He fucks his way across the Outer Rim.
On Ordin, he hides in a castle keep and fumbles in dark corners with a man whose face he can't see. He slips his hand in quick, around the unfamiliarity of the sword belt, and jerks once, twice, other arm tight around the man's shoulders.
"You," the man says, after. He grasps at Merlin's hips and finds denim. "What are you wearing?"
In the dimness, the man might be blonde. Not that it matters.
On Calomir, he lazes in the virtual, remembering the girl he'd lost. He'd seen her at the corner of a forum, dark-haired, mouth a soft, curious twist. He'd said, "Want to get out of here?" and she'd smiled. They'd fucked on a virtual lakeshore, and she'd looked sweet but had scratched up his back like a cat.
He'd sensed the spark in her.
"Want to get out of here?" he'd said in the afterglow, and he hadn't meant between VR settings—he'd meant between planets, between galaxies. He'd wanted to take her inward, ever inward, to the worlds where magic shivered in the air, was tangible on your tongue, made you feel more and more alive until it was too much to bear.
She hadn't made it far.
On Earth he goes to the dirtiest, dingiest bar he can find, but the man he finds there isn't dingy at all. He's bright with life, taking Merlin home and fucking him to a hoarse, aching mess, kissing him like he's something to be savored.
"Stay," the man says into the pillow, hair a silky cascade over his face. "I'll make you breakfast. Pancakes."
Merlin bundles tight under the covers with him, but is gone before dawn.
He likes the eastern sunsets on Ordin. He likes the man in the belowground passages better.
"I looked for you," the man breathes, biting at Merlin's neck, hands everywhere. He's clearly hungry for it so Merlin eases him down, undoes his zip and gifts him his cock. The man pauses, breathing harshly, then takes it into his mouth, whimpering, like he's never done it before. From what Merlin knows of Ordin, he probably hasn't.
The man's mouth is lush, comfortable, and his moans as he touches himself bring Merlin off easily. He's indulgent as the other man licks up his come, tentative—then takes a finger and smears the rest over the man's lips.
"God," the man says, wrecked, and almost sobs as he comes.
They sit for a long time on the stone floor.
"Who are you?" The man holds Merlin's wrist, says, "Please. I want to know you're near."
There is vulnerability in this admission, and Merlin wants to honor it. Instead, he taps the gemstones at his belt and slips the man into peaceful sleep, easing his head carefully onto the stones.
As he leaves the keep, he senses something—a spark. A green-eyed woman walks the halls in a silver-embroidered nightgown, eyes haunted.
He passes her, head down. Whatever he might be able to offer her, she's surely safer here.
He goes back to Calomir. He wants to remember the girl as she'd been on Dondar, flushed with adventure and magic under a purple sky. Instead he finds the AI the girl's parents have made of their daughter—she's just as sweet as before, but doesn't remember him. He thinks of kissing her anyway, but it feels wrong.
On Earth he broods.
"Penny for your thoughts?" someone says. It's the man with the silky hair, and he's holding out a penny in the palm of his hand.
"How did you find me?" Merlin asks, and takes the penny.
"Magic, sweetheart," the man says, and Merlin can't help but smile. "Come back to mine and I'll cook you those pancakes I promised."
It's a bad idea, but Merlin accepts. The sex is good, slick and satisfying, but somehow the pancakes are better.
"So when will I see you again?" the man asks, bumping his hip against Merlin's.
"I'm a traveler," Merlin warns, looking away. "I'm never in one place for too long."
"Even better!" the man says. "I'll come along."
The man says, "I'm Gwaine," like it's not important.
There's power in a name. Merlin has tried for a long time to avoid them, but maybe—maybe this is something that can't be avoided.
"Alright then, Gwaine," Merlin says, trying out the words on his lips. Maybe he doesn't have to be alone.
(It's a first step.)