Up to the very last moment he managed to stay calm. Even when he couldn't stay still any more, even when his body started convulsing all by itself, struggling against the plastic restraints, even when the pain in his chest surpassed his capacity to bear. As everything was slowly going black and the roaring in his ears got so loud it was almost like perfect silence, he still remembered that it was all going to be over soon, he just had to get through this.
When water finally rushed into his lungs he knew he was dying. Twenty two years of his past collapsed into one bright spot behind his eyes, and the future was blank, all over, nothing.
At that moment he definitely would've used magic, if he could.
He was almost done throwing up by the time he fully realised that he was conscious again. His father's face floated up into his foggy view, white, barely recognisable.
"Are you satisfied now?" Father said. "My son is normal."
"Uther, the evidence is damning," the Chief Crown Prosecutor's voice seemed to come from very far away. Arthur raised his unshackled hands, fighting the burn in his weirdly tired muscles, and rubbed at his ears to dislodge water. "You know these tests can only prove guilt, not innocence. He might still be holding back."
"Every single one of them does magic when pressed hard enough. Arthur is normal."
"Maybe we haven't pressed hard enough yet."
When Father started yelling Arthur tuned them out and concentrated on the pleasure of breathing. Every inhale hurt like swallowing a wad of sandpaper, but it still felt dizzyingly sweet, just breathing, freely, as deeply as he could without making his raw throat seize up.
"All right, I'm ready to continue," he said as soon as he was sure of his voice. Fear coiled low in his belly, present but contained, perfectly under control. "If I can't prove my innocence we'll keep doing this till we have reasonable doubt. Drowning again, or shall we try something else?"
The room went quiet. Everyone was staring at him: the CCP, the guards, the medic, the guys in grey suits, whoever they were. Father's hand squeezed his shoulder, pleasantly warm against the wet splashes there.
"No," one of the grey guys finally said. "If he's a warlock he clearly believes we can't crack him. This won't work."
"Reasonable doubt," sighed the CCP. "Uther, we owe you this much – we'll keep the investigation open. We'll double-check everything. But we have to... Arthur, we'll have to detain you. Just until we find the real killer, if you really were framed. We'll have to put you in the Facility."
"Arcane Asylum welcomes you, our little prince," said Muirden, bowing deeply. He was wearing a ratty labcoat over his orange uniform and a stethoscope around his neck, possibly salvaged from one of the abandoned doctor's offices. Couple dozen inmates were flanking him, grinning and chuckling, giddy like kids about to open Christmas presents.
"We've all been looking forward," Muirden steepled his fingers, shook his head and sighed blissfully, "Oh, for such a long time we've been looking forward to having a Pendragon."
Arthur had expected to be recognised, probably quite quickly. He didn't know they'd already be waiting, even before he went in, or that they'd be leering at him like that with his father right here, watching.
"I'll expect to see him here, in the courtyard, every day, when I bring your food," Uther said. "If he's not here to talk to me I'll assume that you murdered him. And then, God help me, I'll finally throw the switch on this place like I should have done long ago. I'll kill you all. I'll be very much past caring about consequences; I'll kill you all."
They only laughed harder, completely unfazed. At Uther's signal the guards moved into positions, hoisting the machine guns as two of them dragged vats of food down the ramp through the gates.
"I'll get you out, I swear," whispered Uther. "All you have to do is survive; nothing else matters."
"Don't worry, father," he said, and managed a cocky smile. "I'll be fine. Besides, they might know something about the frame job. This could be a great opportunity to sort out this whole mess."
Father's face was shaking, rippling like it was about to crumble into something awful. Arthur couldn't watch. He turned away and walked through the gates, following the food vats.
"Lovely," said one of the inmates loudly. "It's been ages since they gave us dessert."
The guards retreated and the gates slammed shut, and Arthur kept walking, holding the unhurried leisurely pace, just like he would walk across his college grounds. The courtyard was vast, thickly littered with rubbish and rubble. Unmanned watchtowers rose into the cloudless sky – dark accents against the grey concrete of the fence, silent awkward shapes. There were supposed to be armed guards on every one of them. There were supposed to be guards in the yard, and more inside the cell block, there were meant to be doctors, orderlies, medicines, rehabilitation programs. All that, as Uther put it, had proven to be unworkable. Now all they could do was hold the perimeter and keep the inmates inside the fence. The gates opened once a day, with thirty gunners covering the breach, gas and grenades at the ready, just for long enough to drop off daily rations and, once it a while, shove in another captured warlock.
The welcoming committee let him stroll past them, and then they all started following him, literally breathing down the back of his neck. He fisted his hands inside his pockets and willed himself not to speed up, not to break into a run, not turn around, just to keep walking.
Not all of the inmates were excited about having a Pendragon locked up with them. Some only spared him an indifferent glance and headed towards the food vats to ladle whatever slop they were given today onto grimy paper plates. Quite a few ignored him and the food altogether and kept wandering around the yard in aimless stumbling circles, muttering to themselves, or sitting motionless on the ground. Everyone in the Facility had been diagnosed criminally insane, of course, but somehow Arthur didn't expect that so many would look like actual basket cases.
A tall, thick-set man stepped in front of him and chuckled when Arthur had to stop to avoid crashing into his chest. The group following him pressed closer, crowding him, leaving hardly enough room to move.
"All right, lads, let's give the princess here a big, warm welcome," the big guy said, and was echoed by a chorus of cheers.
Arthur could try to side-step him and keep walking, or open up a dialogue, bargain maybe, or even try to bond. Or he could just – and before the thought formed enough to show on his face he went for it and threw a quick, hard straight jab at the man's face, aiming to break his nose.
Instead his fist hit something tough and barely yielding, like an invisible rubber wall, and stuck inside nothing, held fast, pulled further by a slow sucking force. Everyone laughed as he stood there with his arm outstretched into thin air, struggling against his own hand like a bad mime. Before he could react in any way, gain some measure of
control, he was wrenched up by that arm and had to grab onto it with his free hand to save his shoulder joint from dislocating. Then he was hurtling through the air; he hit the ground hard, all air knocked out of his chest. He didn't even get his breath back when they were all on him, pinning him down, spreading him in the dust, panting harshly above him. The air was thick with the smells of unwashed bodies, bad breath and something else, something crackling, viscous and suffocating.
"This is what we should do," said an old man kneeling by his head. It took Arthur a moment to recognise him underneath his unkempt bushy beard and wild grey hair. It was the father of Sophia, the girl who tried to kill him – she'd been sent to the female facility. Arthur remembered them both screaming and crying in the court room, begging not to be separated. Strangely, he still could feel sorry for them, even now. "We should put a love spell on him. He's going to follow us around like a puppy, begging for a bone. He'll be so eager to please."
"Yes, yes," giggled someone else, palming Arthur's face, and pushed at his mouth with a thumb salty with dried sweat, trying to pry his lips apart. Arthur snapped at it with his teeth but the hand jerked back, and his jaws only clanged together painfully.
"Maybe later," said Muirden. He wasn't involving himself in the dogpile, content to circle them in slow steps and watch. "For now, I think, we'll just make his body crave it like a bitch in heat but leave his mind free to be disgusted at himself. It should prove to be most entertaining."
The big guy crouched over Arthur and leaned close, close enough for a kiss, so close Arthur couldn't help but struggle against all the hands holding him down. They kept his arms and legs outstretched, pushed down with all their weight, and there was no leverage at all, not an inch of a give.
"Don't mess with his head yet," the man said. "While he still has some fight in him, I want him to fight. I want to see him squirm and scream and call for daddy till he can't any more."
"You want a fight?" Arthur asked. "Call off your flunkies and I'll give you a fight."
The man snorted at him, amused.
"Thought so," Arthur said, grinned and spat into the face hovering inches above his.
He hadn't even seen if it had landed when a punch to his face rendered him half-blind with pain. There was more, punches to his gut, feet kicking his ribs, and he tried rolling with the blows and curl up to protect himself, but they held him too tight. And then they were tearing at his clothes, spreading his legs wider, clawing at his chest, twisting his nipples. The big guy moved between Arthur's naked thighs, grabbed his balls and gave them a painful squeeze.
"Aw come on, Val, don't go first," someone was saying. "You'll tear him loose and ruin it for the rest of us!"
"Don't worry, not a problem, I'll fix him up, he'll be tight as new," said Muirden cheerfully. "Go ahead, Val, don't hold back."
Arthur briefly considered banging his head against the ground to try and knock himself out, and decided against it. This was going to happen, he'd known perfectly well it was going to happen if he ended up here. He would face it and he would get through it. Besides, he was going to be here for days, maybe weeks, maybe longer, and this was likely to happen a lot, and giving himself multiple concussions would be a really dumb long-term strategy.
Large clammy hands were prying his arse cheeks apart, kneading and pinching them, and then hard and slick flesh jabbed at his clenching anus. It hurt, and it sent raw wrenching jolts shooting up his spine, like pinching a nerve. But it was hardly worse than a beating, or being held underwater till he passed out. It was going to get much worse before it would be over, but if he just didn't panic – if he could just hold on -
Suddenly everything stopped. They were still holding him down, but the thrusting pressure was gone, and they all went completely silent. He could only hear his own shaky breaths and the sound of approaching footsteps.
"He's mine," said someone. The voice wasn't loud, but it rang in the sudden silence, and the hold on Arthur's body disappeared abruptly. He pushed off the ground and rolled up into a crouch, ready to strike out.
There was a man walking across the yard toward them. He didn't look like much – gawky, skinny, prison uniforms hanging off him awkwardly. Except for his eyes, which weren't even remotely human. His whole irises were glowing, shimmering with bright golden light.
"Come with me," the man said and extended his hand.
Arthur stared at it and tried to gather his thoughts. He wasn't going to take orders from anyone here. But then again, he didn't really feel like saying "No, I'd much rather stay here and get gangbanged in the middle of the prison yard, thank you."
The other inmates, the same ones that were about to rip into him just moments before, were pulling him to his feet and tugging his clothes back on. Okay, that he could work with. His boxers were torn up, trampled into the dust by his feet, so he gave up on them, let the men manoeuvre his legs into the jeans and stepped back into his shoes. Two inmates immediately knelt front of him to retie his shoelaces. The others were fastening the surviving buttons on his jeans and shirt. Someone was even smoothing down Arthur's hair and straightening his collar.
"One of these days, Merlin," said Val, furiously gritting his teeth, and the others hushed at him and pulled him back. Muirden was hovering at the newcomer's side, the usual smile plastered to his face.
"Merlin, if you happen to break him, I would be delighted, absolutely delighted to offer any medical assistance. Any time. It would be my pleasure."
Merlin ignored him, still holding his outstretched hand. Only then Arthur noticed a small boy, no older than eleven, stood by Merlin's side, watching Arthur with a blank expression. He didn't seem scared, or curious, or anything other than closed off, almost catatonic. He wore the same orange uniforms as the men, far too big for him, with collar hanging loose and sleeves and trousers rolled up carelessly. Arthur's stomach churned.
Merlin sighed impatiently, took hold of Arthur's wrist and tugged him toward the cell block. Arthur wavered on his feet and went, mostly because he didn't want the child to see what would happen if he struggled.
Nobody followed them.
As soon as they were through the doors Arthur stopped and twisted his arm free.
"Nice move," he said. "Sending your flunkies to soften me up so I'd be pliant and grateful when you offer me protection."
Merlin turned to look at him. This close Arthur could see that he was young, maybe younger than him. Maybe still a teenager.
"I don't need protection," Arthur said firmly. It could've came out better. He was shaking with spent adrenaline, so hard that his teeth clanged as he spoke. The fire in Merlin's eyes flickered.
"Yeah, you were doing great out there," he said. His voice was unexpectedly soft.
"I was fine. They can't do anything to me."
"You have no idea..."
"They can beat me, fuck me, screw with my head, but they can't do anything to me. Neither can you."
Merlin stared at him for a moment. His lips trembled and then twisted into a bitter smile.
"I used to think that," he said. "They could lock me up, hold me here, but they couldn't touch me. Couldn't change me. I was wrong."
Arthur raised his chin and smiled back. The shaking had stopped, but now every scrape and bruise he got today started to hurt and throb. His arsehole stung painfully and he struggled not to twitch.
"Anyway, they're not my flunkies," Merlin said.
"Yeah sure, they're just that afraid of you."
"Right. And why is that?"
"Because they've met me. Come on, this way."
The inside of the cell block looked even more wrecked than the yard, like a bomb went off in here, probably several times. There were long scorch marks of the floor and the wall, and a crack running along the ceiling, letting in some of the dimming daylight. All the cells stood open, most doors twisted off viciously, hanging off the hinges like unfortunate modern art installations. Some of the bars looked melted. Still, there were a few working lights, obviously they still had power in here, and there must've been running water. Uther had never brought them water.
There were more inmates milling around inside. A few of them seemed completely absorbed in drawing bizarre symbols on the floor, arguing with each other in hushed voices, some sat inside the cells on the bunks, eating or waggling their fingers at nothing and muttering to themselves. One was reading a thick tattered book; he waved at Merlin, not looking up from the page, and got a quick nod in return.
There was a huge ugly graffiti on the far wall, spread out to take most of its height. It seemed to depict a deformed carnation; on the second look Arthur decided that it was just a splatter. It looked like a giant red paintball got fired into the wall from a cannon and exploded all over the bricks. There were some bits stuck to the paint or embedded into the wall, most dark, a few dull ivory white.
Maybe it hadn't been a paintball after all.
Arthur forced himself to turn away and, while swallowing down the bile that rose in his throat, somehow allowed Merlin to steer him further along the cells. The boy was still trailing after them, silent and obedient like a tiny ghost.
"Why is the kid here?" Arthur asked, trying not to sound hysterical. He didn't feel hysterical. He was fine.
"Because he's one of us," Merlin answered, terribly matter-of-fact.
"I thought it didn't manifest till puberty."
"Can happen much earlier."
"Oh. Is he... Does he talk?"
"Never to strangers."
"Are you..." Arthur reached out and grabbed a handful of Merlin's orange shirt. The warlock stopped and blinked, looking down at his hand in obvious confusion. "Listen, just tell me this now. Did you call dibs on this kid, like you just did on me? Are you making him pay for protection?"
Merlin's brow knitted while he processed the question. Clearly not the sharpest... mental patient in the asylum.
"Oh," he said finally, cringing. "Oh, of course not. Do you really think I'd – no, I get why you'd assume something like that right now. But that's not what we are. Nobody would do that to him. And even if someone wanted to, Mordred doesn't need me to protect him."
The boy looked up, shifting his glance between them, and for the first time there was something on his face. He looked puzzled.
"Mordred is my nemesis," said Merlin with a fond smile as he reached out and gently ruffled the boy's hair. Mordred didn't flinch away. He actually leaned into the caress, perfectly matching Merlin's expression. That didn't mean anything; that could've been Stockholm Syndrome. "So we bunk together, because, you know, keep your enemies close and all that."
"What the fuck," said Arthur flatly. He was starting to feel like he was running out of emotions. Like today was too much for his brain and his body and now nothing would make any sense at all till he could curl up somewhere safe and dark, and sleep for about a week.
"We have a few seers here," explained Merlin. "Charlie over there and some others. They all tell us the same thing: that one day Mordred will destroy that which I love the most, unless I kill him first."
"You don't believe that, do you?" Arthur asked cautiously. Merlin's hand was still resting very close to the boy's thin neck, but Mordred looked completely unafraid, even amused. He seemed to like hearing this story.
"Of course we believe it. Seers can't be wrong. But, we thought about it and what I love here the most has to be mac'n'cheese day. And I'd miss it if Mordred somehow destroys it, but it seems a tad harsh to kill him over it."
They held a dramatic pause as he gaped at them, and then Mordred shook with silent laughter and playfully butted his head against Merlin's side. His eyes lingered on Arthur with a curious sparkle this time, studying him.
They climbed two flights of stairs and walked to the last cell in the row.
"This is where we live," Merlin said, making a grand gesture with his thin arm.
Arthur was braced for the dubious splendour of the prison lord's habitat, but it was just a standard two-man cell. A corner cell, furthest from the stairs, probably the quietest one in the block, but still just a cell, bare and small, with only a bunk bed and a plastic cafeteria chair for furniture, and it was even more of a mess than the rest of the Facility. Arthur stepped inside, carefully picking his way through mounds of dirty plates, dirtier spare uniforms and various other litter he didn't even want to identify.
Mordred made straight for the rumpled bunk, fished a sketch pad and a handful of crayons from between the pillows, stretched out on his belly and started doodling. Arthur leaned against the bars and crossed his arms on his chest.
"All right, Merlin, let's hear it."
"What?" asked Merlin dumbly, perching on the bunk.
"Offers, threats, what did you bring me here for."
"Well, I just thought... They'll keep coming after you, you know. Because you're a Pendragon, and because you're not one of us. And, because you're so beautiful."
He shuffled his feet nervously. There were two spots of blush spreading on his pale cheeks. Arthur raised an eyebrow and scratched at the bruise swelling on his jaw.
"And you'll be safe here. I can keep you safe."
"And in exchange, do you think I'll roll over and be your prison bitch? Or are you trying to score a favour with my father? Because, let me tell you, that's even less likely."
"No, I don't want anything," said Merlin, blinking at him like the conversation was really too advanced to follow.
"Then why are you doing this?"
"What do you mean? What am I supposed to do, stand aside and let them at you?" Merlin glared at him angrily; his ears were burning bright red. He had rather spectacular ears. "Is – is that what you'd have done in my place?"
"No, of course not," Arthur conceded.
"Then why would you think I – oh right, because I'm a warlock, I'm a monster, we all are!" Merlin's angry scowl turned sour; his pupils were starkly black against the gold, and looking into his eyes was more difficult now, as if the glow became too bright. "You - oh, you're just like your father."
Arthur always liked hearing that before: that he was just like his father, that his father would be so proud of him. Nobody ever used that as an insult before. He knew, of course, that to his enemies Uther was a fearsome, terrifying figure. Arthur had heard many of them yelling curses and threats in the court rooms over the years; he had bruises swelling all over his body right now as a tangible proof of their hatred. But he expected just that from them – hatred, violence, thirst for revenge, all because they were defeated, afraid and bitter with impotent rage. It only showed how weak and twisted they were, proving everything his father had always said about them. This teenage warlock had no right to look at him like this: with contempt, and something like disappointment.
"Well, if you don't believe me, then how about this," Merlin said. "If something happens to you here, your father will probably, I don't know, nuke us from the orbit or something. So here is me, warlock, looking after my own interests, all right? And I know you think we all deserve to die, but there are some good people here, innocent people, who never hurt anyone!"
"Why do you even care what I think?" Arthur asked, a little confused by the intensity of his outburst.
Merlin sighed and hunched over tiredly.
"I don't know," he muttered. "I just... I don't want you to get hurt. Do you have to make it complicated? I just want to help. Stay close to me, and everything will be fine."
He sounded so sincere, and with every moment in his company it was getting harder to believe he was the top dog here, running the place with an iron fist. Arthur was starting to wonder how did this clueless kid even survive to his age, let alone managed to terrify the other inmates enough to show him all that regard.
"So, you really weren't behind that thing in the yard?" he asked.
"I swear, I didn't even know."
"If that's true it means you've just cockblocked a bunch of angry warlocks. They might have backed down for the time being, but it doesn't mean they've given up. Do you even have any allies except for the nemesis here? Do you understand what kind of situation you've put yourself in?"
"They won't do anything."
"Merlin, I'm getting the feeling that thinking isn't really your thing. But try it for once. If you were really as scary as you think you are, you wouldn't be locked up here in the first place."
"There were circumstances," mumbled Merlin, almost pouting.
"Yes, I'm sure there were. And there will also be circumstances when you wake up on fire, with magical bugs in your head. That guy, Val? He's going to do something. He's a coward, he won't make a move till he thinks he's got a clear advantage, but that doesn't make him less dangerous. Quite the opposite. And Muirden will stab your you in the back the moment it's turned, that's what he does. I don't even know what the others are capable of..."
"You don't know what I'm capable of, either."
"Oh, just shut up, will you? I'm here because someone has a grudge against my family. This isn't your fight; this is, in fact, none of your business. Whatever you're offering – I'm not going to accept it."
"Your consent doesn't actually matter to them," said Merlin wryly. "You might have noticed. Whether you accept or not you're my business already, because I told them so. And why the hell are you even arguing with me, anyway? Are you just being a prat for the pleasure of it?"
"Because, Merlin, I've no reason to believe you don't want anything from me, or believe anything you say! You don't look like you could protect a cup of tea, and I don't want to be responsible for whatever happens to you if you get in the middle of this. Just - stay out of it."
"You're worried about me?" Merlin let out a short disbelieving laugh. "You, right now, worry about me? That's either completely stupid, or..."
He trailed off with a slight frown, his eyes searching Arthur's face. His mouth fell slightly open, and Arthur did his best not to stare at the soft curve of his lips. Letting himself be attracted to this man, or, heavens forbid, letting it show - that would be a truly idiotic move at this juncture.
"Completely stupid, yes," Merlin said breathlessly, as if having read his thoughts.
They both stared down for a few seconds, silently.
"So what are you planning to do, anyway?" Merlin asked. "It's almost lights out. You're barely standing. At least sleep here tonight, get some rest. You're safe here, I promise."
Arthur peered outside through the bars. The building was filling up with inmates making their way to their cells, settling into beds. It was too late to try and find a hiding place to hole up in till dawn, not without a working knowledge of the layout. Everything had happened so fast today; if only he'd had time to prepare for this...
He caught sight of Muirden climbing up the stairs on the other side of the block, still surrounded by his merry bunch of lackeys, and the man turned to him immediately, as if he felt his glance. Maybe he could do that. Muirden waved at him cheerfully and said something to the others. They all looked at him and laughed, and then stood there, watching him, waiting for his reaction.
"All right, just for tonight," Arthur said grudgingly.
"You can have the top bunk," said Merlin, and Mordred gave him an impressive death glare and kicked him in the side. "Come on, Mordred, you never use it."
The top bunk was occupied by a family of play-doh sculptures of medieval knights in armour. They were a bit misshapen and lop-sided, but lovingly detailed. The shields were cut out of paper plates, and all the men were armed with rusty nails. Arthur gathered them up and carefully deposited them along the wall.
"I believe these are yours," he told Mordred. "They're pretty good. Well, the swords are a bit rubbish, they're supposed to be flat and edged, not round. We'll work on that."
Mordred looked at him thoughtfully and busied himself with rearranging the pillows.
The lights blinked twice and slowly dimmed, plunging the building into darkness.
"Huh, you actually still have lights out," said Arthur.
"I could turn them back on," said Merlin from somewhere in the dark. "But we might as well sleep. You must be tired."
Arthur kicked off his shoes, climbed on the top bunk and after several deep breaths managed to take off his shirt. Then he put it back on and decided not to undress. It wasn't that warm, and the sheets didn't smell anything like fresh, and, well. In case they got visitors at night, he might as well not be naked for that. He was going to stay awake and keep watch, but as soon as he put his head on the flat lumpy pillow every bit of today's events crashed back on him, and he'd never felt so tired in his whole life...
When he woke up - still exhausted, sore all over and completely disoriented, on scratchy, musty sheets in a room that wasn't his - he tried for a moment to fall asleep again and put off the inevitable moment of facing reality. If he just kept his eyes shut he wouldn't have to see where he was. He wouldn't have to remember the endless interrogation, the assault he had been utterly helpless against, their hands on his bare skin and the sharp, piercing pain that still lingered inside his body.
Even after he finally decided to get up he couldn't make himself move for a very long time. He lay there, rigid with tension, his eyes burning and his chest painfully tight. He stared at the bars, the lines of cells circling the block, at his own wrist, ringed in purple bruises, and breathed slowly, slowly. When the lump in his throat completely dissolved, he shifted to the edge of the bed and peeked at the bottom bunk.
Merlin and Mordred were still asleep, sprawled on their backs side by side like people with nothing to fear. They hadn't bothered with undressing either. They were both so skinny that their bodies barely touched on the narrow bunk; the only point of contact was Mordred's small arm flung possessively across Merlin's chest. Mordred frowned and drooled in his sleep; Merlin looked peaceful, relaxed, and, despite the stubble, very lickable.
Arthur looked at him for a while, tracing the lines of his face with his eyes, for purely aesthetic pleasure. Under different circumstances he'd feel sad that someone like Merlin, so young, still so human, would slowly rot in prison for decades till nothing was left of him. But now he himself was in here too, facing the same possibility if he even managed to survive, and it wasn't productive to dwell on worst case scenarios.
He quietly climbed down and left the cell. Nobody was camped outside waiting for him, as he had half-expected. It was a nice day outside, and the building was almost empty. Anyone catching his eye quickly looked away. It seemed that he could roam around freely, at least to some extent.
He went into a cell that seemed deserted, used the toilet and washed up at the sink. Then he went back.
They were still asleep. He stood by, watching them, and considered his next move.
He knew better than to trust his feelings around magic users, because you could never tell if you were under enchantment. But he was pretty sure he could still trust his common sense. He turned away and went to work, trying not to make noise.
He stacked dirty plates by the door, gathered rubbish into a discarded pillow case, folded all the clothes that didn't seem too disgusting and put them in the corner. The mysterious pile under the bunk turned out to be mostly art supplies and loose sheets of sketch paper with Mordred's drawings on them. Arthur organised the crayons and play-doh on the chair and leafed through the drawings. There were a lot of knights, odd-looking horses, princesses in elaborate dresses, but most were of Merlin, or Mordred and Merlin together, standing side by side. Some, probably the older ones, were just two black-haired figures, one short, the other with Merlin's remarkable ears, but the ones on the top of the pile were starting to show actual resemblance. A few sketches of Merlin were pretty good, especially studies of his sleeping face. They would also be a bit stalker-creepy if Mordred wasn't just a little boy who liked to draw.
Arthur picked a few best ones, stuck them to the walls with pieces of play-doh and stepped back to admire his work. The place was starting to look all right.
"Morning, Arthur," sleepily drawled Merlin behind him.
He was sitting sat on his the bunk, rubbing at his eyes, yawning and stretching his long, lean arms. His hair was mussed in the way that made Arthur want to rumple it even more.
"Where's Mordred?" he asked instead. The boy was nowhere in sight.
"He'll be back soon, he's fine. What are you doing?"
"This is called tidying up, Merlin. I understand this is a foreign concept to you, so consider this a practical demonstration. Pay attention, you'll be doing this from now on."
"Because this is your room and it's your responsibility to keep it in order. I'm your guest so I get to kick back and watch. But don't worry, Mordred will help you, he needs to have some chores. Structure and boundaries are very important for a boy his age."
"Is that what your father says?" grumbled Merlin, not looking very psyched about the idea of structure.
"This isn't about my father, this is about me having no intention of living in my own filth. You shouldn't live like this either, and it's definitely no good for a child. All right, so today, after we grab some food and a shower, we're going to make a doorway in this wall, right about here, into that other cell. Let's see if your terrifying magical powers are what they are hyped up to be."
He sat on the bunk next to Merlin and nudged him with a knee, just because. A friendly gesture. Merlin was smiling widely, seemingly lost in staring at Arthur like he just met him.
"A doorway?" Merlin asked distantly. There was something different about him today, but Arthur couldn't quite put a finger on it. He looked – really good, somehow even prettier than last night. His whole face seemed softer, sweeter, more open. Maybe he was just well rested after a long sleep.
"Yes, so we'll have a two-bedroom place. This is too small."
"Oh! That could be Mordred's room! Or, yours. If you want some privacy. I just thought, Mordred's a boy, he'll want his own room..."
As he blushed and stammered, Arthur finally got it. His eyes weren't glowing today. There were just blue.
"Well, we'll see," he said. "Bottom line is, we're going to be making some changes around here. Start small and see what we can do. So I'll need your help with this."
"All right, Arthur," said Merlin, beaming. "And sorry for calling you a prat. Which you kinda are, but. Sorry."
He bit his lip and nudged Arthur's leg with his knee, cautiously, like he was testing the water.
There were light footsteps outside, and Mordred appeared at the cell door with three plates of mysterious greyish goop balanced in his hands. He stepped inside, slowly traced the room with his eyes, his little face unreadable as ever.
"Morning, Mordred," said Arthur. "I moved your stuff, hope it's okay with you."
The boy's eyes were fixed at the point between him and Merlin, where their knees still touched.
"Breakfast," said Mordred hoarsely and shoved a plate at Arthur.