It's been a long bloody day, and Merlin's aching.
He's having a fag in the kitchen – half in the sink, bare shoulder against the refrigerator, legs braced against the opposite wall – it's a tiny fucking room with next to no ventilation. It's also the only place he can smoke, unless he wants to get back into his civvies and go outside, into the bright and blare of peak hour London, and have a smoke underneath a sign that reads CAMELOT MASSAGE PARLOUR in tasteful lettering. Which, no thank you.
There's a mirror on the wall opposite him (which sounds daft, in a kitchen, but the girls use it to touch up the lippie they lose to cigarettes and stale cups of coffee.) Merlin keeps catching his reflection in it and wishing he hadn't. It's not that he's particularly horrible-looking, given he earns a couple of hundred quid every day getting naked for strangers, but the smoggy light that's managing to find it's way through the tiny window makes him look washed out and half-starved and Merlin's never liked to watch himself do anything, anyway. Otherwise he just ends up over-analysing the sharp edges of his bent elbows and knees, the way his face looks through a cloud of blue-grey smoke, and it's embarrassing and a little vain.
He counts the cracks in the paint over the fridge, takes a deep drag and lets it out in a rush, hums a tuneless little snatch of nothing that's been looping in the back of his head. He hasn't even been busy, that's the problem. On a good day, back to back with clients, Merlin goes home sore as fuck – but it's okay, in a working-for-your-living sort of way. Right now the pain's more like a fist to the gut from an unruly customer who had called him a shirt-lifter. Merlin'd had to throw him out.
Not by himself, mind you. Lance-The-Security-Guy had intercepted when he'd started causing a fuss in reception, and Morgan had come bursting out from the middle of a job, totally starkers, just to give the bastard a piece of her mind. Even Gwen, their receptionist, had looked a little long-suffering: "If only we could take their money the moment they walked in the door," she'd said a little wistfully. "Not that I mean, by force, we don't want to rob them or anything, but, it's just, it's not really fair that he can come in and bully you, Merlin, is it? I mean, it was good that you stood up to him, but maybe next time... wait 'til after a job...?"
So yeah, maybe the soreness is a little bit Merlin's fault. Sometimes he just tends to put his foot in his mouth, and not in some kinky tantric way. More the way that has him sniping at some edgy fucker who's still a little iffy about his sexuality and doesn't know to keep his hands off what he hasn't paid for. It's lost him jobs more than once in the past. Still, Merlin's the only male masseuse Camelot has, even if punters sometimes try and proposition Lance, and that alone's enough to make the rent on his shitty little flat.
It's been shitty little flats for a long time now. Sometimes, slouching in his old trackie pants in front of the telly, Merlin remembers something better, a feeling of opulence, the taste of a rich burgundy wine in the back of his throat. Maybe there'll be a movie on, some two a.m. romance, and they'll talk about destiny and Merlin will gasp air like a drowning man. He can't watch Harry fucking Potter without his chest constricting. Merlin knows he's weird, knows he's looked "about twenty" for decades spiralling back into the fog in his mind, knows the name on his driver's licence isn't really his. Thing is, he hasn't got a clue why.
So he does this for a living, even though he's been to uni five, six times over just for something to do. Sits with his arse half in a greasy sink, briefs a little damp from it, blows smoke out the window to the alley below, and wonders what the fuck he's waiting for.
There's a knock on the door, and he stubs out his fag as Gwen peeks her head in. "Someone in waiting room three. Morgan and Vivienne are both busy, so I'm afraid this one's yours again, Merlin." She gives him a sympathetic little grimace – she's the sweetest of the reception girls, is Gwen – so Merlin squares his shoulders, gives her a quirk of a smile that prolly looks easier than it feels. He looks down at his bare chest, the line of his stomach and the outline of his ribs. Thankfully, the skin's still pale: Merlin's slow to mark, though two days hence he knows there'll be vivid purple blossoming over his skin.
"Lady or gent, then?" he asks, already rinsing his hands in the sink, using the excess water to ruffle his dark hair a little.
"It's a man. James," says Gwen, and that's something at least – women tend to be harder, slower, more likely to want to baby him or press close kisses to his pale skin. Merlin doesn't do kisses. Doesn't really do women at all, if he's got any say in it, which is probably why his coworkers don't worry too much about wandering around the place in their knickers, and vice versa. But there's something in Gwen's eyes. "Look, just, Morgan'll be done in a sec. Warm him up a little, get him a drink or something. Make nice. If he's not interested then he's not interested, right?"
"Right," Merlin says cheerfully, wondering if he's going to end up with a fresh layer of bruises.
He pauses again outside the door to the waiting room, palms himself through his briefs a bit until he looks a little more interested in the proceedings, and takes a deep breath.
The room's dark, soft-lit and warm, designed to titillate. The man on the faux-leather couch is sprawled like a prince overseeing his domain and the lamp turns his finely muscled limbs golden. He's flicking boredly through one of the wank mags they keep on the table, glances up when the doors open, disdain already inked across his fine-boned features, and Merlin knows the type: attractive; aware of it; too busy to go to the effort of picking up when he needs a fuck; wealthy enough to afford an escort, but seeing them as nothing more than a means to an end. The punters who don't realize the (handmouthhole) they're fucking belongs to a person are always the hardest ones to deal with, and Merlin tries not to look too horribly resigned.
Then the man – James – starts to laugh.
"Oi," is Merlin's automatic reaction, one arm curling around his torso. But the way James gives out deep ha's makes him look younger, about the age Merlin'd be if he was the age he appeared (and there's a tricky thought). His head's thrown back and joyful, throat arching to his laughing mouth, revealing his charmingly crooked teeth, and it thrills through Merlin in a dangerous way. "Listen–" he tries again. "If you'd rather, that is, we've got."
James shakes his head, calming himself, drawing all that light back inwards so it comes sparkling out his eyes. "Good Lord," he says in a plummy accent. "Merlin, really? Really?"
"Er, yeah?" Merlin tries. They've all got to have pseudonyms out of Arthurian legend, fit the vague attempt at a theme, so Merlin's not really his name, of course – but then, he's fairly sure neither's the name he pays his taxes under, and 'Merlin' fits oddly comfortably. "Look, if you're going to make a joke about being a wizard in the bedroom or seeing my wand or something I promise you, I've heard them all and then some."
The man's eyes widen comically. Merlin realizes somewhat belatedly that his tone isn't strictly what Gwen'd call making nice and winces. "Sorry," he says, and: "Can I get you a drink?"
"Merlin," the man says again, brow creasing a little and his gaze going hawklike and bollocks but he's good looking. Merlin swallows. "Merlin," stretching the vowels, "Don't you know who I am?"
Oh. So he's one of those. Merlin assesses him, tries to match a celebrity name to the face. James, James... first name or last name? British, blond, well fit, maybe some kind of sportsman? Doesn't ring a bell. But he doesn't really do a lot of pop culture these days, never knows when something's gonna creep under his skin, give him the shakes. "Nope, sorry," he admits.
"Arthur," James says, eyes painfully earnest. "Arthur Pendragon, you idiot."
Merlin gives him a flat stare. "D'you want me to pretend like you're the first person to use that line in here? Though must say, normally it's blokes trying to pick up Gwen rather than me."
'Arthur' chokes and flushes, as though they're not standing in an erotic massage parlour, as though 'Arthur' doesn't have a copy of Penthouse held loosely in one hand. "I'm hardly trying to pick you up, Merlin." He chuckles a little bitterly. "Look, d'you really not know who I am?"
Merlin licks his lips, shrugs a bony shoulder. "Sorry, mate," he says, beginning to feel uncomfortable. "I don't get out much," he adds as a consolation. Casts a fleeting glance at the door, wondering where the hell Morgan is, brings his eyes back just as swiftly and tries to look as though he'd never entertained thoughts of escaping. "Sure I can't get you that drink?"
"Well," (and it still feels a little bit like he's looking into Merlin and seeing everything he is, including what Merlin himself has lost from view.) "I'm not particularly thirsty, thank you." Merlin watches as his throat works for a moment, Adam's apple bobbing. Right, now the bastard decides to be shy. "What do you... do, exactly?"
"We offer a full-body massage including a bodyslide and hand relief," Merlin says, just this side of actually rolling his eyes. He adds a crude wanking motion that makes the other man flinch back, and reaches for the door.
"Wait," the man commands, and Merlin turns back without a thought. "Do you do..." James coughs a little, lifts his eyebrows. "Extras?"
"No," Merlin lies, because this James who thinks he's King Arthur, he's too beautiful and a little bit creepy and Merlin really just wants to get out of the way and let Morgan work her magic. He shifts his hips, and James' eyes flick down to track the movement, making Merlin shiver and feel more naked in his y-fronts than he ever does bare-arsed and doing his job. His erection strains through the thin fabric, putting the lie to the way the rest of his body strains towards the door. "All right?"
"All right," is the reply, though it doesn't sound very all right at all.
"Great," says Merlin, and flees.
Morgan's in the little sitting room they use to relax or get changed, back in her lingerie, long legs kicked up over the edge of the sofa as she brushes out her hair and watches Coronation Street with the sound on mute. Merlin flops down next to her, scrubs a palm across his face. "Jesus fucking Christ," he grits out. "James in waiting room three."
The brush gets tucked away in a purse, and Morgan fixes her lipgloss before unfolding elegantly from her seat. The room fills with the sickly smell of fake strawberries. "Bollocks it up again, Merlin?" she asks lightly, grinning down at him.
"Careful," he warns her instead of answering. "This guy is a serious nutter."
She huffs a little laugh through her nose, reaches down and ruffles his hair as she passes. "Are you trying to look out for me? That's sweet."
Merlin scowls at her retreating back, pulls his knees to his chin and wraps his arms around them. He feels like Arthur– no, James, like James' eyes are still on him, like his laughter pushed back a little of the shadowed places in Merlin's mind and they're not empty after all. There's knowledge, waiting for him there, but he doesn't want it. He's not happy with his life, not by half, but it's uncomplicated and that's good enough.
"Didn't go well?" Gwen asks from the doorway, only sympathy in her voice and he loves her dearly in that moment. She comes and perches on the arm of the couch and rubs his back in big smooth circles. "Doesn't really surprise me, I never read anything about him being, you know, inclined to. I mean, he's always photographed with women, not that that means anything these days, of course!" She laughs a little nervously, and something in Merlin's gaze makes her turn her head away. "I mean–"
"Gwen," Merlin says, horror dawning over him. "Are you trying to say that he's actually a, er, celebrity?" His voice squeaks a little at the end.
The look Gwen gives him is all the answer he needs. "Honestly, Merlin, what? Of course he's famous, he's–" she leans in, glances to the side like someone might actually be listening in, some completely ninja paparazzi. "James Bradley." When this elicits no further reaction she hisses in exasperation and says, "Actor? Singer? He was in the Harry Potter films? Well, his hair was completely different, I suppose, but you can't tell me–"
"I bloody hate Harry Potter," grumbles Merlin, which always makes people give him these horrible pitying looks, like the one Gwen's wearing now, as though he's become fractionally less British just by admitting he isn't into all that magicky stuff. "Jesus, though, what a prat. Obviously he expected me to throw myself at him for free just 'cause he's famous."
"Don't you think that's what Morgan's doing right now?" Gwen asks archly, though there's the slightest flush across her cheeks. "She's a huge fan, been to three of his concerts."
"Great," says Merlin. "Well, she can have him."
The phone at Gwen's hip rings – "Camelot Massage, Gwen speaking. How may I help you?" – and she wanders back to the front desk. Merlin thunks his forehead against his knees and swears (he has no idea what language all his best curses are in, or how he's come to to know it, but it's got just the right amount of fricatives and hiss.) Obviously all that King Arthur bollocks was some kind of joke that had gone over Merlin's head. It's not that he particularly cares about this Famous James, even if the idea of all that skin at his fingertips might end up being wank fodder for the rest of the month. Merlin's no starfucker. But he was sort of rude and unprofessional and that eats at him a bit, joins with some other feeling deep in his gut that's too tender to go poking just yet. He needs another fag.
Just into the hallway he runs into Morgan. Her lipgloss is smeared and she looks bright-eyed and breathless. "Well," she whispers to him. "I'm rather disappointed Vivienne missed this, we could have done a double."
"You don't fool me, Morgan," Merlin teases, low. "You can't wait to tell her who came in and how you had him wrapped around your finger."
Her laugh is a little tinkle. "Oooh," she says with glee, "She's going to be furious." One perfectly plucked eyebrow arches skywards. "Maybe you and I should have offered him a double up," she says like she's offering to share a bar of chocolate. "We've never done that before."
"Day I do a double with you's the day you steal all my closely-guarded tricks," Merlin tells her with a cheeky grin. "So God willing we never will. Besides, I don't think he's into blokes."
"You don't have to be into blokes to have a bit of fun with one," Morgan says, and then suddenly blushes in a highly uncharacteristic way and Merlin realizes Gwen's come to join their conversation.
"Er," Gwen says. "Sorry, it's just." Her lips twist in an unhappy sort of smile. "Merlin. The Blue Room."
"Him?" Morgan asks, like she hasn't heard quite right.
"Me?" echoes Merlin, and actually sticks a finger in his ear and twists it around a bit, scrunching his face up.
"Yes you, Merlin." Gwen's taken on that brisk motherly tone she gets. "Go on then, don't keep him waiting." She counted out a bunch of crisp bills from the wad she was clutching (the wad, what sort of prat started tipping before they'd even received a service?) and handed them to Merlin. "An hour and a half, and he'd like a drink of water."
Morgana's still a little wild-eyed. "Are you serious?" she asks, keeping her voice down but managing to screech nevertheless. Gwen puts a hand on her arm, and another one at the small of her back, and leads her over to the reception desk, talking in a low voice. Merlin stares down at the money in his clammy palm. After years of directionless sex work, giving wrinkled old queens handjobs while they leered at his arse, this is the first time his job's ever made him feel bone-deep dirty.
Some punters shower first, recline along the tables dressed only in the courtesy towels. Others strip to the waist, or wait until Merlin's there to watch before they ease out of their clothes. When Merlin pushes open the door to the Blue Room, Arthur's fully-dressed – no, it's James, dammit – and his arms are folded tight across his chest. Merlin swallows down his first instinctive glower and expressionlessly offers the water instead, trying not to let his hands shake, the door clicking closed behind him. Arthur takes it, looks at the tacky plastic goblet with its fake jewels, and his face turns fey. He downs it in one long draught, making Merlin shudder with deja vu, look away to avoid Arthur's mischievous gaze.
"You've just got to make this bloody difficult for me, don't you," murmurs Arthur, and takes Merlin's sharp chin in his hand.
Merlin takes a step backwards immediately, but he's no longer averting his eyes. "Let's get the rules down, James."
Merlin snorts, but if the customer needs a little roleplay to get into this then it can't hurt to indulge him. "Arthur," he agrees, and the word comes out soft despite himself, a clear bell of clarity that's giving him back learning how to use a gun for Her Majesty's Service, giving him back jazz bars in the Twenties and a long stint in Reading Gaol at the end of the Nineteenth Century. He shakes his head, pushes it away: it's too much, too much sensation, too much time, no man can contain all of that.
"Merlin?" Arthur's asking, reaching out to him again, and Merlin dodges nimbly out of his reach and remembers what he's here to do.
"I touch you," he says bluntly, far more than he'd usually dare with a punter. "You don't touch me. I don't do extras, like I said. You try and force me into anything, I walk out of here, I keep the cash. Got it?"
The expression on Arthur's face is priceless, caught between laughter and anger. "You can't talk to me like that!" Merlin just quirks an eyebrow, waits for an acknowledgement, and finally Arthur deflates a little and nods. "Got it. Christ. At least I know I've found the right person."
The sense Merlin has had for as long as he can remember, that he's waiting for something, and he'll know it when he sees it, wells up overwhelmingly. Instead of asking what the hell he's talking about, why Arthur had chosen him instead of Morgan, Merlin just defaults to muscle memory, slinking his hips a little as he moves forward, begins to wiggle off his y-fronts.
Arthur catches at his arm.
"Did you not just hear what I–?" But Arthur doesn't pull, his big hand just encircles Merlin's wrist loosely and there's a little pleading in the line of his jaw. Merlin nods his head. One of the first rules you learned was that whatever you wanted to wear to titillate potential clients, it had to be off within the first five minutes of entering the room with them, but despite his better judgement he lets Arthur draw his hand away.
"Undress me," Arthur says, voice gone hoarse. "As you used to."
Merlin stares up at him, terrified. He could still leave, give back all that money. Arthur reaches out to stroke the knuckle of his thumb down the side of Merlin's face, and this time Merlin doesn't pull away. His fingers are shaky at the buttons of the expensive shirt, mind on a young Spanish peasant girl he married in the sixteenth century, mind shying away from the impossibility. These movements, stripping Arthur of his coat and shirt and shoes and jeans, they are as familiar as his pulse. He has never met this man before. Merlin had learned the cello. His fingers dance a sweet harmony down the mute length of Arthur's bicep. It's a hallucination, he's hallucinating. It's something he saw on the telly (Merlin hates the telly, Merlin doesn't watch–)
"Get on the table," he hears himself say, too raw and bossy, but he watches Arthur's pupils blow. Arthur stretches himself out and puts his hands behind his head, cock jutting up through his pants. Merlin turns away from him for a moment, wraps his arms around himself and digs his fingernails into his palms, squeezes everything tight and tense as though he can ball up his emotions and memories running haywire and pack them out of the way. His next breath is close to a sob. "Turn over."
Arthur's on his stomach when Merlin turns back. Without his gaze, the memories recede back into the fog.
It's easy for a little while; Arthur lies pliant when Merlin steps out of his briefs, warms the baby oil between his hands before stroking it down the long sweep of Arthur's spine. His arms are limp over the sides, like a man who has given up. Merlin loses himself in the repetitive movements of his work; long, skillful fingers curling over Arthur's broad shoulders, massaging them until they unknot for him and he can quiet them with small circles, heat them with deep pressure-point presses. The oil helps his hands move easily, skimming down Arthur's sides, rubbing over to the small of his back, his coccyx, pushing down his underwear to cup handfuls of that perfect arse. That gets a groan, rumbling from Arthur's throat straight to the base of Merlin's cock.
Merlin takes his time. He anoints the back of Arthur's thighs, the oil catching in droplets on the coarse blond hair. Merlin lets his hands worship the hard curve of calf muscles right down to slender ankles, where blue veins show deep beneath the creamy skin. Then it's back up again, touching and circling and feasting on the spread of skin, the way Arthur's canting his hips into the table, soft grunts escaping.
By the time Merlin's pushing his palms up the length of Arthur's back, putting all his weight into it, Arthur's murmurs have become words: "I needed this," he breathes, and: "I've missed you." And "Merlin, Merlin, Merlin," until there's no other name in the world Merlin could answer to. He helps Arthur roll over and feels the air rush from his lungs at the sight of his hair mussed, eyes half-lidded and filled with filthy promises. There's high colour on his cheekbones and spreading down from the broad wings of his collarbone, which Merlin strokes tentatively.
Arthur's cock is leaking against his belly, and it twitches when Merlin toys with his nipples, rolling them between his fingers until they're flushed and peaked and Merlin bites his own lip to resist bending and sucking one into his mouth. When he thumbs a circle around Arthur's navel he bucks his hips madly, so that the tip of his cock brushes sticky against Merlin's wrist, and Merlin has to lean hard against his hip-bones, patient, until all the urgency has faded out of Arthur's face.
Then he lifts Arthur's leg, easy in his grip, and climbs onto the table, settling it back over his lap, the inside of his thigh tickling Merlin's erection. Arthur smirks, moves his leg so it's a firm pressure, and for a moment Merlin forgets to knead and stroke, just ruts up against Arthur's leg, fingers digging into the muscle until he can pull himself back under control. Something bright keeps darting through him, like static electricity, like the aftershocks of an orgasm, spreading out to the tips of his fingers and toes. They're bare flashes of pleasure but they're so intense Merlin thinks he'd drown in it if there was more, a dry asphyxiation, too overwhelmed to pull breath back into his lungs.
Merlin pours more oil dripping over Arthur's cock, and watches as he stops breathing entirely for a moment. His eyes are very wide and blue. Merlin takes pity on him, because he may be batshit insane and a total arse to boot, but he's still another human being, and despite his musculature Arthur's trembling like Merlin could break him to pieces.
"Is this," Merlin asks hesitantly, shocked at the sex-rasp in his own voice. "Is this your first- that is, um, with another man?"
"Yeah," says Arthur, then, dryly, relaxing: "If I wanted you to stop, believe me, I'd say so."
Which is tacit permission to roll Arthur's balls between his fingers, tease them up Arthur's cock and back down again, stroke harder, palm it, fist it. Merlin wraps a hand around the shaft and pulls it slippery through his fist, his other hand already circling the base before the first's let go, and Arthur throws his head back so the tendons in his neck stand out. "Faster," he groans. "Merlin, fuck, please."
The pleading sends another thrill through Merlin, and it must show on his face because Arthur lets it be wrung from him again, hitching in the middle: "Please, god, please."
Merlin pumps him, then, messily at first until he's got the rhythm and his free hand can wander back behind Arthur's balls. Arthur yelps, draws a leg up to press one foot flat to the table. "Shh, shh," Merlin soothes, on the verge of nonsense babble himself. "It's all right, Arthur, trust me, yeah? You trust me?"
When Arthur nods, jaw too tight for speech, Merlin slips an oiled finger back and strokes over the skin behind his balls, slips the tapered tip past the ring of muscle and keeps stroking Arthur's cock until he relaxes, hips shifting with it. Merlin's finger slides in easily, then, and he crooks it, searching, tongue between his teeth behind his pursed lips as he concentrates. It's easy to tell when he finds his mark: Arthur yells, thrusts madly into Merlin's hand, his eyes squeezing shut. Another stroke, two, another deliberate crook of the finger and Arthur's coming, spurting hot over his stomach and dripping down Merlin's knuckles obscenely. The caged storm building in Merlin shifts, and as Arthur collapses back, boneless, Merlin brings his own hand to his mouth and licks his fingers clean, laps kitten-tongued at the crevasses, longs to bend and lick the cum straight from Arthur's sweaty skin.
Instead he untangles himself and slides off the table, cock throbbing unsatisfied between his legs as he walks to the bathroom.
"You didn't–" Arthur says when he sees.
"No," says Merlin, washes his hands, tosses a towel so it lands over Arthur's face. He feels electric, like he could do anything, move mountains with the power of his mind alone. It's vividly scary. He wants very badly to give in to it.
"C'mere," says Arthur, re-emerging from behind the towel, beckoning.
"Time's up," is Merlin's only reply, and if Arthur reaches for him as he walks from the room, Merlin doesn't bother looking back.
Merlin packs up his stuff and gets dressed immediately, his jeans uncomfortably tight over his erection. Morgan and Vivienne are both in the break room, but they take one look at his face and go back to talking about the vampires on the telly.
"I'm going home early," he tells Gwen.
"Are you okay?" she asks, putting a hand on his arm and he wishes she wouldn't, because it tingles under his skin and her worried expression makes him feel guilty when all he wants is to get out, out, out.
"I'm fine," he says, managing a half-smile. "Just feeling a little nauseous, y'know?"
Something in his face makes Gwen lean in closer, anxiety only increasing. "Are you sure? Merlin, he didn't–? I can get Lance, you know he's only the press of a button away."
Merlin shakes his head. "No, no, it's nothing. He's just– a little weird. I don't want... I just want to go home, Gwen, yeah? It's been a hell of a day."
"Well, business isn't exactly booming right now," she says wryly, patting his arm. "You go on home, Merlin, and if you're coming down with something call me and I'll find someone to cover your shift."
"Thanks," Merlin says gratefully, and heads for the door.
The hot water for his building's out of order again. Merlin needs a shower too badly to care. When he steps in, his whole body shudders and his eyes sting. He scrubs himself down with rough strokes as his teeth chatter with the cold, never touching his cock.
The rampart is hard against his back, and he looks out over the hills and valleys of Camelot, the way the sunset paints the landscape pastel, reflects pink and gold off the pale stone. His legs dangle and far below him, past the slope of the roof, he can see the courtyard where the stake is being set. Commonfolk are already beginning to mill around, anticipatory. From this height, they seem like ants, black spots scurrying, and Merlin knows that he could strike them down as easily as stomping an anthill and the knowledge makes him feel sick and lonely.
There's a scuff of boot on stone, and without turning to look he knows Arthur has come up behind him, leaning against the wall to gaze out over the beauty and injustice that will one day be his.
"Sorry," says Merlin, because he was supposed to be working in the stables today; because it's almost time for the evening meal and the kitchens are a thousand stairs away from here; because he is a sorcerer and that pyre could one day be his.
"You should have told me," is all Arthur says, but the annoyance in his voice isn't any sharper or bitterer than when Merlin teases him about girls or lays out the wrong shirt or forgets to keep his cup filled at feasts. "Come down from there."
Merlin doesn't want to come down. But Arthur's voice is commanding as well as soothing, and he puts a warm hand on the base of Merlin's spine, and Merlin shifts around to look down at him, the line of his clenched jaw, limned in the golden light. It never even crosses his mind that Arthur could push him, just like he didn't really believe Arthur would turn him in. Not really. Not even in the beginning, and not when he'd cast the spell that gave him away, eyes a treacherous telling gold. Not a fleeting, doubtful moment in between.
Merlin climbs down. He's shivering: the wind is razorblade vicious this high. Arthur rolls his eyes and pulls off his long, brown coat, wrapping it around Merlin's shoulders and stepping back. "Come on then," he says, still coaxing.
"Thank you," Merlin hears himself say, his voice a little shaky.
"Don't thank me yet: you still have an entire day of chores to make up."
That's enough to make Merlin laugh and he thinks, with the surety of youth, that this will never change. It's a good thought. "Prat," he adds affectionately, and they walk back into the tallest tower of Camelot, out of the twilight.
Merlin awakens slowly and his pillow is damp with tears. He untangles himself from his covers and stumbles to the loo, emptying the contents of his stomach into the toilet.
"Merlin!" Gwen's eyes are wide when she sees him, flickering over him. "You are feeling better, aren't you? Not that I don't trust your judgement, it's just you look terrible. Not unattractive! I mean, I personally don't find you attractive but obviously... people do... it's just you still look unwell, and you really shouldn't be here if- but you can stay, if you'd like, I know—"
"Gwen," Merlin says gently. "I'm fine. It's been a rough couple of days, is all."
She nods, not looking entirely convinced. "All right. Well, you've a booking in an hour, and another at five."
Merlin moves into the empty break room to put his satchel down. "Great. Anyone I know?"
"The first's a new pundit," says Gwen, following him into the room with a basket at her hip filled with towels still warm from the dryer. "He's not bad looking, but he was rather... nervous, you know? He's got, um, a bit of a scar."
With half a shrug, Merlin comes to kneel next to her, helping to fold the laundry. "Scars don't bother me," he says. "And...?"
Gwen sits back suddenly, folding her hands in her lap. "It's that James fellow again," she says.
"He asked for you specifically!"
"All right. I'll call and see if he'd mind Morgan instead." Gwen sighs. "You know if he did something to you we'd all be on your side, right? I mean, just because he's some rough-tough famous type..."
"He didn't do anything," Merlin mumbles. "He's just a creeper, yeah? I don't want to see him again."
Their hands meet as they fold towels together and Gwen gives him a tired smile, pets his fingers with hers. "Yeah," she says. Merlin wonders if she's going to ask why he works here; it wouldn't be the first time. He never answers because he doesn't really know. But she just adds: "I'll let Lance know too, okay? Just in case."
"Just in case," echoes Merlin, and squeezes the towel he's holding a little too lightly. He won't ever have to see the mental patient who thinks he's Arthur Pendragon again. The thought doesn't make him feel one whit better.
Later that afternoon, he sits on the couch with a couple of the other girls and listens to him instead.
"I had a bloody appointment!"
"I'm sorry, sir," Gwen says, all steely professionalism. "We tried to call to notify you, but we've had to cancel. If you'd like, we can introduce you to some of our other—"
"No," Arthur says, and they're all straining to hear him. "I need to talk to Merlin. We'll reschedule."
"I'm afraid that's not possible at the moment," says Gwen.
"Did he— Christ, is he all right? Listen, if he isn't in, could you just give me his phone number?"
Merlin blinks, exchanges a look of what the holy fucking fuck with Sophia next to him. Gwen, of course, knows protocol as well as they do: "Absolutely not, sir."
"Honestly!" They can all hear the scowl. "You must have his number, what kind of bullshit joint are you running?"
"We have his phone number," Gwen says pointedly. "I'm afraid if you're not going to consider some of our other girls for this evening I'll have to ask you to leave."
"He's in there, isn't he." Merlin flinches at that, steels himself to walk out and tell this wanker to fuck the hell off. "Merlin!" Gwen's saying something, threatening to call security, and Merlin's already on his feet when he hears Lance, that absolute champion among champions. Playing knight in shining armour, as he always does.
"Easy now mate, come on, you can't go in there."
"Get your hands off me!" A sharp crack; Gwen gasping; sounds of a scuffle. "Listen," they can hear him wheedling. "I'll make it worth your while, surely this job can't pay that— You can't throw me out like some sort of—! Don't you know who I am?"
But the tension fades from Merlin's shoulders. There's a CCTV set up on the staircase, and they can all watch on the little feed as Lance manhandles him down into the street.
"Jesus," Morgan breathes into the silence of the room as they all stare at the grainy picture, now just the outline of the sunshine outside around the closed front door. "He an ex of yours or something, Merlin?"
She sounds like she's trying to make a joke, but it lights up something deep in Merlin's chest, and his mind grasps for an answer and finds only half-remembered dreams. "Nah," he says, worrying his bottom lip unhappily. "Obviously I'm just irresistible."
"Or he's a crazy fucker," offers Morgan, drawling it in her Irish burr. "I have no idea what I saw in him."
Merlin manages a chuckle. "Couldn't have been those dashing good looks, could it? His massive celebrity? Millions of dollars?"
"Don't be a flip bugger when I'm trying to make you feel better," admonishes Morgan, accompanying it with a light bat of her hand to the back of Merlin's head. "Come on, I've quit trying to quit, let's have a smoke together."
It doesn't end there. Merlin works sporadic shifts, but he hears about it from his co-workers: they have to kick Arthur out twice more, and the last time Lance had made it clear he was banned from the establishment — and next time, the police would be involved. When he hears about that, it doesn't surprise him when Lance also offers to start walking Merlin to his car.
This, by itself, would be bad enough, but Merlin has a feeling it won't work, that something's pushing he and James Bradley towards each other and no matter if he tries to double lock his door, no matter how many paranoid back routes and sharp turns he takes on the way home, he won't be able to avoid the man forever.
There's also the dreams, which have him waking nauseous every night. All he remembers from them is fragments; the white slope of a castle wall, a certain slant of golden-green light; a sense of awe; a bone-gripping terror. Throughout them all rings camaraderie, and Merlin thinks (bent double over a toilet bowl) maybe he's just vomiting up all the bitterness and the loneliness that the dreams stir up like silt in water.
During the day there's memories, and they're almost worse— sharp enough to cut as they are. Curiosity gets the better of him and Merlin pays a handful of loose change to go to an internet cafe and googles madly, the most random things: the name of a ship, a child, a school. Photos of a town in France he'd forgotten he'd ever been to, and their bright colours burn in him. One horrifying search he finds a scanned newspaper article, yellowed and old, and there in the grainy picture is his own face staring back at him, not a day older or younger.
He wonders if he's going crazy. Delusions of grandeur. But he can never convince himself of that for long enough to see a doctor. Doesn't tell anybody else, either, doesn't let on that anything's wrong, just keeps on at his job and his dreary little life and hopes if something about him's a little off, if the rings under his eyes are too dark, then they'll put it down to this stalker debacle and not— whatever this is.
Which, they'd still be mostly right.
Because Merlin's life has always been strange, he's always felt distant and directionless and wandered too much, but now he feels permanently on edge and it all began with Arthur.
This is why, when Merlin answers his door sleepily and half-ten in the morning, and finds himself face-to-face with James Bradley, he doesn't immediately slam it in his good-looking face.
"What the fuck do you want with me," he grits out instead, trying not to look like a frightened man in a dressing gown..
"Merlin," says the prat, and bloody nobody calls him that outside of work — not that he talks to many people, outside of work — so it's a little weird and Merlin reasons that's why his breath catches at the sound of it. "May I come in?"
"Can you-?" Merlin gives a disbelieving little laugh. "Listen, Arthur, you've been enough of a hassle I shouldn't be calling the fucking police and organizing a restraining order right about now. Which I will do, if you don't tell me what the hell's going on. So no, you may not," he mimics the rounded vowels. "Come in."
Arthur swallows. "You must think I'm mad," he says, and Merlin gives him a tight-lipped eyebrow raise that says, Well? Aren't you? "I thought I was too, when I first remembered. Woke up on the day of my twenty-first and, I don't know, it was all just there."
"All what?" Merlin demands, not able to sound quite as angry as he'd like. Arthur slumps elegantly against his door-frame, expensive suit looking entirely out of place in Merlin's grimy hallway.
"Everything. Suddenly next to all the memories of growing up, public school, getting into films, starting uni... there was this whole other life. Camelot. Fighting magical beasts. Being crowned. Marrying Guinevere." He sighs, meets Merlin's eyes, and there's not a trace of a lie in his blue gaze. "I don't understand why you don't remember it too."
Merlin flinches back. The silt of his dreams stir. "How are you doing this," he demands. "How are you making me feel—"
"I'm not making you anything, you idiot!" Arthur runs a hand through his hair and the gesture is so familiar Merlin aches. "I just want to talk to you. I'm not stalking you, Merlin— I hardly need to, I know you." Merlin stares at him doubtfully, opens his mouth to interject, but Arthur overrides him. "You've a scar on your left shoulder I gave you trying to teach you how to use a sword. There's a Druidic tattoo on your hip — I was there when you got it. Your first kiss was Guinevere, after you nearly died trying to save my life. You grew up in Ealdor. Your mother's name is Hunith.
"No," says Merlin, though it all rings true to him. "Please, don't, I can't— You can't be here," he says incoherently, squeezing his eyes against their hot prickle.
"But I am," says Arthur. "Just let me in."
Merlin doesn't realize his knees have buckled until Arthur reaches out and catches him with one sure hand, holds him standing. The touch scares him more than anything else; something in him recognizes that strength, leaps to life at the feel of it. This, this is what he's been waiting for all these long years. He loops an arm around Arthur's neck and kisses him, because it's all he knows how to do.
Arthur pulls back with a hissed curse, eyes wide. That's enough to make Merlin break away from him entirely, stumble backwards into his own apartment, catching at the door. They stare at each other for a moment, strangely awkward. Merlin tries to steady his breathing.
"Have you always been..." Arthur begins.
"There's nothing I've always been," says Merlin. The kiss has brought with it memories of sea-sickness so vivid he can smell the brine, taste the lime at the back of his teeth; memories of a structured dance that he'd always been somewhat bollocks at; memories of names and places and faces that he knows are as much a part of him now as his heart. Hundreds of years, hundreds of lifetimes, hundreds of different lives. And the waiting tying them all together until there was nothing else but that.
The idea of not needing to wait anymore terrifies him.
Arthur seems lost in his own contemplation of Merlin, and though his face is blank his eyes are deeply sad. "You used to smile more," he says at last.
Merlin gives him a sarcastic grin in response.
"Even if I believe you," he says, and something in Arthur's eyes lights up. "I've a late shift tonight and I would really like a little more sleep. Raincheck?"
"I'm banned from your place of work," says Arthur dryly.
"I can change that," says Merlin.
"No," says Arthur. "Though the irony would certainly be... but no. Let me take you out—"
"This isn't an escort agency. I'm not a bloody hooker," says Merlin sharply. The way Arthur flinches makes something in his stomach turn, and he adds, a little mean: "And I still don't trust you. If you want to see me again, it'll be at Camelot or a hotel room, and it'll be paid for."
"Fine." Arthur's jaw is clenched so hard it's a wonder he doesn't break a tooth. "If that's how this has to be, Merlin, I'll see you tonight. Get some rest."
Merlin hisses his exasperation out through his teeth and they glare at each other for a moment before Arthur turns away, and Merlin closes his door. He slumps back against it, head hitting the wood. The overwhelming tension drains out of him, leaving him choked up with the relief of it, the lingering sense-memory, and the remnants of the knowledge that he's done many stupid things in his life, but this still feels like one of the stupidest.
He gets lost in the hotel, of bloody course.
Dropping Camelot's veto on Arthur hadn't taken more than a phone call, and it wasn't long before Gwen was telling him he had an external booking. She'd called up the hotel, confirmed the room and its occupant, and given Merlin the address and room number with a high-pitched, "Do be careful, Merlin?"
He's done this a couple of times before, but this place is the Ritz — literally — and Merlin feels too scruffy in his oversized jeans and jumper to ask one of the attendants where the lift is. So by the time he's actually there, lift doors opening out into the hallway, he's already amateurishly nervous.
Arthur answers the door after two knocks, still in his suit from earlier that day, lower lip caught between his teeth, and Merlin's suddenly grateful with the knowledge that he's not the only one. "You came."
"Yeah," says Merlin, and then when Arthur holds the door open for him: "Jesus Christ."
It's like being back in the Victorian era: the room is spacious and decadent, richly furnished in creams and reds. The windows are huge, and they're the first thing Merlin goes to, bypassing the sofas and the fireplace and the king-sized bed that dominates the room to look out on the London skyskape, a haze of purple sky from a thousand twinkling lights. Merlin's mind skitters over the kind of money it would take to have booked this room a bare few hours in advance.
When Merlin turns to look for Arthur, he's closed the door and is hanging up his coat, looking amused and somewhat pleased at Merlin's obvious excitement. "So," he says, loosening his tie. "I take it this meets your exacting standards?"
"Did you see my crappy flat?" asks Merlin. "This is brilliant."
"Does that mean we can talk?"
"Oh," says Merlin, glancing up at Arthur from beneath his lashes. "Conversation's an extra."
"And you don't do extras."
"Actually, that was a lie," admits Merlin, a little ruefully. They pause for a moment in the middle of the room. Merlin shifts from one foot to the other. "So," he says, trying to be casual. "I gave King Arthur a handjob. There's one for the history books."
Arthur winces, and the tips of his ears go a little red. "Yes, well. That wasn't... planned."
"So you walked into a massage parlour looking for some conversation?"
"I went there intending to see a woman," emphasizes Arthur.
Merlin is unimpressed. "Should've chosen Morgan, then."
"If I wanted to fuck a fan," says Arthur cruelly, "I'd let my security team know. Besides, once I saw you..."
"You couldn't resist my charms?" Merlin flutters his eyelashes. Which is supposed to be ridiculous rather than come-hither, but Arthur's looking at him, a deeply predatory look, pupils dark and lip swollen from where he'd been biting it. He has his tie in one hand, and his hair is rumpled from where he's obviously ran a hand through it, and the comfortable banter fades into the silence and just leaves them staring at each other.
Merlin moves first. He reaches down and pulls his jumper off over his head, watches when he reemerges from the wool the way Arthur's eyes are trailing his torso. Then shoes, then his jeans; he pops the button and shimmies out of them, toes off his socks. It's not deliberate enough to be a striptease, and he has to hop for a moment when a sock hangs persistently on his foot, but that doesn't seem to matter. It's unabashed, and he can see Arthur reacting, the way he clenches a hand, licks his lips, shifts his weight.
"Do you need me to undress you again?" Merlin asks, glib.
"I'm perfectly capable of undressing myself," snaps Arthur, and then stands there and doesn't, making Merlin feel more and more naked. Then he stalks over in two quick steps and runs his hands over Merlin, which is against the rules and Merlin doesn't care. Arthur's palms gentle at his hipbones and his breath quickens. "I'm going to take you to bed now," Arthur informs him.
"Yes, your majesty," dares Merlin, and then Arthur's kissing him, skipping chaste and going straight to wet and dirty. His tongue licks open Merlin's mouth, jaw slackening as they press and explore. Merlin bites that tempting lower lip, and Arthur retaliates by sliding his tongue under Merlin's and somehow that makes him instantly hard. Merlin's eyes fall closed because he doesn't do kissing, not on a job, but this is fantastic. He should push Arthur away, but his hands are too busy sliding over that broad back, tracing the play of muscles beneath the shirt. He thrusts his hips into Arthur's steady hands just to test their grip.
Arthur's pushing him backwards until he hits the bed, presses him down into it, and then he's everywhere, licking down Merlin's neck and over his ears, biting tiny marks across his collarbone, sucking a nipple into his mouth, and Merln's spine curves with pleasure, his toes curling as he tries to get the weight on his feet and elbows and ass to move into it. But Arthur has him pinned, and Merlin gives up and scrabbles over his still-clothed ass with needy fingers.
"What do you want," he tries eventually, catching Arthur's face with one hand and bringing it up to be kissed. His eyes are wild — Merlin imagines his are much the same. Power's beginning to roar under his skin again, the memories shoving their way forward, and he kisses Arthur violently to drown them out. "What do you want?" he repeats, more of a question, head falling back against the mattress so the arch of his throat lies bare.
"What are you willing to—"
"Anything," says Merlin. Swallows, wishes he could take it back. "Just— take your sodding clothes off."
Arthur smirks, straddles Merlin's lap to sit and Merlin's transfixed. All that glorious weight pressing hard on his dick and Arthur unbuttoning his shirt with an anal-retentive care that makes Merlin wish he'd just ripped it off instead of asking. But even as he undresses, Arthur's focused intently on Merlin. "What do you want?" he asks, and Merlin squirms. They're so far outside his professional comfort zone that it's hard to know where to begin.
Then Arthur abandons the shirt over the edge of the bed, starts unbuckling his belt, and Merlin says: "I want you to fuck me."
They both need a moment for that to sink in. Merlin reaches up to unzip Arthur's trousers, slip a hand inside to feel the length of him. "There's oil in my bag, and condoms," Merlin adds. If Arthur's going to pay extra for conversation, Merlin might as well make it worth his while. "I want to feel you fill me up — with your tongue, your fingers, your dick, anything."
"Good Lord," says Arthur, and bends to kiss him messily again.
When Arthur climbs off the bed, Merlin tries not to gasp like a drowned fish. He's remembering windmills; a thousand white balloons released into the blue summer sky; sucking someone off in a forest with dirt under his fingernails; the first time he'd heard Ode to Joy; drive-in movies; inventions; presidencies; holidays; celebration. He tugs off his underwear, wraps a hand around his own cock like he can release some of the building pleasure. Then Arthur's looming grand and naked over him, pulling his hand away, replacing it with his own. Pleasure arcs through Merlin, dangerously good.
"Shit," he gasps, and: "Hurry up."
But Arthur takes his time with it. Merlin has to tell him, "Yes, yes, another finger, you're not going to break me, Arthur, you're not gonna- harder, Christ, crook your- to the left and- there, yeah, yes. Jesus, yes.
He's wracked with it, clenching against the expensive bedcovers, raising his legs until his thighs burn and pressing back into it. "Come on," he begs, watching Arthur finger him, brow creased in the expression he always wore when concentrating on a task. Merlin starts up a new litany, unable to keep the words from spilling out. "Fuck me, come on, Arthur, I need you in me, fuck me, Arthur, please."
Finally Arthur pulls out his fingers with a wet pop and Merlin keens until Arthur covers his mouth with sloppy kisses, too much teeth and spit as he lines himself up between Merlin's spread legs.
Arthur only thrusts in a little, at first, getting his bearings, but it's enough to make Merlin groan and he can hear an answering noise from deep in Arthur's chest. "Do it," he urges. Arthur bottoms out in him, balls slapping against Merlin's arse. Merlin bucks and god, he's so close, he can feel the pressure all over, like deep-sea diving.
One thrust, sharp and good, and it's electricity again, thrumming through his body. Merlin's practically holding his breath for it, clenching himself around Arthur's cock involuntarily, positive this is going to be the best orgasm he's ever had. Arthur begins to move properly, and their mouths slip away from each other; Merlin's forms an 'o' as Arthur mouths desperately at his collarbone.
"Want to see you come," Arthur's panting barely intelligible. "Wanna see you spurt all over yourself, want to come all over you until you're dripping with it, make you lick it up."
"Yeah," Merlin gasps, secretly pretty sure Arthur's watched way too much gay porn this time around. "Fucking— harder, just. You. Arthur, Arthur."
"So close," Arthur warned him. "I'm— need to—"
"Come on me," Merlin tells him, and looks down the length of their bodies to watch Arthur pull out, strip off the condom, his cock red and shining. Merlin reaches for it with both hands and barely has to stroke before Arthur's spurting wet and hot all over him, dripping down his chest. "Fuck," says Merlin, spreads his legs a little wider: "Fingers."
Arthur's still shaky with aftershocks but he slides two fingers back into Merlin, to the knuckle, thumb skating over his balls. Merlin rakes his fingers through Arthur's cum and curls a sticky fist around his own cock where it lies hard against his stomach, pulls himself off mercilessly. It barely takes a few strokes, the right amount of pressure in his arse, Arthur's mouth still wet against his skin and Merlin comes so hard white light bursts behind his eyes.
He's filled with it, shaking and overwhelmed by it, and just when he can't remember his own name, doesn't think there's anything left to give, it vanishes and he's left wrung dry, floating in the absence of everything.
That's when his magic kicks in.
How could he have forgotten something as essential as this? The fine hair on the back of his arms stands up as the magic sears through him, finding its home. It collected all the fragments and feelings and impossibilities, sand in the wind, and bound them back together.
Merlin remembers now, what it was like to live a life with Arthur as his best friend and King; remembers what it was like to have each other's backs. He remembers watching Arthur die, and the promise that he would return. Merlin had been determined to wait — Emrys, the Druids had called him. Immortal, in the Old Tongue. They'd known.
But no-one had known what it would take out of him. At first he'd travelled as himself, following wherever his feet took him, and his magic served him well. But then lifetimes rolled by, and magic became myth. The deeds of his friends, so vivid in his memory still, became fancies for the Franks to toy with. There was poetry, and art, and literature, and for a while he felt he might go mad with the grief of being so far out of his time.
The only thing he could do was let it go, pack it tightly away, and move on to a new life, a new name, one without the endless burden of notoriety. Without his magic, Merlin had been ordinary — a hundred times over, and each new life was inevitably discarded to make way for immersion in a new one.
Without his magic he had been scattered apart. With it...
Merlin takes a long breath and opens his eyes. The first thing he sees is Arthur.
"It took you long enough," he says with a grin.
"Me?" scoffs Arthur, wrapping one arm around Merlin's waist and pulling him close. "If you'll remember, you're the one who refused to see me."
"Oh, I remember, all right," says Merlin. "Do you know how long I've been waiting for you? A few weeks of suspense is barely payback for over a thousand years of tedium. I should've held out for at least another six months."
Arthur dips his head and hides his smile in Merlin's neck. "Please, you know I'm worth it."
Merlin pretends to consider it, and Arthur's chuckle vibrates over his skin. "I dunno," he hums, riffling Arthur's hair like summer's breeze through a cornfield. "Not quite. But I'll let you make up the difference."
"Will you now?" says Arthur in his most arrogant tone. "May I remind you just who is whose manservant, here?"
"Which reminds me," says Merlin, sliding his heel up the back of Arthur's calf. "You're going to have to recalculate my wages."
"Recalculate?" splutters Arthur indignantly.
Merlin makes a noise of assent. "Well, into the British pound, at least. And given everything," he slides a hand through the mess over his chest and pulls a face, "I probably deserve a raise."
"Why on Earth did I think finding you was a good idea," Arthur says long-sufferingly. Merlin just laughs and kisses him.