their own accord; Arthur’s piling up next to his ankle on the floor while the remaining ones flew over to rest on the table in front of him.

Arthur’s eyes widened to the size of saucers. “You’re a warlock!” he breathed, trying to sound unaffected, but failing miserably.

He knew that witches and warlocks existed—his own mother had been one, after all—but Arthur had never seen anyone actually perform magic right in front of him like that.

“Yeah, what of it?” was the defensive reply.

“Uh, nothing…” Arthur stammered, self-consciously rubbing at the bottom of his nose. “I’ve just…never met a warlock before.”

The bright blue eyes studied Arthur’s face for a long while, as if searching for something. Finally, he responded noncommittally, “Well, I’ve never met a prince before…so I guess that makes us even.”

Arthur nodded once and then scooped up his textbooks. He loathed the idea of trying to find another quiet corner in the crowded library, but it seemed he had no other choice. Shoulders slumped with dejection, Arthur turned to leave.

The boy’s voice, hesitant this time, called after him, “You don’t have to go.”

As Arthur looked back, he saw that his companion had moved his belongings so that they only took up one half of the table.

“There’s room enough for two…if you want.” The words were accompanied by a tentative upward curl of one side of his mouth.

Arthur’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “You don’t mind?”

The boy shrugged one slim shoulder. “No, it’s fine.”

Secretly relieved and grateful, Arthur walked over, placed his books on the table, and settled down in his seat. After a moment, his companion thrust a hand across the table in greeting. “I’m Merlin,” he said, and this time his smile was bright, wide, and friendly.

The warmth of that smile resonated inside of Arthur; it filled up some heretofore unknown emptiness, making him feel like he was suddenly more than he ever was before. Clasping the slender, long fingered hand in his much broader grip, he found himself grinning as he responded, “Arthur. I’m Arthur.”

Merlin’s smile turned impish and his eyes sparkled with amusement. “Well, then…Pleased to meet you, Arthur.

 <><><>

Once Merlin had completed the coursework he’d set out to do, he asked Arthur what he was studying. Then he offered to help, quizzing Arthur and creating mnemonic devices to help him remember. He was impressed at how quickly Merlin could make connections between things. In contrast to his first impression of Merlin, it turned out that his companion was actually incredibly bright, remarkably quick-witted, and very, very funny. Despite himself, Arthur often found himself laughing at Merlin’s irreverent anecdotes. 

Arthur had no idea how much time had passed before it was announced that the library would be closing in fifteen minutes. Startled, Arthur blinked and turned to look out the window behind them, only to discover it was dark and they’d both missed dinner. 

“Wow,” Arthur remarked, a bit sheepish. “I’m sorry, Merlin. I didn’t realize I’d kept you so long.” 

Merlin shrugged one shoulder and smiled. “That’s all right, Arthur. I didn’t mind it.” 

There was just something about the way that Merlin said his name that warmed Arthur right down to his toes. 

Merlin stood up, and started gathering his things. Arthur reluctantly followed suit. Once they both had their arms full of books, they turned as one, and started toward the exit. 

As they walked, Arthur realized that today had been the first time in his life that he had truly felt normal, like he wasn’t the Prince of Wales, but just Arthur. He’d quite liked it. In fact, he felt sorry it was about to end. He wished it wouldn’t. 

“Are you…?” Arthur stuttered, suddenly feeling a bit shy. 

“Am I what?” Merlin asked with a quirk of one eyebrow.

“Are you going to be in the library tomorrow?” The sentence came out as a rush of words, tumbling one after the other so quickly as to hardly make sense. Arthur was mortified to feel blood suffusing his cheeks, making them burn. 

“I can be,” Merlin answered with a thoughtful smile. “You want me to come and test you some more?” 

Arthur’s heart fluttered in his chest and a weird sort of excitement threaded through his veins. “You would do that?” 

“Sure. Meet you upstairs at our table around three o’clock? That should give you enough time to ditch your adoring fans after lunch, right?” Merlin teased unrepentantly. 

Arthur shoved his shoulder into Merlin’s playfully. “Har, har…Very funny. You’re a real riot.” 

Merlin’s only response was a cheeky grin. 

Before they knew it, they were outside. Being a King’s Scholar, Merlin lived in a house across campus from Arthur, so they would part ways here. 

Not having either of his hands free, Merlin nodded toward Arthur in farewell. “See you tomorrow, Arthur.” 

Arthur nodded back. “Yeah, see you tomorrow.” 

As Arthur walked back to his room, he was smiling. 

And thus a fast friendship between the two boys was born.

<><><>

Arthur smiled fondly at the memory, although the remembrance brought him no closer to a solution for his dilemma. For that, he needed a quiet spot where he could relax, put his thoughts in order, and just think

He knew the perfect place.  

For as long as Arthur could remember, the servant’s kitchen at the Palace had been a source of comfort for him. 

Some of his earliest memories involved sitting at the table while various nannies, housekeepers, and maids supplied a lonely motherless boy with love and affection in the form of hugs, kisses, and homemade sweets and treats.

There had always been someone at the ready there to kiss and bandage his skinned knees, or proudly post a crayon drawing on the refrigerator, or put to water a fistful of flowers “liberated” from the Royal Gardens.

Elsewhere in the Palace, no matter how young he’d been, Arthur had always been nobly addressed as “The Prince” or “Your Highness”: antiseptic, austere, impersonal, much like the grand old Palace itself.

But once he crossed the threshold of that room, he was “Master Arthur” to one and all, and he felt accepted, warm, and part of a family greater than his own.

It had made growing up as the Prince of Wales more bearable.

As much as Arthur wanted to get out of bed and go to the kitchen right there and then, there were still too many people up and about. He didn’t want to run into any of the normal staff, or gods forbid, his father. Not tonight, when what he needed most was to be left alone with his thoughts.

 So, Arthur tucked his hands behind his head and let his mind wander.

<><><>

While Arthur and Merlin had instantly become best friends three years before, during their last year in secondary everything had seemed different and new. It was the first year that they’d been allowed to room together. The King had been less than thrilled with the arrangement, although he finally allowed it once Arthur had explained that Merlin was to be his skivvy. The two of them had quite a laugh at that, as Merlin could barely find the clothes bin for his own clothes, let alone Arthur’s. 

Being Merlin’s roommate was a welcome relief for Arthur. For the first time since he’d arrived at Eton, he was free to drop the “Prince of Wales” mask the moment he shut the door to his room. He was able to relax and just be Arthur, knowing that Merlin would never judge him for being himself.

But as the weeks went by, things began to change. Arthur started noticing things about Merlin that had never captured his attention before. Like the slimness of his hips, for example. Or the grace with which his hands moved as he spoke. Or how long Merlin’s eyelashes were and how beautifully they framed his cerulean eyes.

Arthur didn’t give much thought as to why these little things suddenly seemed important...until the day he’d caught an eyeful of Merlin coming back from the showers in next to nothing. Merlin had proceeded to move about the room, gathering his clothes for the day, blissfully unaware of Arthur’s keen interest in his state of undress.

Merlin was still damp all over, towel slung low at his waist. Beads of water dribbled down Merlin’s neck and into the cleft between his pectorals. Arthur’s mouth felt bone dry as he surveyed the progress of each droplet running down over Merlin’s torso. His eyes clung as the moisture slid lower and lower, following the line of fine hair below Merlin’s navel until it was absorbed by the terrycloth.

Then Merlin turned his back to Arthur and shucked off the bath towel. It was something Merlin had done at least a hundred times before, but for some reason this time Arthur’s eyes were immediately drawn to the small, muscular globes of Merlin’s arse, how they tensed and stretched with each step he took. Arthur stared hungrily at the junction of Merlin’s thighs. He couldn’t tear his eyes from the peekaboo glimpses of fine curly hair around Merlin’s balls and the mesmerizing bounce of his soft cock as he stepped into his pants, first one leg, and then the other.

It was then that Arthur noticed that he was hard. Fucking rock hard and throbbing, his pyjama bottoms tented and strained against his cock. Hastily, he bunched his sheets into his lap, and averted his eyes from the tempting sight, biting his lower lip until it was painful in order to hold back an aroused groan.

“Hey, you gonna get ready?”

Startled to hear Merlin’s voice so close, Arthur looked up to find his roommate standing in front of him, fully dressed and just slipping his arms into his Eton jacket, buttoning it up the front. He peered at Arthur curiously.

“Uh, yeah…” Arthur croaked, and his voice was decidedly hoarse. “I’ll be ready in twenty. Meet you at breakfast?”

“Sure, Arthur,” Merlin agreed sunnily. “See you in a bit.” He flashed Arthur an ear to ear grin, and left the room.

That day was the first time Arthur wanked to the thought of his best friend. It certainly wasn't the last.

<><><>

At first, Arthur was very upset with himself, not so much by the recent epiphany regarding his sexual orientation; that didn’t really bother him. It was that he felt almost guilty for not telling Merlin about his newfound attraction, almost as if he was taking advantage of his friend somehow. The sense of shame only worsened as Arthur’s fascination seemed to grow stronger with each day that passed. 

Then, because he couldn’t stop watching Merlin, he started to notice the way Merlin’s eyes followed him around the room when he thought Arthur wasn’t looking. He pondered over the meaning of Merlin’s soft smile that Arthur was the only recipient of. Once or twice, he’d even thought he’d caught a yearning look in Merlin’s eyes during unguarded moments. 

Maybe, just maybe, Arthur mused, the attraction was mutual after all.

<><><>

Arthur wasn’t sure exactly how much time had elapsed while he’d been revisiting his past, but the ambient sounds of the mansion had quieted considerably, which meant it must have been quite a while.

Pulling aside the covers, he slid his legs out over the side of the bed, realizing belatedly that someone had removed his shoes and socks before tucking him in.

With a mental shrug, Arthur gingerly pushed himself into a sitting position, taking a moment to allow the usual bout of vertigo to fade. He was equally cautious when he went to stand, gripping the bedpost with one shaking hand and rising slowly to his feet.

Arthur padded across the room and stood at the door, listening for a sign of anyone still in his private chambers. Hearing nothing, he eased the door open noiselessly.

He stopped off at the loo, rinsed the stale taste from his mouth, and splashed some cool water on his face and neck. Feeling a bit more human, he continued on, and was faced with the entrance to his former study. The door was wide open; it was never open.

Arthur approached the study warily. He noticed that the chair behind the desk had been pulled out, as if someone had been sitting behind it. It could only have been his father, perhaps needing a place to wait impatiently while Arthur had been unconscious. No one else would have dared. His personal staff had strict instructions to keep this door shut whenever he was in residence, for the room contained memories that were best left undisturbed.

Arthur tried to keep his mind completely blank, not thinking or feeling anything as his hand reached for the doorknob.

However, as if by compulsion, his eyes rose from the chequered marble flooring, to his desk, the couch...and the wall beyond them. Arthur’s breath caught and his heart pounded. Leaning against the door moulding, he knew it was too late; the memories engulfed all his senses...thrust him back in the moment, feeling as real as if it all was happening right then and there instead of fifteen years ago.

<><><>

The sexual tension that had been building between he and Merlin finally came to a head during the Lent Half’s Long Leave from Eton. His father and Morgana had gone to Sandringham, but Arthur had convinced the King to allow him to stay in London, ostensibly to make use of the quiet at the Palace to begin preparing for his end-of-term trials. King Uther, in a rare moment of good will, had even permitted Arthur to invite Merlin to the palace to help him with his studying.

Of course, with a huge mansion at their disposal, there’d been a lot less studying going on then perhaps should have been. Instead, they gorged themselves on pizza and watched marathons of their favorite shows on the telly. They listened to music and played video games. They stayed up late and talked for hours about anything and everything. And if they sat a little bit closer than was proper, and their “accidental” touches lingered a bit too long, neither of them said anything about it. They simply enjoyed the pleasure of each other’s company while they could.

On the last evening of Merlin’s visit, they decided to actually do some coursework so as not to make a liar out of Arthur. They brought their textbooks into the small study that adjoined Arthur’s bedroom and settled in, Arthur at his desk and Merlin on the brown leather sofa across from him.

Arthur propped his heels up on the desk with his Ancient History text in his lap. He pretended to read as he surreptitiously watched Merlin instead. Merlin was sprawled down the length of the couch with only his bare feet hanging off the side. He was slouched down a bit and his back was against the armrest. An Organic Chemistry book was propped against his chest, one long-fingered hand holding it in place. As he read, Merlin worried his bottom lip with his teeth for a while, and then soothed the tip of his tongue along the spot.

Arthur’s breath caught in his throat as he watched this strange ritual, turned on more with each little nibble, with each swipe of Merlin’s pink tongue. All he could think about was how red and swollen Merlin’s lips would be if he were kissing and biting them and about how incredible Merlin’s tongue would feel running along the length of his cock.

The press of Arthur’s prick against the zip of his jeans was uncomfortable, and he had to uncross his legs to alleviate the pressure. Then he readjusted the placement of his textbook to hide the evidence of his hard-on from Merlin. He didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable should he happen to glance Arthur’s way.

Arthur was amazed at how he could go from zero to completely aroused in milliseconds when Merlin was around. No one else, male or female, had ever made Arthur feel like this...as much as it terrified him, he also reveled in it. He loved the heady, out-of-controlness of it all.

A motion caught Arthur’s attention, and he watched from the corner of his eye as Merlin rearranged himself on the couch. One leg hung off the side now, and his foot hovered mere inches from the floor. This new position pulled the material of Merlin’s already tight jeans even tighter across his groin, leaving very little to the imagination. In fact, it certainly appeared like Arthur wasn’t the only one in the room nursing an erection at the moment.

Arthur’s mouth went dry thinking about how easy it would be to cross the room and rub his palm down that straining length, catching Merlin’s moan in his mouth when he kissed him.

Stop it! Arthur scolded himself mentally. This is Merlin you’re thinking of like that. He’s your friend, your best friend! You don’t even know if he likes you like that…

But the problem with that line of argument was that Arthur did know. After what happened a few weeks ago, there was no longer any doubt in his mind that Merlin wanted him, too.

<><><>

More than once in the last few months, Arthur had awoken in the middle of the night to the soft, but unmistakable sounds of Merlin having a wank in the illusory solitude afforded by the deep darkness.

Things like that were bound to happen once in a while—after all, there weren’t a lot of available places to go for privacy when you went to an all-boys school. However, it was a code of sorts that you never intruded on another man’s wank; the last thing anyone needed was an audience. So, you’d be quiet and wait it out and then never, ever speak of it.

But this…this was different. Listening in while Merlin pulled himself was filthy hot. Every hitching gasp, each quiet moan, the slick sound of skin against skin made Arthur feel feverish all over. And when Merlin would finally come…well, it was all Arthur could do to keep from touching himself in kind. It was sweet, sweet torture...and secretly, Arthur loved it.

For a while, it seemed that Merlin’s late-night fumblings increased in frequency until waking up to it was almost a nightly occurrence. And then, inexplicably, it stopped. Arthur secretly wondered at the cause for the sudden drought, but as he wasn’t supposed to know about it at all, there was little he could say or do for his friend.

The abstinence ended quite memorably one night almost three weeks later. What Arthur awoke to this particular night was not the same kind of hushed, controlled affair of times past. No, this was the heated, frenzied wank of a man who had been pushed past endurance and couldn’t take the strain for a moment longer.

Even in the darkness, Arthur could see Merlin’s body writhing, the fast creaking of the bedsprings giving away just how quickly he must have been stripping his cock. The sounds issuing from his throat were lusty, primal, and not at all quiet. Arthur felt the raw sexual energy seep into him, hardening his own cock and making his knot throb painfully. He had to grip the bedclothes with both fists to keep from touching himself, or from flipping over and grinding his hips into the mattress in time with Merlin’s moans. More tempting still was the urge to get up, go to Merlin, and help give him that release that he was so desperately seeking.

Still, Arthur thought he would be able to hold off, be able to wait Merlin out…right up until the moment when Merlin keened, his voice strangled and hoarse, “Ngh, Arthur…Arthur!”

And just like that, Arthur was coming in his pants, completely untouched, wave after wave of white-hot ecstasy buffeting him as the soundtrack of Merlin pleasuring himself while thinking of Arthur filled his ears. He thanked the gods for small favors that his friend had been too far gone in his own bliss to notice.

It wasn’t until after Arthur's orgasm passed and he was able to hear over the roaring of his heartbeat again that Merlin finally reached his own peak...Arthur’s name tumbling from his lips like a prayer of deliverance.

Arthur did not sleep one wink for the rest of the night.

<><><>

Thinking of that night did absolutely nothing to cool the flames of desire waiting to consume Arthur now. Hoping his face wasn’t flushed, but knowing it probably was, he sat up straighter in his chair and nonchalantly dropped his feet to the floor. Tucking his legs under his desk, he was able to spread them open wider to ease the painful throbbing of his cock.

His movement caught Merlin’s attention. He raised one quizzical eyebrow in Arthur’s direction before glancing back down at his textbook, seemingly oblivious and unaffected. Of course, the subtle grind of Merlin’s hips against the couch a moment later gave the lie to his serene exterior.

Bugger it, how am I supposed to concentrate on studying when Merlin keeps doing things like that? Arthur glared as his Ancient History book like the entire predicament was its fault and set it aside. He plucked his French IV textbook off the stack and flipped to the most recent chapter, although Arthur felt fairly certain that not one word of the foreign language would sink into his lust-soaked brain.

After several minutes of staring at the same page without comprehending a word, Arthur sighed wearily and sat back, rubbing his thumb and fingers against either side of the bridge of his nose. Even a subject as dry as the weather patterns of France’s wine country did nothing to decrease the intensity of the ache between Arthur’s legs.

The rustle of a turning page drew Arthur’s eyes back toward the couch. Still reading from his Chemistry text, Merlin continued to indulge his penchant for biting and licking his lips. To Arthur’s extreme discomfort, though, he’d added another little quirk to his repertoire. Merlin trailed the long fingers of his free hand down the expanse of creamy, white skin at his neck, idly stroking himself over and over until it was time to turn the next page.

Arthur’s mouth fell open with a tiny choked sob as he watched those damn fingers stroking, stroking…

“That’s it!” Arthur growled, standing up so quickly that he sent his rolling chair careening into the wall behind him.

Startled by the outburst, Merlin dropped his book. It slid off his lap, clattered to the floor, and skittered away from him along the marble tiles. Merlin swallowed hard, his eyes growing wider and wider as Arthur stalked right up to the edge of the couch.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Arthur hissed through gritted teeth as he towered over his friend.

Merlin edged himself up into a sitting position. “Um, studying?” he squeaked.

Arthur grabbed a fistful of Merlin’s T shirt and yanked him to a stand, their bodies much too close…a hairsbreadth from touching. “Bullshit! As if I wouldn’t notice the way you keep licking your damned lips and stroking your fucking neck!” Arthur reached down between their bodies and cupped his hand firmly over the bulge in Merlin’s jeans.

“Or this? Did you think I wouldn’t see this?” Arthur squeezed his fingers around the rigid length for emphasis. Merlin gasped and bit back a groan. “I mean, you were just laying it all out there on display for me, weren’t you?”

Arthur slid his hand over Merlin’s cock, trailed it around his hip and then grabbed a handful of buttock, pulling Merlin’s hips into sudden and sharp contact with his own, letting him feel Arthur’s corresponding bulge against his thigh. “This is what you do to me, Merlin…what you’ve been doing to me for months…”

Merlin sucked in a shaky breath. “Arthur…” he whispered, closing his eyes and biting his bottom lip as if to savor the exquisite feeling of their bodies touching. 

You, Merlin Emrys,” Arthur declared vehemently, “are a bloody tease!” And then without warning, Arthur’s lips crashed down against Merlin’s fuller, lusher ones, as his other hand slid up Merlin’s chest to grasp him by the nape of the neck and hold him fast.

There was a second or two where Merlin did not react, as if he were stunned by Arthur’s boldness…but then he wrapped both of his arms around Arthur’s broad back like two iron bands, his fingers scrabbling for fistfuls of shirt in his eagerness to pull Arthur even closer. Merlin’s mouth went on the offensive, biting and sucking at Arthur’s lips until the prince felt he was about to go insane.

“Fuck!” Arthur moaned against the pressure of Merlin’s kiss. “You have no fucking idea how long I’ve wanted this…”

Merlin’s mouth slid along Arthur’s jaw and nipped at his ear. “Tell me…” he begged, soothing the area he’d bitten with his tongue.

Arthur shivered at the sensation of Merlin’s hot breath on his wet skin and in his ear. “Tell you what? How I’ve been wanking to the mere thought of you naked for what feels like forever?” Arthur licked a meandering trail down Merlin’s neck, and sucked on the spot just above his collarbone.

“Yesss,” Merlin hissed, tilting his head to the side to give Arthur better access to his sensitive skin. He yanked roughly at the hem of Arthur’s shirt, trying to untuck it from the back of his jeans.

Arthur’s fingers slid into Merlin’s shirt collar at the back, stroking softly at the alabaster skin just below the nape of his neck. “Or maybe about how every time you were wanking in the middle of the night, I was awake. Every single fucking time! Just lying there listening to you grunt and groan,” He rolled his hips forward, shoving against Merlin’s cock, forcing one such moan from him now, “hard as fuck and not being able to do a goddamned thing about it…”

Merlin issued a feral growl and renewed his attack on Arthur’s lips, one hand slipping underneath Arthur’s shirt to scratch his nails up Arthur’s spine.

A gasping groan tumbled from Arthur’s lips, his state of arousal ratcheting ever higher under Merlin’s assault. He needed more, more. Using his grip on Merlin’s neck and arse, Arthur suddenly turned them on the spot and slammed Merlin up against the wall. Arthur slotted a leg between both of Merlin’s and pressed his body against him from chest to knee.

As Merlin’s back hit the wall, a surprised “Oof!” was forced out of him…and then he went wild, grinding his cock wantonly against Arthur’s thigh. One hand tangled itself in Arthur’s sandy hair and roughly yanked his head down for more urgent snogging.

Arthur shoved his tongue into Merlin’s mouth, timing his strokes with the movement of his hips. His fingers teased along the patch of skin between Merlin’s shirt and jeans, dipping underneath the elastic waistband of his pants in a clear invitation.

“Shall I tell you how I can’t stop thinking about how I’d like to get my knot in you? Fuck you long, hard, and deep into the mattress, or the rug, or the wall? Or maybe all three. Fuck you over and over until we both run dry, until neither of us can move…” His hand glided suggestively along the curve of Merlin’s arse.

“Unf…Arthur!” Merlin panted, grasping at Arthur’s shoulders frantically, his hips jerking rhythmically into Arthur’s in response to that suggestion.

“Gods!” Arthur’s eyes rolled back in his head when Merlin sucked hard on his tongue, mimicking another act entirely, one that he’d fantasized incessantly about Merlin performing on him. Arthur had never been this aroused before in his life. His prick was weeping in his pants, practically begging for release.

Arthur suddenly felt as if every nerve ending was electrified…as if he were glowing. His heart pounded; his chest heaved. It was as if his every response was doubled, echoing back and forth between himself and Merlin, amplifying in larger and larger ripples until Arthur felt he would go mad with want.

He thrust hard against Merlin’s hip, leaning all of his weight against his friend, sliding one hand inside the back of Merlin’s pants, memorizing the feel of the soft skin of his arse… He was close, so fucking close…!

Arthur stumbled back a step as Merlin suddenly shoved hard against his chest, disentangling their limbs in the process. Confused, his brain hazy with lust, Arthur made to move back into Merlin’s arms, but Merlin pushed both of his hands against Arthur’s chest and held them there, forcibly keeping their bodies apart.

“Soul bond…” Merlin gasped, his eyes over-bright with the haze of unshed tears. “The magic…we’re too compatible.” His voice sounded tiny and defeated in the gaping chasm between them.

“Shit,” Arthur breathed, stumbling backward and landing heavily on the armrest of the couch, all the wind knocked out of him. Pain lanced through his chest as if he’d been stung by a hundred bees…as if a piece of himself had been ripped out. Reflexively, his hand slid up to cover his shattered heart.

<><><>

Arthur leaned heavily against the doorframe, one hand resting over the burning ache in his heart, the other cupped over the front of his trousers. He was rock hard and throbbing, yet his knees were weak and threatened to give out at any moment.

“Fuck...” Arthur panted heavily, his voice stricken. “Every time, happens every bloody time...”

Knowing from experience that it was futile to resist, Arthur gave in to the urges threatening to drown him. He pushed away from the wall, shut the study door behind him, and sat down in the vacant seat behind his desk.

Arthur settled into the cushioned chair comfortably and closed his eyes; his legs splayed out limply and his knees opened wide.

With one finger, Arthur drew a sensuous path along the length of his bottom lip. Gods, Merlin had such sinfully sexy lips! He could still feel the exquisite sensation of Merlin’s lush mouth plundering his own, could still feel Merlin’s teeth biting at him, his tongue stroking away the pain.

His cock jumped, and his knot grew, but Arthur ignored it for now. If he was really going to do this, then Arthur was going to take his time and do it right.

Next, he trailed his fingers along the left side of his jaw and down his neck, pressing on the spot at the junction of his neck and shoulder...the exact spot where Merlin had marked him on that ill-fated night. Sometimes he thought he could still feel a ghost of that bruise on him, as if it had never quite gone away.

Touch trickling down his chest, he scraped his fingernails against a peaked nipple through the fabric of his white buttondown. Arthur hissed as a jolt of electricity shot straight to his knot. Unable to hold back any longer, he palmed at the front of his trousers lightly with his other hand, groaning at even this light touch.

Arthur unbuckled his belt, and fumbled at the top button with a shaking hand. The rasp of the zip sounded unnaturally loud in the tiny room as he pushed the fabric out of the way of his questing hand. Bringing his other hand down, Arthur held the cotton of his boxers taut while he pulled his rigid cock through the slit, allowing the soft material to caress his heated flesh as it slid along it’s length. One more easy tug, and his knot popped through the straining hole, mimicking the action of breaching so closely that it drew a filthy moan from Arthur’s lips.

Pulling open the center drawer of his desk with his left hand, Arthur fumbled through pens, pencils, and erasers until he located a small tube. Wrapping his fingers around it, he retrieved the container, popping the cap open with his thumb. Holding his cock steady, he trailed a line of clear gel from root to tip and set the container aside.

Achingly slowly, Arthur wrapped the fingers of his right hand around his cock above the knot, running them up and down his length, twisting as they went, spreading the slick over the head and down again. His other hand encircled his knot, just barely squeezing.

Arthur’s head tipped back and lolled to the side, a groan tumbling from his slackened lips as he slammed his eyes shut. “Oh, Gods...”

As much as the memory of the sixteen year old Merlin he’d encountered in this room inflamed Arthur’s senses, that wasn’t what he was thinking of now.

No, what was currently playing against the backdrop of Arthur’s eyelids was a more recent memory from last summer, one that had played prominently in his fantasies ever since.

<><><>

It had been a beautiful day, not a cloud in the English sky, and it was blessedly warm. He was home for a short break from his Good Will tour commemorating his upcoming birthday. On a lark, he’d called Merlin, not expecting to reach his overly-busy friend. Happily, for once, he actually had. It turned out that Merlin was on a short holiday between cases at the Yard, and better yet, had no plans for the day.

A short trip later, and the two of them were lazing about the pool at Clarence House. Beers in hand, they caught up on what they’d each been doing in the last few months since they’d last seen each other. As the sun went from pleasantly warm to overbearingly hot, he and Merlin stripped down to just their swim trunks and moved to the shade.

It was the first time that Arthur had seen Merlin shirtless since their school days, and the differences were striking. While Merlin was still tall and lithe, time (and all the physical training his profession required) had filled in his figure handsomely. Where he had once been a bit on the scrawny side, Merlin’s torso, shoulders and upper arms were now sculpted and taut. Arthur couldn’t seem to take his eyes off of him.

At least the problem had appeared mutual. Several times when Arthur tried to sneak yet another peek at his gorgeous friend, their eyes had met, causing them to both look away and blush in embarrassment.

Finally, Merlin decided to take advantage of having a pool at his disposal and jumped in to swim some laps. Arthur’s eyes never left Merlin’s body as he moved, skimming the water with almost unearthly grace. His skin, while still light and smooth, carried more of a healthy glow than before. Arthur longed to run his tongue all over it to discover if it tasted as good as it looked.

When Merlin had finally tired of the exercise, he swam over to the side of the pool. Instead of getting out, he laid his arms on the pool deck with elbows bent and brought his chin to rest against his hands. The crooked smile Merlin levelled at Arthur went straight to the Prince’s cock, making him supremely glad that he was wearing baggy swim trunks.

Gods! The way the water had defied gravity and just clung to Merlin’s eyelashes mesmerized him.

“Having fun?” Arthur asked him, his voice distinctly more gravelly than it had been earlier in the day.

Merlin nodded happily, his chin digging into the backs of his hands, color suffusing his cheeks. “Yeah, this afternoon has been ace, Arthur. It’s been great seeing you again.”

“Yeah, it has,” Arthur admitted softly. “I’m glad you’re here.”

For a long moment, they just stared at each other until finally Arthur shook his head as if waking from a dream.

“You going to stay in there all day?” Arthur teased his friend with an evil grin. “You don’t want your bollocks to shrivel up and fall off, do you?”

Merlin’s eyes twinkled as he laughed out loud. “Arthur,” he replied dryly, “it’s a heated pool. I think my bollocks are safe.”

Arthur shrugged one shoulder. “All right, if you want to stay in there, suit yourself...” he said, his voice full of mock innocence, “but I think I’m going to go see what sinful confection Isabella has whipped up for today. What do you think.. perhaps a Raspberry Cheesecake? German Chocolate Cake? Or maybe a nice Amaretto Torte...” Arthur nodded encouragingly and licked his lips.

At the mention of the last item on the list, Merlin moaned lustily, and Arthur’s cock actually jumped in response. “Fuck...” his friend cursed, “why do you have to be such a damned tease? You’re a such prat, Arthur! That’s just not fair. You know Amaretto is my favorite, too...” Merlin’s voice was longing and breathless with want.

Arthur’s prick was now so damn hard he could barely think beyond the throbbing pleasure just out of reach. Trying to appear unaffected, he waggled his eyebrows suggestively in response. “I know...that’s why I might have mentioned to her you were coming for a visit...”

Merlin’s eyes widened comically as his mouth curled into an ear to ear grin. “You did!? I knew I kept you around for some reason, Pendragon...” He propelled himself along the wall with small flutter kicks until he reached the stairs.

Water sluiced off Merlin’s toned body as he stood and climbed the steps one by one. A sprinkling of dark hair clung to his muscular chest and abdomen, and his nipples were tight and rigid. They weren’t all that was rigid, either. As Merlin emerged onto the pool deck, the wet material of his swim trunks clung to him like a second skin, leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination. The built-in lining kept things from being embarrassingly obvious, but there was no question that Merlin was hard...maybe as hard as Arthur was! It seemed that Merlin’s chest and shoulders weren’t the only portions of his anatomy that were larger than Arthur remembered. His mouth went dry and he felt sure his jaw must have been hanging open like a village idiot.

Luckily for him, Merlin didn’t seem to notice. Erection or not, apparently it was his stomach that was in charge of his body right now. Merlin turned on his heel and half jogged toward the French Doors leading into the house, giving Arthur a spectacular view of his firm arse and muscular thighs in action. Arthur had to close his eyes against the sight just to keep from losing control right then and there.

After a second though, Merlin’s confused voice broke through the dark cocoon and shattered Arthur's attempts to calm himself. “Arthur? Are you coming?”

Almost... Arthur thought before forcing his eyes open again. Sucking in a shivery breath, Arthur called back, his voice deep and hoarse with suppressed desire, “You go ahead. I think I’ll swim a few laps first, if that’s all right with you.”

Merlin cocked his head to the side and narrowed his eyes for a moment, as if he couldn’t quite place the tone of Arthur’s voice...but then he just shrugged one shoulder and smiled. “Suit yourself,” he called back, “but don’t expect there to be any torte left when you deign to grace me with your Royal presence!”

The second Merlin was inside, Arthur sprang up from his seat on the chaise, and sprinted straight for the cabana house. He had his cock out and in hand before he’d even fully leaned his weight against the door to shut it. One hand squeezed tightly around his knot, the other hand stroked once, twice...and then Arthur was coming so hard that he fell bonelessly to his knees. Stars clouded his vision as he coated his own stomach with streak after streak of spunk.

It was twenty minutes before Arthur could remember how to move...

<><><>

Arthur's mind's eye darted around the memory of that day. Images of Merlin's tight, toned, deliciously trim body rose up and teased his senses. He could see the firm, rigid length of Merlin's cock, trapped against the crease of his thigh by the taut fabric of his swim trunks. He could hear the way Merlin had moaned at the thought of his favourite dessert, the sounds now transformed into lusty longing for Arthur's touch...

As Arthur stroked himself, he imagined his fingers running along that satiny smooth skin, tasting the junction of Merlin’s throat and shoulder, biting to leave a mark. He’d skim his fingers through the sprinkling of dark hair on Merlin’s chest and tweak his taut nipples, drawing a groaning gasp from those so-sexy-they-should- be-illegal lips.

Arthur imagined pulling a very aroused and very naked adult Merlin onto his lap, kissing that sinful mouth while he teased at the furl of puckered skin behind Merlin’s balls...tracing around and around the rim, making Merlin so wild he would rut his hard cock against Arthur’s stomach in response.

Arthur would tease one slick finger inside...then two, pressing against the spot that was sure to drive Merlin insane with pleasure. Arthur moaned, squeezing the head of his cock before stripping its length at an increasingly fast pace.

“Fuck me, Arthur...please fuck me...” Merlin would beg, desperate for Arthur’s prick, desperate to be filled by him...and Arthur would oblige. Arthur tightened his grip around his cock and squeezed as he slid his length through his hand, slow and deliberate, envisioning the hot clench of Merlin’s arse.

His imagination running rampant, Arthur could almost feel the weight of Merlin in his lap, arms wrapped around Arthur's back, his thighs trapping Arthur’s own as he pressed down against the knot at his rim. “Come on, do it, Arthur...shove it in! Tie me, damn you!” Merlin’s wrecked voice would moan in his ear, and Arthur would press up, up...

Arthur clenched his other hand tightly around his knot. He imagined finally pushing it inside of Merlin...finally being able to finish what they’d started so long ago... And then, Arthur was coming, hot and pulsing, all over his chest and hands. Merlin’s name was torn from his lips again and again until he finally slumped into a wordless post-coital haze.

<><><>

Once Arthur had recovered enough body function to stand, he left the study, firmly closing the door behind him. After another trip to the loo to clean up, Arthur cast off his formal black trousers and crisp white shirt in favor of plaid pyjama bottoms and a soft cotton T-shirt.

His second attempt at reaching the servant’s kitchen was much more successful than the first; he managed it without running into anybody, which was the way he preferred it. He knew his way around well enough by now to quickly locate his preferred tea, fill the kettle, and turn on the stove.

After grabbing his favourite mug and stuffing the infuser with tea, Arthur leaned his hip against the counter, eyes on the slowly warming kettle, his mind elsewhere.

<><><>

At first, Arthur believed that things would get easier once he and Merlin were no longer sharing the same living space. He thought that both the emotional heartbreak and the very real, physical aching in his chest--the nagging pinprick over his heart--would dissipate once they were attending different universities. 

How wrong he was. 

When Arthur first arrived at Oxford, he was inundated with female attention. Unsure whether his attraction to Merlin had been more about the person than his actual gender, Arthur decided there was no harm in giving heterosexual dating a try. 

While studying for his A levels there, Arthur dated a number of eligible witches. He’d kissed them all and gone further with more than a few; but after his near miss with Merlin, he was always scrupulously careful to never, ever get near the point of orgasm himself while in their presence. He saved that for the privacy of his own chambers.

By the time he began his university level courses two years later, however, it was apparent to Arthur that his interests definitely lay with the male gender. While touching and being touched by women had been pleasurable in its own way, Arthur had certainly never felt that sharp spark of arousal with any of them like he’d found in Merlin’s arms.

Unlike Arthur’s foray into the world of heterosexuality, he was much more cautious and subdued as he explored his more natural inclination toward men. Arthur worked carefully to shed the playboy image he’d unwittingly cultivated and instead chose his male partners with much more discretion and care. 

Over the course of his Uni years, Arthur had been in a couple of actual relationships, but they hadn’t lasted long term. He wasn’t sure why that was, but there was always something…missing; some depth of passion or emotion that was sadly lacking and held Arthur back from being able to commit.

Arthur had never been able to tell if the problem lay with his choice of partners or if the deficiency was within himself…that was, until the night of his graduation party.

<><><>

“His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales…”

Arthur, with palms just as sweaty as any of his classmates, walked across the stage to shake hands with the Dean of Schools, and receive his diploma with honors from Oxford University. He knew he was supposed to act regal and unruffled, but Arthur just couldn’t keep the mad grin of accomplishment off his face.

After the ceremony, Arthur and Morgana stood chatting in a private, cordoned off area designated for the Royal Family. The King was off to the side, speaking to a couple of foreign dignitaries that had attended the graduation.

From behind him, Arthur heard Leon’s voice say with amusement, “Look what the proverbial cat dragged in, Your Highness.”

As Arthur turned, his eyes widened. It was Merlin, dressed in what was undoubtedly his best suit, ambling toward him behind Leon, the head of his personal guard. A pleased grin stretched his mouth wide as he stuck out a hand toward his best friend.

“Merlin!” Arthur exclaimed excitedly, yanking the proffered hand and drawing Merlin into a hug instead. “I can’t believe you made it…”

Merlin actually blushed for a moment. “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world, Arthur,” he admitted softly.

Arthur cocked one knowing eyebrow at his friend. “I thought it was finals week at Cambridge…”

Pursing his lips to hold back a smile, Merlin admitted, “Oh, it is.”

“Then how did you…?”

Merlin shrugged one shoulder, trying to look nonchalant. “I rescheduled my exams.”

Even Morgana turned to look at Merlin at that news. “How did you convince the Dean at Cambridge to let you do that?” she asked, her arms crossed indignantly across her chest as if she didn’t believe Merlin.

“Oh,” Merlin grinned cheekily at her, “that was easy. I might have mentioned to the Dean that my best friend the Prince of Wales was graduating today and that he would be rather disappointed were I not to attend.”

Arthur spluttered with laughter. Leave it to Merlin to think up such ridiculousness. “And that worked, no doubt.”

“Like a charm,” Merlin agreed with a chuckle.

“Do you drop my name around when picking up girls, too?” Arthur teased him with a grin, even though deep down the thought of Merlin with anyone else was painful.

Merlin rolled his eyes and scoffed. “Girls aren’t exactly my style, Arthur…remember?”

Yes, Arthur thought wryly, I sure as hell do remember…

“And the thought that I’d use our friendship in order to pull…” Merlin tsked and shook his finger at Arthur before placing a hand over his heart. “I’m insulted! Besides, trust me when I say that I did not have the time to worry about things like getting shagged. I was way too busy with my coursework for that.” 

Merlin's innocent comment instantly brought to mind the night of their aborted lovemaking in his study. Their eyes connected for a long moment before Arthur looked away self-consciously, the pinprick over his heart throbbing painfully. Clearing his throat, he asked hesitantly, “So, um… do you want to…come to my graduation party?”

Merlin’s eyes widened, and his gaze strayed to the King before connecting with Arthur’s again. Nodding his chin toward King Uther, Merlin breathed, “Is that allowed?”

“It is if I say it is,” Arthur insisted with more bravado than he felt. “Besides, it’s just a little party back at the Shack.”

Merlin shoved at Arthur’s shoulder and asked drolly, “So who’s all invited to this shindig of yours?”

“Oh you know,” Arthur waved his hand and spoke airily, “A few close family members and friends, foreign dignitaries from 7 or 8 different countries…and probably every debutante witch or warlock in the kingdom. I think that’s all. So, come and save me from all the nonsense, would you? Please?”

Merlin clapped a friendly hand to Arthur’s shoulder in sympathy. “Yeah. Of course I’ll come.”

<><><>

Five hours later, when Merlin finally took his leave of the party, begging off so he could study for his finals, Arthur had his answer to the question that had been plaguing him for years: the problem with his relationships with other men definitely stemmed from the feelings he still harbored for his best friend.

That night, Arthur and Merlin had done nothing all evening but sit off to the side of the main ballroom and chat. Arthur usually loathed being the center of attention to so many of his magic-wielding peers. He hated being dangled in front of them like a piece of meat for them to fight over.  Even so, with Merlin there, he felt so comfortable, wanted, and at home that nothing else had seemed to matter. It was as if none of the rest of them existed; the only person he could see was Merlin.  And now that Merlin had left, Arthur felt bereft...like the sun had set in the middle of the day.

Arthur had felt more in his heart and soul from one completely platonic evening with Merlin than he’d ever felt with anyone else romantically. This realisation did nothing to calm Arthur's already fraying nerves now that the rest of the night loomed uncomfortably large in front of him.

Great. Just fucking great! Arthur thought dismally, reaching for a wine glass off of a passing waiter’s tray and downing it in one go. The one fucking person I fall in love with, the only person I’ve met that know I could bond to...and I can’t even have him!

Disregarding the glare that his father gave him at his unprincely behaviour, Arthur grabbed a drink from another tray and downed it in one, too.

An hour and seven additional cocktails later, Arthur was pissed off his arse and didn’t give a fuck that he was starting to make a scene: talking too loud, laughing too hard, and doing more stumbing about than walking.

Finally, after Arthur had openly ridiculed the (admittedly rather ludicrous) formal hat of the Prime Minister’s wife, Uther intervened. Stepping up to the small group of hopeful witches and warlocks who had formed a tight circle around the inebriated Prince like feeding jackals, the King grasped onto Arthur’s upper arm with an iron grip and dragged him a few feet away.

Hissing at his son through teeth clenched into a tense smile, Uther ordered, “Make your apologies; you are done for tonight.”

Arthur tried to yank his arm away from the King, overbalanced himself and ended up using Uther’s shoulder to keep from falling over. “I don’t want to leave, Father...” he slurred with an idiotic grin, “party’s just getting started!” Waving a hand vaguely in the direction of the groupies, he confided too loudly, “See? I’m popil...p...popular!” Arthur smiled proudly at having gotten the word out so clearly.

Uther’s mouth pursed into a tense pucker as he slowly and regally walked toward the exit, his head held high as he dragged his son from the room by the arm. Arthur had no choice but to trip along in his wake, although he didn’t go quietly. Instead, he protested vehemently that he was old enough to do what he pleased, damn it, and if he wanted to get drunk then he damn well was going to and no one could stop him.

His father didn’t say another word until they’d reached Arthur’s private apartments. Slamming the door closed behind them, Uther shoved his son away from him roughtly as if he was disgusted by him. Arthur stumbled drunkenly but miraculously kept his feet. “What the hell is wrong with you, Arthur? You know better. This is no way for the Prince of Wales to behave!” he hissed.

Arthur pointed an accusatory finger back at his father and bellowed, his voice slurring, “Yeah? Well maybe I don’t want to be the fucking Prince of fucking Wales! Go find yourself another...” Arthur paused in his diatribe only to hiccough, “...effing Prince if you’re so damned embarrassed by me!”

Uther would normally have lit into Arthur with Hell’s own fire after a display like that. In fact, he would have, if it hadn't been for one thing: his son was crying, and Arthur never cried. Instantly, Uther realized that something was very, very wrong. So instead of ranting, he carefully pushed Arthur down onto the sofa behind him, and sat down next to his son with a steadying hand at Arthur's elbow. “What’s happened, Arthur? This isn’t like you.”

Swiping angrily at the wetness on his cheeks, Arthur insisted, “You wouldn’t understand, Father.”

Turning Arthur’s face by his chin, he stared into his son’s watery eyes and sighed. “You won’t know that unless you try.”

Arthur looked down at his own hands, twisting around and around in his lap and sighed deeply. “I’m in love,” he whispered miserably at last.

Uther’s brows drew together in confusion. “And how is this a problem? Is he or she non-magical?”

“No...they are,” Arthur admitted. “He is. Magical, I mean.”

“I do not understand, then. Do you not feel you could bond with them...him?” Uther corrected himself.

Arthur’s laugh was clipped and bitter. “No...that would definitely not be a problem.”

“Then what, Arthur?” Uther prompted gently. “What is so terrible that you would do this to yourself, that you would punish yourself in this way?”

“It’s Merlin, all right? I’m in love with my bloody best friend! In fact, I’m so in love with him that I’ve been ruined for anyone else. There! Are you happy now?” Arthur wailed, burying his face in his hands with mortification of what he'd admitted aloud.

Momentarily stunned, Uther fought to process this surprising revelation before he raised a tentative hand to rub soothing circles onto Arthur’s back.

“I will admit that this surprises me, but why is it such a problem? Your choice seems to make a fair amount of sense.”

“Because I can’t have him! All he’s ever wanted was to follow in his father’s footsteps and be a Detective Inspector Warlock. If I truly love him, then how can I ask him to give that up? Because he certainly couldn’t be my consort and do that...” Arthur scrubbed at his face with his palms dejectedly.

“Oh, Arthur...” Uther soothed, bringing Arthur’s head down so it was tucked against the King’s neck, “I know you feel  like this is it, that Merlin is the only one there'll ever be...but things will get better. You’ll see. Before long, you’ll find someone new and everything will work out fine.”

Arthur’s hand pushed against the throbbing pain over his heart. Obviously whomever coined the phrase, "Time heals all wounds," knew nothing about fledgling soul bonds. Depressed, miserable, and so, so weary, Arthur wrapped both arms around his usually stoic father, stuffed his head into the King’s neck, and cried himself to sleep. 

<><><>

The whistling of the teapot drew Arthur from his reverie. Swiping the moisture from his eyes, Arthur poured the water into his cup and carried it over to the table, setting it down before lowering himself, bone-weary, into a chair.

Letting the tea steep, Arthur instead fished his mobile out of his pocket and set it in front of him on the table. Idly, he spun it around in a circle with his finger, wanting so badly to call Merlin, no matter how selfish that made him.

But he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. Arthur loved Merlin so much that he was willing to let him go so that he could be happy. What ended up happening to Arthur as a result was the Prince’s problem, and his alone. He couldn’t drag Merlin back into this...not again. 

<><><>

That night, they’d sat at this very table and discussed their future. Blue-balled and heartsick, they faced burdens much too overwhelming, and consequences too far-reaching for two teenaged boys to even begin to fathom, let alone make sense of.

“This is all my fault,” Arthur mumbled, rubbing the heels of his palms into his eye sockets.

“Your fault!” Merlin’s incredulous voice gasped. “How d’you figure that? It was my bloody magic trying to bond with you, Arthur…”

At the very mention of it, the pain from Arthur’s half-formed soul bond grew exponentially. Instead of throbbing like a rather brutal paper cut, it stung like an open wound with salt poured in and scrubbed with sandpaper. Each and every heartbeat was agony.

“Yeah, but if I wasn’t the Prince of fucking Wales, it wouldn’t have been trying to bond with me at all, now would it?” Arthur leaned his chin in both hands and stared at the wood grain of the table between them, unable to meet Merlin’s eyes.

This had been more than just a horny fumble between boys’ school classmates to Arthur. It meant way fucking more to him than that.

Even now, even knowing what the consequences of his actions would be, Arthur could barely keep himself in check. It made no difference that they were both only sixteen years old, and hadn’t even completed secondary school yet. That Merlin was a commoner, his best friend, and rather inconveniently male didn’t matter. That giving in to a soul bond now would probably cause a scandal of epic proportions for the British monarchy was hardly a trifle.

Arthur still desperately wanted to stretch Merlin out on his bed, pin his beautifully lithe body under him, and feel every last bit of him pressed wantonly against Arthur like he had done against the study wall. He wanted to strip Merlin bare and kiss every square centimetre of that fucking alabaster skin. He wanted to suck Merlin’s cock, lick it and feast on it until Merlin came down his throat in hot, salty spurts screaming Arthur’s name. And—more than anything—he wanted to stick his knot inside Merlin’s pert little arse; he wanted to shag Merlin so hard, and tie him so long that when they were done, they’d be so blissed out that neither of them could even remember their own names.

But as much as touching and being touched by Merlin had been hotter than anything else Arthur had ever experienced in his life, he knew it hadn’t just been about the sex.

Like a lightning bolt, it struck him: He loved Merlin. No, it was more than that; Arthur was in love  with Merlin…and perhaps always had been.

Of course. Of course he was. How could he have not seen it before?

Being with Merlin had always felt so natural, so right. Their connection was effortless and so, so real in comparison to everything else in Arthur’s life. It was like they were two halves of a whole, meshing together seamlessly: a perfect match.

Arthur had never felt more alive or more vibrant than he had in those moments he’d spent in Merlin’s embrace. He’d finally found a place where he belonged…and for just one moment in time, he’d been home.

He craved the overwhelming sense of completeness he’d felt in his best friend’s arms. He yearned for the ecstatic swirl of Merlin’s magic inside of him, surrounding every part of him: his heart, his body, his mind, his soul. He wanted to be bound by him, bound to him for the rest of their lives, the rest of the world be damned.

Or in other words, Arthur wanted all the things he could not have; not now, and perhaps not ever.

Blinking back tears of frustration and despair, Arthur gripped the hair above his ears and tugged hard, trying to cement his hands in place…to keep them from reaching out for Merlin. It was a struggle not to just forcibly yank the other boy across the table in order to pull him back into Arthur’s arms where he belonged.

Because, like it or not, Arthur’s life was not truly his own. He was the Crown Prince of the United Kingdom. For all his wealth and privilege, Arthur was still, in essence, just a servant to his people. He had to shoulder the mantle of the entire nation’s expectations. What was expected of Arthur was that he would graduate from Eton, move on to Oxford, then to Sandhurst, followed by a few years of distinguished military service.

Once he had completed all of those tasks, perhaps then he might be allowed some personal happiness. But that was a long way away...and right then, with his life’s happiness sitting right in front of him, it felt like a lifetime.

More important than the duty to the country, Arthur felt he had an obligation to Merlin. Merlin was both his best friend and the person he loved most in this world. And for as long as he’d known him, Arthur had known about his friend’s lifetime ambition. It was Merlin’s dream to become a Detective Inspector Warlock, and perhaps someday rise to the height of Assistant Commissioner, like his father before him.

However, there was no way Merlin could achieve his goal if he became Arthur’s soul-bonded consort. The notoriety that went with the title would immediately and forever thrust Merlin into the public spotlight, something that was definitely at cross purposes with a career in undercover detective work.

Arthur could not bear the thought of Merlin not having what he wanted out of life. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself if Merlin gave up that dream just to be his.

So, even though Arthur hated this and a part of him wanted to die for even thinking them, Arthur said the words that needed to be said. They felt like ash in his mouth.

“I’m…not ready for a bond yet.” Arthur reached out and clutched Merlin’s hand like a lifeline, wishing somehow that his eyes and his touch could convey all the things that he couldn’t let his words say, You are precious. You are cherished. You are loved. 

“Even though I know it has to happen someday.” Wait for me; please, wait for me.

“With someone,” Merlin agreed, his eyes not on Arthur, but on the wall behind him. His voice was hoarse, and sounded as desolate as Arthur felt. “But not me.” Merlin carefully extracted his hand from Arthur’s.

Arthur closed his eyes against the agony that lanced through him. Merlin didn’t love him back. At least, not in the way Arthur loved him; he had just as much admitted it.

Resigned to his fate, Arthur blinked back the tears that threatened to fall. Having someone as special as Merlin love him enough to be willing to wait years for him was a tall order, indeed.

Well, Arthur might not ever have Merlin’s love, but he refused to give up the comfort of his friendship if he could help it. Swallowing around the despair he felt, he tried for a smile that felt horribly forced, “I’m to be the king. And you’re going to be a brilliant Detective Inspector Warlock.”

At least that part was true. Merlin would make an incredible DIW. With his intelligence and frankly impressive skill with magic, he’d be a natural. Arthur took a certain amount of comfort in the fact that his sacrifice would give Merlin a chance at the life he’d always wanted. It would have to be enough.

“You’ll find someone,” Merlin said softly, sliding his hand back across the table to grasp Arthur’s chilled fingers. “Everyone loves you.”

No, Arthur thought sadly, everyone loves the Prince of Wales. You’re the only one who ever loved me for me, Merlin.

“Of course they do.” A nerve jumped in Arthur’s jaw. He couldn’t meet Merlin’s eyes and instead stared just past his best friend’s shoulder. “Dunno that I’ll find anyone like you, though.”

“Of course you will,” Merlin insisted, giving Arthur’s fingers another squeeze, although Arthur noticed that Merlin didn’t meet his eyes.

“But if you don’t…” Merlin stammered breathily. “I mean, at least we know I would work, yeah? Magically speaking…”

Merlin’s voice took on a fierce yearning quality that had Arthur’s eyes snapping back to his best friend’s face, trying to confirm whether what he thought he was hearing was real.

Could it be? Arthur wondered, wanting desperately to believe perhaps he’d misinterpreted Merlin’s response after all. “Yes,” he replied carefully, “If I don’t. And if you don’t.”

Arthur’s heart lurched painfully at the thought that perhaps Merlin would find someone else, someone he could love without having to give up everything else he held dear. After all, Merlin was pretty damned special. Surely someone else was bound to see that?

Merlin nodded solemnly. “If we don’t, then you’ll always have me.”

Arthur found his first smile since starting this conversation. “Is that a promise, then?” He turned his fingers in Merlin’s grasp until it was as if they were shaking hands, and then clasped his other hand around the back side of Merlin’s hand. “If there’s no one else in the picture when we’re thirty, we’ll come back and finish this.”

“It’s not as if I’d let you die…” Merlin mumbled, his cheeks flaming as he retrieved his hand from Arthur’s. He’d said it as if Arthur had forced him to admit something acutely embarrassing.

The very disgruntled nature of Merlin’s response drew a startled laugh from Arthur. He felt a sudden urge to kiss those sad, pouty lips…so he did, leaning across the table to place a soft peck at the corner of Merlin’s mouth. The heady force of Merlin’s magic sparked into him for a moment, making Arthur’s lips tingle, and the pain of the aborted soul bond throb against his ribcage.

Then it subsided, making Arthur feel distinctly empty inside, like he was missing half of himself.

Now, almost fifteen years later, Arthur still felt that same hollow ache and wondered if Merlin felt it, too.

<><><> 

“I figured you’d be here…”

“Morgana,” Arthur exclaimed, startled by his half-sister’s presence in the servant's kitchen at this late hour. “Couldn’t sleep?”

“No,” she admitted with a shrug. Then she nodded toward the kettle on the stove. “Is there any hot water left?”

“I think so.”

Morgana padded across the marble-tiled floor, her immaculately pedicured bare feet peeking out from under her flowing silk nightgown as she walked. Grabbing a clean overturned mug from the counter, she opened a jar and scooped a spoonful of Earl Grey into an infuser before placing it in the cup and pouring the hot water over it.

She stood with her back to the room for a long moment, warming her hands on the side of her cup. Then she walked back to where Arthur sat, still as a statue.

A silence found in the Palace only during the early morning hours hung in the air. “May I?” she finally asked, indicating a chair across the small table from him. Arthur quirked his mouth up in a soft smile and nodded once in assent.

Setting her mug on the table, Morgana scuffed out a chair and folded herself into it, pulling her ivory-swathed knees up against her chest and digging her heels in against the edge of the seat.

“Why aren’t you sleeping? You look absolutely exhausted, Arthur,” Morgana asked gently.

Arthur’s response was a shrug of one weary shoulder, and a fist-rub against the spot prickling above his heart.

Morgana’s gaze honed in on the movement, and while her eyes narrowed shrewdly, she said nothing about it. Another long but strangely companionable silence stretched out between them.

“Arthur?” Morgana’s voice was soft, and earnest, and totally devoid of her usual sarcastic wit.

Arthur’s bloodshot eyes met her bright green ones. “Yes?”

“You…won’t really let them do it…will you?” She fidgeted with the hemline of her nightgown, twirling and untwirling it around one slender finger.

Arthur’s eyebrows scrunched together in confusion, lining his forehead with creases. “I won’t let who do what?

“Father…and Morgause. They want to marry me off to you,” Morgana admitted miserably, sotto-voce.

That caught Arthur’s attention. “Wait…what!?” he spluttered indignantly. “When did they decide that? And how come no one told me?

The snarky air returned to Morgana’s voice as she replied, “Well, Arthur, I think that since we’re several months past your thirtieth birthday and you still haven’t chosen a mate…they figured someone had to do something…” She reached a hand across the table and gently rubbed at the dark circles under Arthur’s eyes with her thumb. “There isn’t much time left. You know that, even if you haven’t admitted it to yourself.”

Arthur nodded his head, and sighed. “Don’t worry, Morgana; it will never come to that. I promise.”

Morgana looked distinctly relieved. “You know, Father just doesn’t want to lose you, and you won’t even talk to him about it. He doesn’t know what else to do. At this point, he’s desperate enough to try anything. And Morgause was going on about how our union would ‘heal the rift in the Pendragon line’…” Morgana’s fingers punctuated the quote. “Or some such rubbish.”

Both Arthur and Morgana snorted in unison at the pure pomposity contained in that statement. Not that it was a surprise; Lady Morgause seemed to thrive on stuff like that.

“She…does think I have what it takes to be a High Priestess, though,” Morgana admitted quietly. A delicate flush tinted her cheeks, giving away her interest in the prospect.

Arthur raised one appraising eyebrow at his half-sister. “Yeah. I could see that,” he said finally, pride and encouragement warming his tone.

“Morgause is actually creating a dossier of potential mates for you that she culled from that stupidly humiliating nationwide search of magic users she conducted. Just in case you refused me…” Morgana continued airily, as if they were simply discussing the weather. However, Arthur wasn’t fooled. Morgana had a point—she always did—and he could tell that she was rapidly coming to it.

“Of course, they don’t realize that everything they’re doing is pointless. The problem isn’t that you haven’t chosen a mate. You have; you chose him years ago.”

Arthur’s mouth opened, but Morgana cut him off before he could voice the denial on the tip of his tongue.

Pointing a scolding finger at him, she retorted, “And don’t you even try to deny it, Arthur Pendragon! You know exactly who and what you want and anyone with goddamned eyes can see it! You’ve been pining after Merlin for half of your bloody life, for Gods’ sake!”

Hearing Merlin’s name aloud made Arthur’s breath catch in his chest as his heart throbbed painfully from the ever-present pain of the aborted soul bond. Its ache was nearly overwhelming.

Morgana glared at Arthur, eyes flashing with annoyance, as if daring him to argue. He didn’t. How could he, when he was sure the heartsick look on his face gave him away?

With a satisfied nod, she continued, “No, the problem is that you’re a stubborn, idiotic git with a complete lack of self-preservation skills! The problem is that you won’t call to ask him…

Morgana gave Arthur’s mobile a meaningful shove in his direction.

Arthur stared down at it, agonized.

“I..can’t,” he admitted, and those two little words felt as if they’d flayed the pinprick in his heart wide open.

Morgana placed a comforting hand over both of Arthur’s. “Why can’t you?”

His deepest fear burst from Arthur’s lips before he could stop it. “Because he doesn’t want me!

Morgana cocked her head to the side in contemplation of this admission. “How do you know that?”

“Because…it was my thirtieth birthday, and he didn’t say anything! Not one bloody damned word about the promise we’d made.”

“Maybe he was waiting for you to say something,” Morgana encouraged, her fingers stroking soothing patterns on the back of Arthur’s hand.

“I mean, I know why he couldn’t be there…for my birthday.” Arthur realized he was babbling, but couldn’t seem to stop now that he had an outlet. “He was on a case. Undercover. I knew that. But when we talked on the phone…”

Arthur twisted his signet ring around and around on his pinky finger, and bowed his head, allowing his blond fringe to block Morgana’s view of his cheeks that were flaming in mortification. “…I thought he’d say something. At least ask about it. But he didn’t. Maybe he doesn’t remember. Oh Gods, the most important moment of my life, and he doesn’t even bloody remember!”

Morgana reached across the table with her other hand and grasped both of Arthur’s wrists, trying to soothe and steady him. “Calm down, Arthur. Gods know your body can’t take the stress right now. I also think you’re overreacting. I think the probability of Merlin actually having forgotten about the promise he made to you is slim to none. That’s not the kind of man he is.”

Arthur nodded, conceding that point to Morgana. Still, no matter the reason, the fact that the topic was never even broached--then or in the time since--hurt.

“Even so, if he wanted to be with me, he’s had seven months since then to say something.”

“Arthur, you’re not being fair…”

“You’re right; I’m not. It’s not fair of me to ask Merlin to give up his dream for me, Morgana. Following in Balinor’s footsteps has always meant the world to Merlin. And he’s well on his way to realizing that dream. It’s nothing less than what he deserves. He’s worked hard to get where he is, and he’s bloody good at it.”

Arthur buried his fingers into his hair, grasping fistful of gold in both hands and tugging with frustration. “How can I ask him to give all that up? And all because I can’t get over some schoolboy crush I’ve had for the last fifteen years...”

“It’s more than a crush, Arthur, and you know it. You’re in love with him.”

“I know,” Arthur whispered miserably.

Morgana rose from the chair and rounded the table. She leaned down behind him, wrapping her arms loosely about his shoulders and resting her chin on the crown of Arthur’s head. “You’re his best friend, and he knows damn well that the Albion Pact is real. Do you really think Merlin would place his career before your life?

“No,” Arthur reluctantly admitted. “No, I know he wouldn’t. If I asked him, he would give up his dream for me. For the sake of my life, he would.”

“Then what’s the problem?" 

Desperation oozed from every word. “The problem is that I don’t want that to be the reason he says yes! I don’t want to guilt him into it. He’d be giving up everything for me. He’d have to bear my bloody children for Gods’ sake! What could I possibly give him in return for all of that?”

“You mean besides being Consort to the next King? Having access to untold riches? Travelling the world? Being famous?” Morgana teased with a smirk.

Arthur’s expression darkened. “Don’t do that, Morgana. Don’t joke like that. Merlin’s never cared about any of that stuff; you know he hasn’t!”

“Yes, I do know that,” Morgana admitted gently. “That’s what makes him the perfect choice. He doesn’t care about the money or the jewels or the prestige; all he cares about is you. That’s ultimately what you have to offer him, Arthur: yourself.”

“That can’t possibly be a fair trade!” Arthur protested. “I mean…look at me!” he spluttered and gestured to his rather emaciated self.

“Don’t sell yourself short, brother dear. Sure, you can be an enormous prat, and you do rather tend to be an insufferable know-it-all, and you’re kind of emotionally constipated…” Morgana spluttered to a chuckling halt at the absolutely black glare Arthur gave her. She leaned forward to peck a consolatory kiss against his wan cheek. “But other than that, you’re pretty amazing.”

She picked up Arthur’s mobile from the table, turned his hand by the wrist, and deposited it into his open palm.

Morgana straightened up, patted his shoulder, and smiled fondly. “Why don’t you let Merlin decide what’s fair? I have a feeling you might be surprised.”

She trailed her fingers along Arthur’s shoulder as she slipped by him to tuck her chair back under the table. Morgana paused and leaned both her hands onto its top rail. “Personally, I think you two will be brilliant together. Call him,” she urged.

With a flip of her sable curls, Morgana turned and padded toward the kitchen door. “G’night, Arthur…” she said as she walked round the corner of the doorway in a final swish of ivory silk, leaving her tea untouched on the table.

He stared after Morgana for several moments, lost in thought, before turning his contemplative gaze on his mobile. She was right, he knew. It wasn’t his place to decide what was best for Merlin; only Merlin could do that.

Whether it was a weakness or not, Arthur was man enough to admit that there was no one else in the world for him. Never had been. Never would be. Arthur felt it to the marrow of his bones. He belonged to Merlin, just as Merlin belonged to him.

Merlin’s presence in his life had changed him, had made him a better man. He needed a partner like that. He needed a helpmate who pushed and challenged him, who was not afraid to take him to task when he was being an idiot, and not ashamed to praise him when he’d earned it. He needed a lover who saw not the Prince of Wales, but the very flawed man behind the crown...and still valued him in spite of, or perhaps because of those flaws. He needed the other half of his soul. He needed Merlin. Arthur literally could not envision a future without his best friend by his side.

And so, before he could talk himself out of it, Arthur flipped open the lid of his mobile and pushed Merlin’s speed dial. It rang straight through to his voicemail, which wasn’t surprising when Merlin was on a case.

“Hey, sorry you missed me.” Hearing Merlin’s warm, friendly voice at the other end of the line literally made Arthur’s toes curl with the pleasure of it. “Leave me a message and I’ll get back to you just as soon as I can.”

There was a moment’s pause, and then a short beep.

Arthur’s heart thundered in his ears so loudly that he could barely hear his own words as he left the message that he instinctively knew would change his life forever.

“Merlin. It’s me. You know why I’m calling.” 

 <><><>