The thing about recruiting is that Arthur actually likes it. He likes talking to teenagers who aren’t sure about what they want to do with their lives. He likes meeting a kid who is sullen or indifferent and making them sit up and take notice of the world outside their hyper-protected walls. He knows what to say and how to make them imagine themselves as a brother-in-arms, working in a well-oiled machine where only the best of the best make it. After all, what teenagers want more than anything is to belong. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. Arthur knows just how to paint that picture and make them sign on the dotted line.
Arthur is fucking brilliant at recruitment.
He scores more new recruits than any other officer in the Special Ops Division. There’s a pool that starts around this time every year, where his fellow recruiters take bets on the number of new recruits Arthur’s going to bring in, and another pool on how many are actually going to pass the physical and psych-eval. Last Arthur checked there’s a £50 buy-in.
Arthur’s visiting a mixed school today. Ealdor High was one of the first of its kind and revolutionary in its heyday. But more are cropping up all over Albion as the law – and people’s priorities – change. (Nothing brings a nation closer together than conflict, ironically.) It’s a mark of progress. Segregation never sat easy with Arthur, no matter what his father thought.
Ealdor High looks as old as it genuinely is; big and squat like one of the government’s rundown penitentiaries, not a safe haven for furthering one’s mind. All the schools look like Fort Knox now, thanks to the Wars. Arthur can see the crumbling plaster of the outer wall from where he sits in his Hummer at the school’s check point. Even the barbed wire looks rusty, brittle.
A guy with a thick neck and an ugly sneer is ponderously examining Arthur and Freya’s credentials. He doesn’t look all that keen on letting them through the barrier. Arthur’s dealt with his type a hundred times before. Most school security forces are wannabe soldiers who failed the recruitment process for one reason or another. It makes them bitter and resentful whenever Arthur shows up at their school to talk to their students about joining up. It’s very territorial and all about dick sizes, as far as Arthur can tell. What none of these wankers seems to realise is that Arthur has the biggest dick of them all.
"There a problem?" Arthur asks mildly, eyeing the security guard over the rim of his aviators. He knows he looks like a cocky fucker and that he really shouldn’t be antagonising the local wildlife, but he hates being made to wait.
“No, Captain Royce,” the guard says like he’s sucking on lemons. He returns their credentials and retreats to his bullet-proof booth and his stupid plastic clipboard. The barriers rise slowly and Arthur inches the Hummer through and into a visitor’s parking space. Freya is looking at him with a raised eyebrow, clearly amused.
“Hating on the little people again, Captain?”
“Grab the presentation materials, Sergeant,” Arthur says, ignoring her question. If he hears a laugh, he lets it slip by uncommented on. Freya’s been one of the best recruitment partners he’s had in a while. She’s smart, savvy and has a sense of humour, which is desperately needed if you want to be a recruiter. The teenage boys like her pretty figure and that sharp, feline smile of hers, and the teenage girls find her aspirational and kick-ass, rather than a potential boyfriend stealer (a feeling Lieutenant Morgan had engendered way too frequently for his liking).
Arthur allows himself a little self-satisfied smile that Freya had been one of his first recruits. If he ever needed proof of his epic skills in persuasion and intuition, he need look no further than her.
“Think we’ll score the Dragonlord heir?” Freya asks in an undertone, jogging up beside him. “He’s supposed be a student here, right Captain?”
“He is,” Arthur acknowledges. “We’ll have to be particularly persuasive today, won’t we?” This earns him her trademark feral smile.
They walk through the automatic doors and into the school’s reception. A woman at the front desk with red hair and large glasses smiles at them, standing rather sharply to attention.
“Captain Royce,” she greets, eyes going wide behind her ridiculous lenses. Arthur is used to the reception he gets when in full dress uniform. “Welcome to Ealdor High.”
“I’m Matilda Lyle. Mr Whyte asked me to show you into his office the moment you got here. He wanted to welcome you personally before we introduced you to the children.”
Arthur wants to roll his eyes at the word children, like he’s come to do a damn puppet show. He keeps a straight face, though. Ms Lyle leads them through a maze of desks to a glass cubical with ugly taupe-coloured Venetian blinds for privacy. She knocks on the door and pops her head in without waiting for a reply.
“The recruiters are here, Mr Whyte.”
“Send them in! Send them in!”
Mr Whyte is aptly named. His hair is stark white and in dire need of a cut. He looks like a hippy gone to seed, a psychedelic tie livening up an otherwise simple blue suit. He sticks out a hand for Arthur to shake, smile genuine.
“Mr Whyte, a pleasure to meet you in person,” Arthur says, cranking up the charm in what Lt. Morgan liked to call his meet-the-in-laws voice.
“Pleasure’s all mine, Captain.”
“This is Sergeant Katz. Her speciality is with recruitment for the magical branch of the Special Forces.”
“Good, good.” Mr Whyte smiles some more. “The majority of our students have some form of magical ability, mostly between alpha and gamma level. We have a half-dozen higher classifications. And one theta.”
“A theta? I’ve never met anyone with theta capabilities before,” Freya says, voice revealing her surprise and curiosity. “Is it the Dragonlord heir?”
Mr Whyte gives Freya a stern look which involves one severe eyebrow almost arcing off his forehead. “It is indeed. You’ll get a chance to meet him. He’s… easy to spot,” Whyte finishes enigmatically. Freya knows when a subject is closed.
“What’s the percentage of magickers to non-magickers, sir?” she asks instead.
“Seventy-three per cent magic.”
Freya whistles. “That’s way above average.”
“It is,” Mr Whyte concedes with a nod. “Even for an inner-city school like ours, we have about forty per cent more than the national average. Puts something of a strain on our resources. Seems like every other week our security team has to deal with a surprise fire from one of the more magically inexperienced students.” The elderly teacher shakes his head tiredly and Arthur wonders if this is how he got all that white hair.
“But enough of that. I wanted to welcome you personally. I like to say hello to the recruiters each year. So do let me know if you need anything while you’re here and I’ll be happy to oblige. Why, two years ago there was a freak thunderstorm and the recruiters had to spend the night – lucky we have some spare study bedrooms. That storm was like God himself was looking on us,” Mr Whyte says with remembered wonder. “Now, I’ll just get one of my Year 12s to show you to the auditorium. The rest of the year group will be waiting for you there.”
He paces to the door and yanks it open to shout, “Gwaine!” at the top of his voice.
A strikingly handsome youth saunters into view, dark hair thick and wavy and certainly not military standard. However, Ealdor isn’t really a military academy and is evidently lax on enforcing certain protocol. The teenager’s G-Kit is not dissimilar to most military academy uniforms though: grey trousers, blue short-sleeve button down with epaulettes. The tie is bright red. Arthur can also see a blue beret sticking out Gwaine’s back pocket, probably only worn when outside or for official school functions.
“You called, Mr Whyte?” He has a slight, lilting accent from somewhere in the western territories. Arthur’s not sure if he’s a magicker or not, but if he had to choose he’d put Gwaine in the negative column.
“Escort Captain Royce and Sergeant Katz to the auditorium please, Gwaine.”
Mr Whyte sticks a finger in his student’s face. “And no detours.”
Mr Whyte turns back to Arthur and says in an undertone, “He’s one of our brightest. His team always comes first in the mock battles every year, though he’s not really a leader or strategist. Just bloody tenacious.” Arthur nods at this information, murmuring quiet thanks.
Gwaine is a charmer. For a teenager, he’s remarkably comfortable in his own body; he doesn’t hunch or blush or overcompensate with bravado in front of authority figures like Arthur and Freya. Arthur’s not entirely sure he likes this kid and is certain he wouldn’t know discipline if it punched him in the balls. In between his lazy chatter about the school, his eyes flicker back and forth between Arthur and Freya with an expression of mischievous speculation. It seems Gwaine is something of a Casanova and weighing the pros and cons between which Special Forces officer he might have the best chance with. Arthur makes sure his gaze has a little more ice in it the next time Gwaine glances at him. The teenager merely smiles and shrugs, unabashed at being caught out.
“Here we are, Captain, Sergeant,” Gwaine says at last, courteously opening the door with a plaque that reads Faraday Auditorium.
There’s a group of about forty-five students sitting in neatly-rowed plastic chairs, facing an empty display table. They’re chatting quietly amongst themselves.
“Look sharp, darlings!” Gwaine says, loud and grinning. Every single student lurches to their feet and stands to attention, eyes front and centre. Arthur’s not sure whether to be amused or annoyed.
“At ease,” he says on instinct. Everyone moves into parade rest. They’re not bad for a non-military academy, Arthur grudgingly admits. “I am Captain Royce with the Albion Army, Special Forces Division. This is Sergeant Katz.” Arthur sweeps a hand palm-up to indicate Freya, who is quickly and efficiently setting up their presentation materials. “She is also with the Special Forces Division. And we’re here today because we’re looking for the best of the best.”
Arthur can feel the subtle shift in his audience. They’re paying attention, they’re standing up straighter, and they want to be thought of as the very best. Yes, Ealdor High will be a cake-walk. Freya steps up beside him and nods discreetly, letting him know that she’s finished setting up. Arthur smiles a little and asks the teenagers to sit.
He can feel the rush of adrenaline that comes with speaking about the Special Forces to the young and impressionable – not as potent as the kind he gets while on a black ops mission, but exhilarating nonetheless. Arthur tells them a little of the history and role of Special Forces within the Army. He emphasises the importance of their particular division: unsegregated and the perfect mix of skills from magickers and non-magickers alike. He recounts – sans any confidential details – one of their most successful missions, saving several high-ranking hostages from behind enemy lines.
“Captain Royce,” Gwaine says out of nowhere, suddenly sitting up straight and alert in his chair, the languid charm completely gone. It is disconcerting to witness such an extreme physical change. He is a completely different person; one Arthur can genuinely believe wins at mock battles. “Are you the one they call Pendragon?”
Arthur fights not to look shocked. He knows his call-sign is famous and bandied about in the press like he’s the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg. But ‘Pendragon’ and ‘Captain Arthur Royce’ rarely get mentioned in the same breath outside of the military. It takes him longer than he’d like to admit before he realises that the entire auditorium is silent and motionless, waiting with awed stares.
“I am,” Arthur concedes carefully. It’s not exactly a military secret, but…
“Sir,” Gwaine says, voice deep. “You’re a fucking legend.” The other students all nod and murmur. This pisses Arthur off severely.
“I’m only a legend because I alone have had the misfortune of being written about by the media. They could easily take any one of my comrades and write about their successful missions. They too would become just as famous as Pendragon, probably more so. I work with an incredible, dedicated unit. Don’t for a second think joining up is your chance to stand out in a crowd, to get your name in the papers or become a… legend. The Special Forces is about team work. You want constant media attention? Go on a reality TV-show.”
The auditorium rings with silence. Arthur hadn’t meant to be so stern with them, but nor was he expecting every face turned to him to look so bloody inspired. These are the kinds of looks he receives from his comrades just before a mission, when he tells them they are the fucking best and not to get killed because he’d hate having to replace any of them. Seems Ealdor is made of sterner stuff than he gave it credit for.
“Speaking of team mates,” Arthur abruptly segues. “Sergeant Katz is one of my finest. She, along with one other member of our squad, is a military magicker.” Freya steps forward and smirks as the entire audience turns to her in fascination. “We were the first – and are still one of the only – branches of the military to be unsegregated. We have always felt that a mixture of non-magic and magic users make for the strongest Special Operative squads. Sergeant Katz here will be happy to tell you about her experiences as a magicker in the military.”
“Hello girls and boys,” Freya says teasingly. “I’m a ‘shifter and was recruited by Captain Royce three years ago.”
Arthur steps back, allowing Freya to take centre stage. He skirts the edge of the auditorium, cataloguing the faces that hang on every word Freya says. There are only three teenagers Arthur would rule out entirely as recruitment material just on looks alone. These are better odds than he could have hoped for – particularly at a mixed school. Recruitment for magickers is always harder than for non because there are less of them in the population and even fewer who want to join the Wars.
He continues trying to spot the Dragonlord heir who Mr Whyte had insisted would be easy to recognise. They all look like run-of-the-mill teenagers to Arthur, a bit pimply and ordinary.
And then Arthur catches sight of one particular boy and all thoughts of Dragonlords are swept away. He’s young, they all are, but there’s something particularly beguiling and honest about this teenager’s face. He has dark hair with a natural curl to it, light eyes, sharp features and the most appalling ears. He is sitting in the back row and the far wall, which is made entirely of windows and faces out onto a depressing concrete court meant for tennis, is letting in all the afternoon sun and lighting him from behind. Those ears… they’re glowing red from the backlighting and Arthur has the sudden and overwhelming urge to roar with laughter. This is swiftly followed by the near crippling desire to go over and run a thumb along the rim. It’s… alarming.
His feet take him slowly closer to Ears. The teenager is watching him intently, which sends a staggering thrill of sexual excitement that starts at the top of Arthur’s spine and ends somewhere in the region of his dick. Ears is paying no attention to Freya, his eyes – blue, shocking flame blue – are tracking Arthur’s every move. His mouth is hanging open. He looks idiotic and Arthur wants to…
“ – aptain Royce.” He just catches the end of Freya’s handover and whips his eyes to her. Freya’s giving him a look that nobody but a member of his squad would recognise. She knows something is up and is asking him with her eyes if he’s alright. Arthur clears his throat.
“Questions?” he barks. A dozen hands snap into the air. Arthur deliberately turns his back on Ears.
“Yes, you,” he points to a pretty girl with blond curls.
“I was wondering…” she pauses and glances at the boy sitting next to her and takes his hand, “we were wondering: what is the military’s view on the Soul-bonded enlisting? We’d like to join, but…”
The look and the hand-holding suddenly make perfect sense. The Soul-bonded are a relic of a bygone era; scientists are still unsure how and why the phenomenon occurs. Only about fifty-five percent of the population ever finds their bondmate. A sad statistic. It has ruined many lives and more marriages. Arthur’s own parents hadn’t been bondmates. He knew first hand that love didn’t have to be just between the Soul-bonded to be real, to have meaning, to devastate.
The other students seem unfazed by the question and their classmates’ casual intimacy, and it occurs to Arthur that these teenagers must have been an early bond, possibly made before they’d even entered the school system. He nods in understanding at the pair’s hesitation.
“We don’t get many soul-bonded enlisting in the army, true,” Arthur admits eventually. “It’s not the kind of life most bondmates wish to pursue together. The military don’t discourage it, though they don’t exactly encourage it either. You two know better than most that if something happened to one of you, the other would not survive. If that were to occur, whichever unit they belonged to would suddenly have lost a significant number of its team in one blow.”
The bonded teenagers share a look and Arthur can see disappointment and understanding and regret.
“However,” he continues loudly, speaking over their defeated looks. “That is not to say that the Soul-bonded can’t join. In fact, I have a pair on my team.”
“Really?” asks the boy.
“We do indeed. Two of the military’s finest.”
And it’s true, Guinevere and Lancelot are two of the best soldiers – and the best people – he’s ever met. Arthur had fought tooth and fucking nail to keep them on his team. It hadn’t been easy. It was common knowledge that Arthur had been dating Private Gwen Smith from the 85th when she’d met his XO and, they were to find out within moments of the meeting, her bondmate, Lieutenant du Lac. It had been like a bloody soap opera. Eventually, Arthur had worn the brass down with promise after promise that his ex-girlfriend being bonded to his best friend would not be detrimental to the team’s efficiency. The whole team had had to be given a psych-eval by a smarmy Doctor Edwin, but every one of them had passed.
The bonded pair look delighted at the realisation that they can join up together. They smile at each other and grip their twined fingers tighter. Arthur has to look away.
Arthur and Freya spend twenty minutes answering more of the students’ questions. They’re on to the final one, something about medical training, when Mr Whyte rushes into the auditorium looking frazzled.
“News just came over the wire,” he calls to Arthur. “High Command is issuing a Red Alert for Camelot City. The F.A.Y. is about to –” Mr Whyte doesn’t get to finish because whatever the F.A Y were about to do they’ve already gone and done.
The entire building shakes on its foundations; several students and Mr Whyte are knocked to the ground. Freya immediately crouches down low and places a hand to where her sidearm is usually holstered, reflexive. The distinctive whistling sound of high-explosives in red-shift can be heard in the distance and Arthur barely has time to yell at the students to hit the deck, when the school is once again shuddering with the impact of an explosion.
Arthur takes stock of the situation. Despite how loud and close the bombs are, they’re not actually meant for the school. The target is most likely the Mercian Embassy a block down. He says as much to Freya and Mr Whyte.
“You’re going to have to shut down the school,” Arthur continues, ostensibly talking to the Head Teacher but loud enough for everyone to hear. “Get the school’s security team to patrol the walls in case the F.A.Y. decide to switch targets, though it’s unlikely. And your students need to board up the windows.”
Another bomb hits but it’s further away and the building doesn’t shimmy quite so much. It’s still loud as hell and several of the students are looking ashen.
“We had storm shutters installed on all windows two years ago for this purpose,” Mr Whyte says grimly. “Captain, it looks like you and the Sergeant are going to be our guests for the foreseeable future.” He says it more like a question, perhaps unsure if Arthur and Freya are likely to be called up by their division.
“Looks like,” Arthur agrees.
The best he can do is radio in to HQ and give them a sitrep. It’s unlikely his unit is going to be asked to engage in this particular fracas. Firstly, they’re on light duty now that Arthur and Freya are in the swing of recruiting season. And secondly, Black-Sprite Helicopters were a menace unto themselves. Some of the most skilled magickers can take maybe one down before blacking out for a power re-charge. Freya and Morgan are the only two magickers on his team and neither have that kind of power. Freya’s a ‘shifter which makes her a hand-to-hand specialist and Morgan, as a pre-cog, is their intelligence officer.
“I’ll get Merlin to show you to the guest rooms, then,” Mr Whyte says, glancing behind him and shouting the name above the din.
Arthur nearly swallows his own goddamned tongue when he sees that Merlin is the boy with the ears. He moves over to them at a crouching run, eyes flicking between Mr Whyte and Arthur, but mostly staring at him like he can’t look away.
“Merlin, take the Captain and Sergeant Katz to the East Wing dorms. There’s some spare rooms on the Milton corridor,” Mr Whyte says and Merlin nods gamely, blue eyes never leaving Arthur. “And call your father straight after; let him know you’re not dead. I don’t want another national incident.”
Arthur has no idea what any of that means, but Merlin glances away, blushing. Even his ears go pink. Arthur turns to Freya to gauge her reaction. Her eyebrows are knitted and she seems… rather intrigued.
“Yes, Sir,” Merlin murmurs. His voice is deeper than Arthur would have predicted and it does things to his stomach that feel like lust… but that can’t be. It must just be the adrenaline. Or indigestion. Merlin glances at him again from under long, dark lashes.
“If you’ll follow me?”
Arthur and Freya quickly pack up their supplies while Mr Whyte instructs half a dozen students in sliding heavy metal doors, accordion-like, across the expanse of glass wall. Merlin leads them out of the auditorium and through a maze of corridors, students and teachers rushing purposefully about, locking doors and securing windows with storm shutters. Every few minutes they have to pause and hold on to the walls while the school shakes.
“So,” Freya begins as they march up a flight of stairs. “You’re Merlin. Of the Dragonlords, right?”
Arthur almost misses the next step, very nearly face-planting with the stairwell he’s so surprised by Freya’s words. Merlin couldn’t be… but maybe he was? Maybe this was why Arthur feels so odd around him, like Arthur is the teenager and not the one who is two months off his thirtieth birthday, for God’s sake. This must be the reason, Arthur tells himself. The Dragonlords are an uncanny people and powerful beyond belief; even in a world filled with magickers they’re the ones who hold the real power. Theta level indeed.
Arthur watches Merlin’s back intently, looking for pride or cockiness, but what he actually sees is Merlin shrug slightly, almost apologetic.
“Yeah,” he says, clearly embarrassed. “I’m Merlin et Balinor of House Emrys.”
“Figured so.” Freya nods. “I met your father once when I went to a lecture he gave at Greater Avalon University on the history and modern practicalities of dragon warfare. He’s a great man.”
“Um. Thanks. He’s, well, I never thought much about it, you know? He’s just my dad. Gets grumpy when he hears I’ve done badly on a test and likes to take embarrassing photos of me and put them in frames around the house. Like most dads.”
Freya laughs and agrees that it sounds remarkably like her own father. Arthur doesn’t say anything. Uther was not a topic he liked to bring up in company.
They eventually reach a long corridor with ugly orange-red carpeting and doors covered in an oak veneer which, in every instance, is chipping round the edges. Merlin opens a door with the number 3 on it and shows Freya into a worn but clean study bedroom. He paces over to the window and secures the storm shutter for her.
“If you need anything,” Merlin says to her, “just use the phone on the desk and call 5667 which will put you through with reception. Or dial 9 first to call the outside world.” He smiles sweetly and Freya seems utterly charmed. Arthur can feel the beginnings of a scowl.
Then suddenly he’s alone with the boy. Merlin stands before him for a long moment, just staring, all wide-eyed and gangly. It’s hard to believe he’s the heir to one of the most powerful magicker dynasties the world has ever seen. It’s completely insane.
The moments tick by and Merlin doesn’t move. Arthur raises an eyebrow at him pointedly. Merlin bites his bottom lip and turns quickly to the door marked 8.
“This… this is your room, Captain Royce.” It’s a mirrored carbon copy of Freya’s. Merlin rushes clumsily over to the window. “Here, I’ll just get the…” The screen doesn’t budge. Merlin frowns. “One sec…”
“It’s fine, Merlin.”
“No!” Merlin struggles harder, throwing his weight against the handle. “I can… it’s just stiff, is all. Just need to…”
“These rooms aren’t used much. Bet this has never even… been closed… shit – ”
“Merlin!” Arthur barks. He jerks around while simultaneously yanking the rusty storm shutter across the window. His feet have slipped from under him and he’s hanging, ridiculously, from the handle of the shutter, his face is a picture of surprise.
“I… it’s fixed,” he says weakly.
“So I see,” Arthur replies, trying not to laugh. “Thank you, Merlin. I think I can take it from here.”
“Um. Sure. Of course. I’ll just… ” Merlin brushes his palms down the sides of his trousers nervously. Eventually, he shuffles to the door with stiff shoulders and pauses for a fraction of a moment before he whirls around, proffering his hand for Arthur to shake.
“It was a pleasure, Captain Royce.”
Arthur’s considering reaching out, considering taking that hand with its delicate bones and pale skin and holding it in his own. It feels to Arthur as though he’s being drawn forward, no thought, just instinct… and then another bomb goes off.
The explosion is so close to the grounds of Ealdor High that the building shudders more violently than from any of the previous blasts. Merlin stumbles, hands reaching up to cover his ears a few seconds too late. Arthur doesn’t bother; years in warzones have taught him that a few seconds late is a few seconds late: nothing’s going to stop the ringing in your ears but time.
“Damnit,” Arthur mutters. He turns to Merlin, who looks dazed and frozen to where he leans against the far wall. Arthur swears again and waves a hand in Merlin’s face, trying to get the his attention, snap him out of shock.
“Oi, kid,” Arthur says loud and slow. “You all right there?”
Suddenly Merlin’s eyes are gold and shimmering intensely. He narrows a look at Arthur. “Peachy. Thanks.”
Arthur is about to make some sarcastic retort when the door bursts open and Freya stumbles into the room.
“You okay, Captain?”
“Yeah. That was a big fucker. Think it hit somewhere to the west of us, on my side of the building. My ears are still ringing.”
“Too bloody right,” Merlin says, shaking his head, as though that might shake the ringing loose. Freya cuts the teenager a brief, amused look.
“Think we should offer our service to Mr Whyte and the school’s security team?” she asks Arthur.
“Yes. This fighting is getting a little too close for comfort,” Arthur says, moving over to the old Bakelite phone on the desk. “I’ll ring Command now and give them a sitrep.”
But the phone isn’t working. There’s not even a dial tone, no matter how many times Arthur presses the receiver. He slams the handset into the cradle.
“A phone line probably got hit. I’m going to have to use the Hummer’s radio. You go and offer your help to Mr Whyte and I’ll radio Command.”
“Roger, Sir.” Freya turns to leave, and Arthur is about to follow but Merlin shifts in front of the door, blocking his way.
“What about me?” he asks, face earnest.
“What about you?”
“I want to help. I could come with you to get your radio.”
“It’s not really a two person job, Merlin.”
“There are bombs going off out there,” Merlin says as though talking to someone particularly dense.
“You… you could get hit!” Merlin sounds genuinely distressed. Arthur ignores the tilting roll of his gut.
“True. But if one does hit while I’m out there, then I don’t want anyone else with me when it happens. One death is preferable to two.”
“And no deaths are preferable to one!” Merlin actually looks angry. His eyes are sparking gold again and Arthur can see the magic in this boy better than he’s seen in any other magicker. It’s palpable, potent and, right now, thoroughly riled.
“No, Merlin. I can’t risk you.” Arthur nearly bites his tongue at the words that just poured out of him. Freya, who had doubled back to see what the hold-up was, is giving him one of her looks. Arthur is definitely not blushing.
“I’m not a child,” Merlin is saying, apparently oblivious to the concern Arthur had mistakenly betrayed. He’s folding his arms and scowling. “I think I can be trusted enough to help you get to your radio, Captain.”
“It’s not about trust,” says Arthur sternly. “You are a student. A civilian. It’s safer for you to stay inside.”
“I’m a theta, student or not. Very few things can hurt me.”
This assertion sends chills down Arthur’s back, the fine hairs of his neck standing to attention. He’s never seen what a theta can do, not many have. The look Merlin is giving him… he wouldn’t be surprised if the boy could stop a bomb from exploding by merely looking at it. Arthur shouldn’t allow this, but…
“Fine, you’re with me. And stay close or I’ll fucking kill you myself, Merlin, and all your theta abilities won’t be able to stop me.”
“Roger that, Sir.”
Merlin’s once again leading the way for them; the school is more of a maze than one might realise from its simple exterior. Arthur’s watching Merlin’s skinny back and sort of wondering how he’s got himself into the position of allowing Merlin to dictate commands. Freya seems to be wondering the same thing. She glances from him to Merlin and back again.
“That kid,” she begins in a whisper so as not to be overheard by Merlin. “He likes you, Captain.”
“What?” Arthur whispers back, confused.
“He’s love-sick for you.”
“I mean no disrespect, Captain. I’m just really good at reading teenage boys and that one’s an open book. He’s harbouring a serious boner for you, Sir.”
“Freya,” Arthur growls. He uses her given name to express just how much he does not want to talk about this. He only does that when he’s asking a personal favour.
“Just take it easy, Arthur,” she replies, using his first name, before dropping the subject.
Freya parts with them when they reach the main school building, heeding Merlin’s quick directions on how to find Mr Whyte, who is most likely conducting teachers in the Staff Room. Arthur and Merlin continue on to Reception.
The automatic glass doors have been covered by a thick sheet of metal and the reception staff have all evacuated. Only two security guards stand in the entrance way with automatic rifles slung across their backs. Arthur tries very hard not to roll his eyes. Talk about overcompensating.
“Which is the best way out to the car park?” Arthur demands of the guard on the right.
“Um. Nobody’s supposed to leave the school,” the guard says, tripping over his tongue as he takes in Arthur’s dress uniform and the numerous citations over his heart.
“Orders. Captain.” The second security guard says with a sneer. Arthur recognises him as the guy who had checked his credentials at the gate.
“Wasn’t actually asking your permission. The phone lines are down, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, and I need to radio in to Command HQ.”
“Right. And you’re taking… him?” Mr Sneer says, pointing his chin at Merlin with a nasty curl of his lips. “To protect you from the explosions?”
“He’s a theta. And you’re beginning to piss me off.”
Another bomb explodes. Arthur loses his feet for a moment and his shoulder lands painfully against the edge of the reception desk. The overhead light flickers alarmingly before blinking out entirely. When everyone regains their footing, Arthur looks pointedly at the guards until, finally, the one on the right stammers out directions to a fire exit. Arthur doesn’t bother looking back at them as he strides away.
“Wankers,” Merlin mutters loud enough for Arthur to hear. Silently, Arthur vehemently agrees.
They’re walking briskly down what looks like an access corridor with concrete walls and floors and headache-inducing strip lighting. Their steps ring out in the empty corridor. Just up ahead Arthur sees the green glow of a fire exit sign.
“Stay close,” Arthur instructs, “and stay low. I don’t know for sure if there are any other weapons being used out there besides the bombs, but it’s a pretty safe bet that there are. I don’t want us getting caught in cross-fire. Understood?”
“Yes, Captain.” Merlin’s face is set and it strikes Arthur, suddenly, that this boy - with his blue-blue eyes, sharp cheekbones, and those generous lips – is beautiful.
He ignores this uncomfortable revelation in favour of leaning cautiously on the door’s handlebar.
The noise is immediate; blades of Black-Sprite helicopters chop through the air in the distance, several automatic machine guns are being fired somewhere to the west and explosions, too far away to feel but close enough to hear, are detonating with deadly force. The air smells of ash and burnt rubber. Arthur wishes he had earplugs. Maybe some nose plugs too.
They’ve emerged about fifty meters from where the Hummer is parked to their 2 o’clock. Arthur glances around quickly, assessing the immediate vicinity. The school building at their back is a blind spot, as well as cover. Arthur can’t say for sure that there isn’t a Black-Sprite directly over the school and within easy striking distance of the car park. It’s a risk he’ll have to take.
Arthur motions Merlin to follow him. A suppressing hand reminds him to stay as low as possible.
Together, they run across the car park at a crouch. Stepping away from the relative safety of the school magnifies the noise; it’s disorientating. Arthur stays watchful, eyes stinging from the acrid smoke. Merlin’s face is pale but determined as he runs beside Arthur, keeping pace.
It doesn’t take long to reach the Hummer. They squat beside its giant front wheel as Arthur takes a moment to key in the code to open the driver’s door.
“Get in the back,” Arthur calls over his shoulder and he gets a curt nod from Merlin. In synch, they both open their doors and hoist themselves into the vehicle.
“Wow,” Merlin says, leaning forward from the back seat and pointing to the radio installed in the Hummer. “Do you, like, need a degree to work that thing?” Arthur snorts.
“Practice, yes. Degree? Not so much.” Arthur picks up the receiver on its curly cable, bringing it up to his mouth. He flicks a couple of switches until the radio’s static turns to a steady whine. He presses a thumb against the transmitter.
“Hello Command, this is P21, over.” Arthur removes his thumb. There’s a jumble of static before a tinny voice fills the car.
Command, send your traffic, over
“P21 sending a sit-rep. Stuck at Ealdor High. The F.A.Y. are bringing in the big guns. They appear to be sieging the Mercian Embassy, over.”
“Requesting permission to hole up at Ealdor High until all hell finishes breaking loose, over.”
Arthur does as directed, eyes busy watching the car park from behind the relative safety of the bullet-proof windshield. Somewhere in the distance another bomb goes off, the explosion making the ground shiver and the Hummer quake. Merlin is also watching their surroundings carefully, blue eyes wide and serious.
The radio springs back to life in Arthur’s hand a moment later.
Hello P21, this is Command, over
“Go ahead, Command.”
Stay at current location. Keep lines open for future coms, over.
“Roger, Command. Out.” Arthur switches off the radio, leaving the car in silence.
“What?” Merlin asks in a sceptical tone of voice. “Are we going to have to stay here? Sleep next to the radio in case Command sends you directions?”
“No.” Arthur rolls his eyes and points behind Merlin to a black case made of nearly indestructible plastic. “We take that inside with us.”
Merlin grins. “An enigma machine?”
An unexpected bark of laughter breaks away from Arthur’s throat.
“Not quite. Pass it over.” Arthur is careful not to let his fingers brush against Merlin’s as the case is handed to him. “Okay. Time to get back. Just like before, yeah? Stay low and keep your eyes peeled. Got it?”
They make it about halfway.
Helicopters shouldn’t really be able to sneak up on anyone in broad daylight, but the school really is an enormous blind spot, and there is so much background interference that Arthur misses the distinctive hum of the Black-Sprite until it’s almost on top of them.
The whip of the blades churns the air like a hurricane. Grit and debris surge into the air and Arthur has to squint to stop it from blinding him. A soldier of the F.A.Y. is hanging out the open side of the helicopter, strapped into a harness and curled around an impressive-looking machine gun. Arthur stops breathing.
Before he can even think to yell at Merlin to duck and cover, everything happens at once. The F.A.Y. soldier is opening fire, bullets zipping and shards of asphalt and concrete flying as they hit the ground. Only one tiny adjustment, which takes a millisecond at most, and Arthur will be hit. He knows this like he knows his own name. But then Merlin’s there, in the way, standing in front of Arthur like the world’s flimsiest wall.
“Merlin!” he screams at the boy, angry and desperate because he’s going to be hit and Arthur can’t contemplate it. If anything happened to Merlin…
But Merlin isn’t listening, he’s glowing. His arms are up, fingers spread like he’s about to part the Red Sea. He’s chanting under his breath, or perhaps he’s shouting the words; Arthur can’t hear anything but the zip zip zip of the rotor blades. Then it’s like Merlin’s dancing, or practicing some ancient martial art-form. His arms begin to move in slow, sweeping movements, like the air is resisting his limbs as water might. The amazing thing is that the Black-Sprite is slowly beginning to move, too. Man and machine are suddenly synchronised.
Merlin’s face is pinched with concentration and Arthur can see beads of sweat pop up on the back of his neck, dampening his dark hair. Arthur daren’t move. He doesn’t want to break Merlin’s concentration; there’s no telling what a magicker would do if interrupted in the middle of theta-level spell.
An arm creeps down in a slow arc and, in complete symmetry with Merlin’s movements, the helicopter begins to tip at a dangerous angle. Arthur can see the deck gun fall away from the soldier as he concentrates on holding tight to his harness. The pilot has one hand on the collective and one on the cyclic, desperately trying to wrench the machine away from the great, invisible force of Merlin’s magic.
Merlin is stronger.
With a terrific cry that sounds as though it has been torn from deep within, Merlin pushes with his arms and his hands, like he’s flinging something away. The helicopter spins in a dizzying arc before its tail smashes into the outer wall of Ealdor High, throwing grey cinder block shrapnel dangerously into the air. The cockpit of the Black-Sprite tumbles over its tail to land on the other side of the wall, rotors chopping into the dirt and sending up a storm of dust.
Merlin’s arms drop limply to his side. He looks tired, exhausted even, but not like he’s about to black out. It’s unheard of and Arthur can’t quite believe he’s witnessing this. Merlin turns to him, eyes hooded and face streaked with sweat.
“Are you…?” Arthur begins over the sound of the dying helicopter engine and the repetitive slicing of blades into cinder block, but Merlin shakes his head, panting.
“Fine. We have to –” Merlin makes an abortive gesture with his hand. Only then can Arthur hear the sound of another, perfectly functioning, Black-Sprite engine coming closer, probably alerted to their location by the downed pilot calling distress.
This knowledge galvanises Arthur. He grabs at the radio case with one hand and snatches a fist-full of Merlin’s shirt in another, before hauling both towards the school at a sprint.
They crash through the fire exit. Arthur lands with a mighty smack against the concrete floor, winding himself. Merlin is somewhere to his right, wheezing. Arthur catches sight of Merlin’s foot as it extends and, with a mighty grunt of effort, he slams the fire door closed behind them.
The silence is almost deafening.
“That better be a fucking amazing radio,” Merlin says a little breathless.
“Shut up, Merlin. Just shut the fuck up.” Arthur is furious. He rolls over onto his side to get a better look at the boy sprawled across the floor, young face covered in ash and sweat. “What you did out there was foolhardy! Idiotic! You shouldn’t have –“
“What?” Merlin snaps in obvious frustration, cutting Arthur off from his reprimand. “I shouldn’t have saved you? Should have watched you get hurt?” He shakes his head. “I could never do that. Willingly watch you get injured when I could do something.”
Arthur’s scowl deepens but his heart picks up speed at the look in Merlin’s eyes. He’s so fierce and devoted and, fuck, so young. Arthur looks away.
“You hardly know me,” Arthur replies, picking himself off the floor.
“You’re Pendragon. Everyone knows you.”
Arthur’s mouth thins and he ignores the sinking feeling in his gut. He should never have admitted to being Pendragon. Clearly this is a case of hero-worship gone crazy. And Arthur has been lapping it up, whether he likes to admit it or not. Of course it’s a boost to the ego when a pretty young man – as Freya crudely put it – has a boner for him. Arthur should know better. Merlin’s only eighteen and probably still has dragons on his underpants.
“Captain?” Merlin asks, his voice sounding concerned, hesitant. Arthur grabs the radio case.
They find Freya and Mr Whyte in the assembly hall. Teachers and security staff are using it as a base of operations. Mr Whyte is on the school’s only back-up radio, trying to ascertain how long his students and staff are going to be trapped in the middle of a warzone. Mostly everyone seems to be gathered around an old TV with a convex glass screen, its image fuzzy and intermittent. A newscaster is talking about the siege of the Mercian Embassy and how Ealdor High has been caught in the crossfire. Arthur then notices that they’re showing shaky ground images of a Black-Sprite helicopter being magicked out of the sky. By Merlin.
Freya spots them at the back of the assembly hall the moment they arrive and rushes over.
“Captain, shit. You two okay?”
“Fine,” Arthur says succinctly.
Freya turns her gaze to Merlin, who is staring wide-eyed at the television as they play his super-human act over and over again.
“I was about to come looking for you both after they started showing that footage.” Freya hooks her thumb at the TV. “I thought Merlin would be almost comatose after the effort of tossing a Black-Sprite into a wall, but…”
“It wasn’t that hard,” Merlin mumbles, blushing.
“My magic was tested at beta level, Merlin. I know magic and what you just did beggars belief.”
Merlin’s face has taken on the hue of a ripe tomato.
“I’ve got to set up,” Arthur announces abruptly.
He moves to the edge of the assembly hall and opens the case after spinning the correct combination. It’s almost therapeutic, putting the radio together – the same feeling he gets when he’s servicing his weapons. You don’t have to think about it, but you do have to concentrate. Time slips by unnoticed. Next thing Arthur knows he has the full radio up and running, ready for standby.
With nothing left to occupy his hands, Arthur glances around. Freya is in conversation with a group of teachers around the television; she knows from experience that he goes into The Zone when he’s working with machines. Merlin is, apparently, being scolded by Mr Whyte. The elderly Headmaster is looking like he might lose some of that white hair of his. Merlin’s face is giving a particularly mulish expression and Arthur feels a pang in his chest. He watches as Mr Whyte thrusts the school’s ancient radio into Merlin’s hands and points a threatening finger in his face, before stalking away.
Merlin glances down at the radio as if it might bite him. He doesn’t do anything but look at the thing for a long time, shoulders slumped. Eventually, he seeks out a secluded corner of the assembly hall, radio finally making its way up to his mouth. Arthur decides to give the boy the privacy he clearly wants.
“What did Command say?”
Arthur turns to see Freya at his side. She’s removed her stiff dress uniform jacket to reveal a simple white tank-top. Someone’s lent her a fuchsia-coloured shawl to wrap around her shoulders.
“Told us to stay put for the time being,” Arthur replies. He knows he sounds tired. “We’ll have to keep the radio on standby in case of new orders. It’s crazy out there.”
Freya nods in understanding. Her eyes cut to something over his shoulder.
“Did the kid really do what I saw on TV, Captain?”
She’s talking about Merlin, of course. Arthur nods slowly.
“Yeah, he really did it. Without blacking out after. I’ve… never seen anything like it, Freya.”
“Think he’ll be persuaded to join the Special Forces? Having someone like the heir to the Dragonlords in the military would be amazing for moral. And he’s a force unto himself.”
“I honestly don’t know. I think maybe, yes. The way he jumped in to help me get the radio and the way he knew what to do with that Black-Sprite. He had my back the whole way. Merlin’s got what it takes and then some. I hope it’s a sign that he’s really interested in a career in the military.”
Arthur turns to seek Merlin out, his body knowing almost instinctively where Merlin is at any given location within the hall. He sees he’s finished with the radio and in deep in conversation with that handsome, cocky kid, Gwaine; he of the amazing hair which should feature in an ad for men’s shampoo or something. Arthur isn’t jealous, not of an eighteen year old. But the way Gwaine is smiling at Merlin…
He glances away quickly. Arthur doesn’t want to be caught staring. He thinks… the boys are talking about him, sneaking glances in his direction. Merlin’s gaze burns his skin and he is suddenly hyper-aware of his own body. He hopes he’s not blushing. Freya’s eyes are bright and knowing.
“Why do I get the feeling that Merlin has your back for more reasons than he’s a natural soldier?” Her voice is so soft, meant only for him.
“It’s hero worship, Freya. He’s in love with Pendragon. Not me.”
“He’s just a kid,” he cuts her off sharply. “His hormones are off the chart. I’m good-looking and he perceives Pendragon as this brave warrior, someone he can idolise and emulate. Don’t start romanticising anything, Sergeant.”
Using her rank effectively ends the conversation. She means well, but Arthur really is finished with this line of conversation. If Merlin does decide to join up, Arthur will make sure he’s in another company. He can handle his ex-girlfriend finding her bondmate in his best friend and having both of them on his team; it was tough at times, but he did it and he’s proud of them and himself. But having Merlin on his team, even if he’s the Dragonlord heir and the most astonishing natural-born magicker, would be harder than anything else he’s ever had to do. He wouldn’t be able to look at Merlin and not want to touch him, kiss him, and keep him safe at his side where he can always see him. He doesn’t trust himself to only be Merlin’s CO.
“You need some sleep, Captain,” Freya says after a long pause.
“What I need to do is stay and…” Arthur points to the radio, but Freya just shakes her head.
“I can take the radio to my room and keep an ear out. I’ll wake you if we get any news. It’s been a long day, Sir.”
He only has the one uniform with him and he’s not about to sleep in the nude. (He’s never been that keen on having his junk out in the open – possibly a habit formed from having to sleep with a crew of people and wanting some small semblance of privacy, even if it was only so deep as a pair of cotton briefs.) Arthur manages to borrow a spare t-shirt and sweats from one of the less douchey security guards, about his size and height. Accepting them with thanks, Arthur takes one last glance around the hall for Merlin. He’s not there. The magic-working has likely caught up to him and he’s probably somewhere in the school, brushing his teeth before pulling back the blankets.
It takes him a while to retrace his steps back to the guest corridor with the ugly carpeting. He’s feels a mild sense of bewilderment at how exhausted he is, feet dragging as he comes up to his door. The adrenaline rush must have been pumping through him harder than he’d thought.
Arthur steps inside his room. He doesn’t immediately turn on the light and, for a moment, he’s alone in the room, before his eyes adjust to the black and he realises there’s someone sharing the darkness with him. A dark silhouette is sitting on the end of his bed, legs drawn up under his chin. Merlin looks vulnerable like that and Arthur’s breath catches in his throat at the unexpected sight.
“Merlin? What are you…?”
“Shut up, Arthur.” He sounds tired, a little cranky. “Just come here.” He holds out a hand to Arthur, inviting him to take it.
The thing is, Arthur knows in some deep recess of himself that this is both a bad idea and crushingly inevitable. Of course he’ll reach out. Of course he’ll meet Merlin’s beautiful, blue eyes. Of course he’ll grasp that long-fingered, delicate hand in his own. And of course it’ll be like coming home.
He hears himself stifle a cry.
Touching Merlin – his fucking bondmate, of course he is, Merlin couldn’t be anything else – is the most extraordinary experience of Arthur’s life. And he’s had a lot to choose from in almost thirty years: he’s been to war, had Lt. Morgan read his future as a ‘blank space’ the likes of which she had never Seen before, looked upon the face of Death Himself and learned how to defy his father. But this? This beat everything. The shock, the sheer wonder of it, is immense. The world narrows to a tiny pin-point. Nothing matters outside the warm, strong feeling of Merlin’s hand holding his. The rush of want and need and must washes over Arthur, nearly blanking out his vision.
The media and Hollywood and every damn romance novel ever written hadn’t been entirely wrong about the drama of the First Connection. They hadn’t been entirely right either. There was nothing Arthur could have watched or read that would have prepared him for the elation he feels in this single moment. It is the ultimate pinnacle of sheer joy, the Everest of happiness. So much of the literature about the First Connection and bondmates spoke in metaphors of freedom and flying. Arthur knows this isn’t flying. He feels euphoric; grounded and whole for the first time in his life.
“I knew it,” Merlin whispers. “From the moment I saw you, I figured… You just had to be mine. I’ve never felt that way about anyone at first sight. But you seemed so indifferent and I knew I had to touch you, prove what we are.”
They’ve not let go of each other’s hands. Arthur feels all his anxiety and self-recrimination ebb away. He pulls Merlin forward roughly, bringing him up against him, so close he feels Merlin’s heavy breathing, chest pushing in and out against Arthur’s, meeting him. He’s shorter than Arthur, but Arthur can tell that probably won’t be the case for long. This boy is still growing into the man he will become.
“Figured it out did you, clever boy?” Arthur practically purrs into the shell of one of Merlin’s ridiculous ears, now entirely at Arthur’s mercy. Merlin shivers violently, eyes fluttering and looking pleased and pained.
“Even if you hadn’t been mine, I knew I had to touch you,” Merlin whispers. “God you’re so beautiful. It’s crazy. How is this happening?”
“Destiny,” Arthur says, mocking. Merlin chuckles, his warm breath ghosting over Arthur’s neck. Arthur has an urge to lick the ear under his lips and realises there is nothing to stop him. Merlin is his and he is Merlin’s: their circuit is closed.
“Destiny, huh?” Merlin’s saying. “How about we –”
Arthur leans forward and flicks a tongue against the warm shell of Merlin’s ear. There is a choking sound, like Merlin has swallowed his tongue.
“Or, yeah… you could do that…”
“So easy to please,” Arthur murmurs. “Tell me, Merlin. What do you know about sex? Or would you call it making love?”
“Fuck off. I know plenty. Just ‘cos you’re older and a decorated captain in the army and have probably slept with a hundred blokes before...” Merlin sounds positively jealous and Arthur rolls his eyes. With his bondmate standing strong against him, fingers entwined, Arthur can honestly say he doesn’t remember a single name of any that came before.
“So tell me then. All these things you know about sex.” Arthur lets one of his hands drift up and cup Merlin around the base of the neck, thumb absently stroking the rabbit-fast pulse he finds there. Merlin swallows heavily and Arthur’s thumb bobs with his Adam’s apple. When he looks up, Merlin’s eyes are rimmed with a touch of burnished gold.
“What’s there to tell?” Merlin says with the confidence of the young. “One guy gets stuffed with a prick. The bloke on top fucks in and out and the bottom gets to toss off and moan about how full he is and how big the other guy’s cock is or whatever, before jizzing all over his hand and his chest and the bed. How exactly do you fuck, Captain?”
Arthur hums, not rising to the bait of Merlin’s provoking words. “Is there anything about sex that you didn’t learn from rubbing yourself off to pornos?” Arthur asks with raised eyebrows. Merlin blushes from root to neck, patchy and hot. He looks defiant in his embarrassment.
“So what if I’ve never actually done… it. I know what I like with my own hand – playing with the foreskin, squeezing the base of my dick, hard, to stop from coming too quick, stroking slow, teasing myself – and there was this guy, Henry, who used to go to Ealdor, and I blew him in the toilets once. I enjoyed his cock in my mouth and so did he. Said I had a crazy tongue.”
Arthur hears himself growl, primal and necessary. He moves his face in close to Merlin’s. “There better be no more Henrys.”
“No,” he agrees softly. “Just Arthur.”
Arthur cups Merlin’s face and touches their noses together affectionately. “What now, Merlin? What would you like to do?”
Arthur laughs. Merlin sounds like a kid in a sweetshop. “Anything.”
“I’d really like your cock in my mouth,” he whispers roughly. “I’d like to feel it grow against my… crazy tongue.”
Merlin’s hands are already unzipping Arthur’s dress trousers, fingers pressing teasingly on the bulge of Arthur’s growing erection. Merlin’s about to start stripping Arthur of his clothes, fingers tucked in his waistband, when Arthur grabs at his wrist. The boy hisses, more from surprise than pain.
“No.” Arthur’s voice is deepened with arousal, but steady and commanding. Merlin stops immediately at the command, which only makes Arthur’s blood hum louder. “Leave my uniform on. You can suck me but I want you naked.”
“Just… just me?”
“I want to see you stroking yourself as you blow me, Merlin. OK?” They lock eyes and Arthur sends as much love and arousal and confidence to Merlin across their fledgling bond. He wants Merlin to understand.
“Yeah, OK.” Merlin exhales shakily, suddenly shy.
As he begins to remove his shirt, Arthur moves to the bedside table and clicks on the lamp. The room is bathed in a soft, orange glow. Merlin’s cheekbones, his collarbone and hipbones are all thrown into stark relief, sharp and perfect. His angles are beautiful and Arthur desperately wants to touch and explore every inch. Arthur murmurs in appreciation, stepping closer as Merlin kicks off his shoes and unbuckles his belt.
When he steps out of his boxer-briefs (blue and with no cartoon dragons on them, Arthur notes with a self-deprecating smirk), his dick springs forward, narrow and curved a little to the right. It’s nestled in a dark thatch of hair, dusky pink head just slipping out from the sheath. Merlin shifts a little, awkward at being so naked and vulnerable. Then he lifts a hand and palms himself, squeezing a little and swinging himself softly up and down, causing the head to fully emerge, swollen and pink and glistening with pre-come. Arthur can’t take his eyes off Merlin’s hands as they move over himself.
“Perfect,” Arthur says, finally shifting his gaze back to Merlin’s face. There’s a small smile on his face and suddenly he drops to his knees.
“This how you want me?” Merlin asks with a mischievous grin. One hand holds himself in a loose circle of fingers and the other slips into Arthur’s trousers. Merlin’s fingers on his dick are bloody brilliant and he can feel this zinging pressure between them, like a taut cello string, plucked and resonating. It’s the bond singing to them.
“You’re really big,” Merlin says when he pulls Arthur’s full length out between layers of fabric. He sounds breathy, excited, nervous.
“Biggest around,” Arthur says with an arch of his eyebrow. Merlin huffs a laugh. Arthur’s hand spears through thick black hair, holding the back of Merlin’s head in his palm, loving the silky feel of the strands between his fingers. “But not too big to fuck your mouth with.”
He pushes forward a little, the tip of his dick brushing against those flush lips. Merlin looks up with such intent, eyes blazing with lust, as he opens his mouth to take Arthur’s cockhead and hums around it.
Arthur feels his knees shake and cries out at the enveloping heat and slickness. His heart is pounding. Merlin’s eyes are closed as though in bliss, lips stretched pink around Arthur’s length. He concentrates on the head, sucking hard, before moving away again to flick his tongue around the hood of Arthur’s cock and across the slit. Arthur can barely catch his breath.
“Deeper,” he croaks, hand cupping the back of Merlin’s head and, more forcefully than he’d meant, pushing Merlin further forward. Merlin just takes it, Arthur’s rigid cock disappearing slowly into that sinful mouth. The heat is enough to make him shudder.
Arthur’s thighs tremble with the effort of keeping still, of letting Merlin dictate the pace and not choking the boy with his needy dick. Maybe when he had more experience taking Arthur’s cock, maybe then Arthur would mouth-fuck him until he could barely breathe, until he was drooling and his eyes begged for Arthur shoot his load…
“Shit,” Arthur mumbles, as his concentration slips and his hips thrust forward of their own volition. Merlin hums around him and Arthur swears again, louder.
His eyelids are heavy. It’s becoming harder and harder not to close them completely and just sink into the heat and wet of Merlin’s mouth. But he has to watch, he has to see his bondmate – Christ, his bondmate – stretched around him, has to glimpse the erratic motion of Merlin’s right arm as he jerks himself off.
Merlin’s dick is completely hard now. A dark, deep pink, rigid between his pale fingers. The contrast makes Arthur moan low and long. Watching that perfect little cockhead appear and disappear in Merlin’s energetic fist, faster and faster, in time with his bobbing head, makes Arthur feel like something is cracking from the inside. He’s always had something of a voyeuristic streak to his sexual proclivities - not necessarily watching people who are completely unaware of his being there (unless you count porn as a kind of voyeurism), but rather, watching his partner get themselves off with little physical interference from him. He’s always liked the circular nature of it, watching them get off watching him get off. It’s startlingly intimate observing your partner masturbating for you, allowing themselves to be so vulnerable.
Merlin slides his mouth off Arthur, lips and tongue continuing to tease along his length. There is a wet pop and Arthur grunts, fingers tightening in Merlin’s hair.
“Arthur,” Merlin’s throat is rough and has dropped an octave. Arthur feels his balls tighten at the very sound of Merlin’s fuck-sore voice. “Arthur. I’m… I’m really close.”
“Coming is rather the point,” Arthur says, amazed at how husky his own voice has become. Merlin looks up at him from under long eyelashes, a shimmer of blue just visible. “But,” Arthur continues, “I think we can arrange for you to come while I’m inside you.”
The words seem to set Merlin alight. His full-body shiver is dramatic, bringing up gooseflesh all along his body. He surges onto his feet, arms wrapping around Arthur’s neck like an enthusiastic octopus. Merlin’s lips are swollen and warm. Arthur can taste himself and Merlin mingled together as they touch tongues. He clutches at Merlin’s hips, knows he’s probably leaving finger-shaped bruises there, but doesn’t care.
With slow, drifting fingers, Arthur takes a firm hold of Merlin’s cock for the first time. He breaks away from Arthur’s mouth with the dirtiest moan Arthur’s ever heard in his entire life – Merlin really has watched inordinate amounts of porn. The sound sends his heart galloping. Arthur jacks Merlin’s dick a few times before gripping the base, just as Merlin said he did with himself. Holding off the inevitable a little longer.
Merlin’s breath is warm and sweet against Arthur’s sweaty neck as he speaks.
“I… I want…” He can’t seem to get the words out.
“Tell me,” Arthur growls, hands tightening around Merlin’s body. “What do you want me to do to you, Merlin?”
“When you to fuck me, I want you to hold me down. I want… I need to feel your weight on top of me. You’re so much bigger than me, so strong. I need to feel that when you fuck me.”
“Need someone to dominate you? Overpower you? Keep you safe?” Arthur whispers fiercely in between heated kisses. Merlin whimpers.
“Fuck yes! Arthur please, please fuck me.”
Arthur pushes Merlin away, walking him backwards toward the double bed. Merlin lands with an oof, his dick bouncing against his stomach and the bed springs creaking sharply. Arthur crawls on top of him, still fully dressed except for his hard cock protruding obscenely from his fly. Merlin’s whole body rises up to meet him, legs opening wide to cradle Arthur against his hips, arms circling around Arthur’s neck and lips sucking at his jaw hungrily.
It feels so good, Arthur allows it for a moment. Maybe two. Then he pushes Merlin away, roughly. Merlin’s eyes are wide, pupils blown so that his eyes look entirely black. Arthur captures his wrists and grips hard, holding them into the mattress above their heads. Slowly he aligns their cocks and lies down fully over Merlin’s narrow body.
Merlin wiggles a little under him, neck muscles roping and head tilted back as he tests his new boundaries. He’s flush with excitement, breath coming thick and fast, moist against Arthur’s chin.
“Good?” Arthur doesn’t need Merlin to answer. He kisses Merlin on his temple, the corner of his mouth, his ear again – bloody hell, those foolish ears. Arthur moves his hips, rutting lazily against Merlin, letting their dicks tease against each other. He’s noticeably larger than Merlin and it sends a thrill right down to his balls. Merlin is making soft mewling noises, hands flexing in Arthur’s grasp.
“Fuck! Shit, Arthur,” Merlin calls out after some time. His face is screwed up like he’s concentrating super hard on not exploding. “I’m… I’m close again.”
Arthur pulls away, easing the intensity and letting Merlin spiral back down again. Merlin keeps a hold of one of Arthur’s hands, running the blades of his fingers against Arthur’s in a way that makes Arthur feel more loved than he could ever have imagined.
“Need lube. And condoms.”
Merlin just nods. His body is almost humming, like a sweetly tuned engine. Arthur leans down to the floor and stretches for his briefcase. At the sight of the small foil of lube Arthur takes from his wallet, Merlin grins open-mouthed and lazy.
“Always be prepared?”
“That’s the Boy Scouts, genius.”
“Oh, come on. You’re telling me that’s not an army-thing, too? Like your motto or whatever?”
“Right, so what is your motto then?”
“Always ready, always there.”
Merlin’s laugh is girlishly high-pitched. “Yeah, totally different. Makes the army sound like crazy stalkers. Always there.”
“It’s just something we say. Not like we have it embroidered on pillows.”
“You’re shattering my illusions here, Arthur. Next you’re going to tell me the army doesn’t decorate their furniture with the use of doilies.”
Arthur laughs softly, can feel Merlin’s happiness through the tender new bond. Arthur swells with pride. The light banter has relaxed Merlin, his body lovely and pliant under Arthur’s hands. The lube is slick and Merlin barely flinches when the first of Arthur’s fingers slips into his hole.
“Nope, no doilies.” Arthur’s voice is soft and his free hand rubs gentling circles across Merlin’s abdomen. “Or little shells filled with potpourri in the latrines, or lavender-scented candles on desks.”
“And here I thought – fu-uck, that feels odd – I thought you were just a slightly more militant branch of the… of the… the WI.” Merlin screws his face up, eyebrows low, as Arthur works in a second finger.
Merlin nods his head jerkily. “Another. I can take it.”
Merlin’s hole isn’t quite as relaxed as it had been, but Arthur’s third finger doesn’t meet with much resistance, just a soft grunt and a twitch of Merlin’s cock. Arthur works his fingers in and out a few times. When he curls them upwards it causes Merlin to jolt as if electrocuted.
“Holy fuck!” The genuine amazement in Merlin’s voice, like he’s had a puzzling and unexpected surprise, makes Arthur chuckle and plant an affectionate kiss to the inside of Merlin’s knee.
“It’ll feel even better with my dick in you,” Arthur says.
“What the hell are you waiting for, then? Because this is kind of brilliant.”
“I think sex is generally more enjoyable without me wearing full-dress uniform.”
“Could have fooled me,” Merlin mutters. His sarcastic expression is almost immediately replaced by one of naked hunger as Arthur removes his fingers and begins a slow striptease. First his jacket, then his shirt and his undershirt, then his belt is unbuckled and his shoes kicked off. He’s careful about taking down his trousers and briefs – his cock still jutting out proudly from the fly, pre-come smeared at the head.
When he’s fully naked, Arthur rolls on a condom and uses the rest of the lube, slathering it over himself. Merlin’s eyes are enormous.
“I can’t believe we’re really doing this.”
“It’s what you want, right?” But Arthur can feel it is, knows Merlin is excited and ready and in love. Goddamn. Love.
It’s just his cockhead at first, slipping in past the ring of muscle. Arthur pauses, feeling beads of sweat breaking out across his forehead as he concentrates.
“Jesus fuck, you’re so hot, Merlin.”
“Am I tight, Arthur? I should be; you’re my first. Nobody has ever fucked me before. You’re breaking virgin ground here.”
Merlin is babbling dirty talk like he was born to it. Arthur swears and pushes in deeper, slow and steady. He’s almost bottomed out but freezes when Merlin’s voice chokes off, face high with colour.
“Merlin?” Arthur actually hears his voice quaver.
“I’m… I’m fine. Just. You’re really big and that’s great, don’t get me wrong! I love big cocks. Especially your big cock when it’s inside or me, and not just then but, like, all the time, I mean –“
Arthur rolls his eyes and in a flash he flips them so that their positions are reversed.
“I wanted you on top of me,” Merlin says dazedly, eyebrows drawn together.
“Plenty of time for that, love,” Arthur promises kindly, fingertips brushing up Merlin’s ribs. “A whole future together to fuck any way we like. Over and over. But for now, you lead the show.”
“Yeah.” Merlin nods, gulping down a shaky breath. “Yeah, okay.”
Merlin wiggles a little, determining how far Arthur’s already in him. He can’t know quite how it looks, how coquettish and damn sexy. His hair is a wild mess; chest flushed and cock hard and proud-looking. Arthur’s eyes lower to half-mast, watching intently as Merlin braces himself and begins to slowly sink down on Arthur. Then he’s there, squarely seated. Merlin’s lips are a moue of surprise.
“You can move, you know? Up and down?” Arthur teases, fingers seizing at Merlin’s sharp hipbones.
“Yes, Sir. Captain.” Merlin looks plain evil sat above Arthur, face devilish and dear. “Want me to fuck myself on your dick? Like this?” He rises up until Arthur’s cock almost slips out of him, hovers, then slides down again. “It’s amazing having you inside me. My bondmate. Arthur. Feels good, yeah? Me fucking myself on you?”
“Fucking tease. Anyone ever told you that you have a dirty mouth?”
“You didn’t seem to mind too much when your dick was in it.”
“Shut up and move, Merlin.”
Arthur has only known Merlin a few hours but when the boy does as he’s told, Arthur already knows that this is miracle all of its own. He’s content to watch Merlin move over him, knees splayed wide, wantonly, and feet braced on the mattress by Arthur’s hips. With every rise and fall he lets out a heavy breath, almost a whimper, and his erection bobs, dribbling clear liquid like he’s ready, so, so ready.
“God, yes,” Merlin mutters as Arthur takes him in hand. He’s soft as velvet, hot as smelted iron. Arthur swipes the pad of his thumb over the slit and Merlin yells, head dropping back like there’s nothing holding it up anymore, exposing the perfect, long line of his neck.
Arthur surges up and winds Merlin’s legs around his waist. He knows Merlin hasn’t found that spot, that lightning trigger deep inside himself. So Arthur heaves, the muscles in his back and arms roping and bunching with effort. Then Merlin is sandwiched between Arthur and the wall, pressed up hard against the alcove that boxes the bed in. Arthur slams into him. Merlin’s face is beautiful as Arthur’s dick finds his prostate and he fucks into him again and again, nailing it with every thrust.
Merlin’s making these keening noises high in the back of his throat and every now and again Arthur thinks he can hear his name on Merlin’s lips, shattered and barely recognisable but there, heavy and perfect and his, always his. Then they move together like one person, the last refrain of a song, the final phrase of a melody, and Merlin’s shouting, or maybe Arthur, but they’re falling and soaring and forever and always together and loved.
“God, you’re every little gay boy’s wet dream,” Merlin says some time later after they’ve recovered, curled together on the bed. ”I mean, even Gwaine said he could easily use your face for wankspiration.”
“That so?” Arthur murmurs, amused despite himself. Merlin’s look suddenly turns sour.
“Yeah, but I told him I’d cut off his dick if he tries.”
Arthur laughs, cupping Merlin’s face in his palms and giving him an affectionate little shake. “Gwaine strikes me as the kind of person who would happily wank over anyone’s face. Don’t be jealous, Merlin; I am yours.”
He feels Merlin shiver at his words, pleased.
“Yes, well, and you’re mine.”
Silence falls. Except not really.
They’d been so caught up in each other, so full of the newness of their bond and the tunnel vision it had created, that the siege on the Mercian Embassy had been a million miles away. Another planet. And though the bond still sings, and probably will do for the rest of their lives, Arthur can now hear what he couldn’t before: war. The explosions have eased somewhat, but the sharp skitter of machine guns still punctuates the air.
“Maybe we’ll be stuck here forever in this room. It can be our little lifeboat, safe from the world. We wouldn’t need food or water or even air because we’d have each other.” Merlin says, words tickling against Arthur chest.
“I like that plan.”
Merlin sighs. “I hear a ‘but’ coming.”
“But,” Arthur says with a smile. “I have a duty to my unit and my country. I’ve made them an oath of service. I won’t run from them.”
Merlin leans up on an elbow to look at Arthur. His eyebrows are knitted together in concern.
“I didn’t ever think you’d run. Never. You’re the bravest person I’ve ever met, Arthur Royce.”
The innocence and charm of his words, it clings to Merlin like a scent, a second skin. It makes Arthur lose his breath for a moment. It’s so fucking beautiful that Arthur is suddenly seized with a crippling horror that something might change that childish naiveté, that natural wonder and instinctive trust. He wants to hold Merlin in the circle of his arms forever, protecting that smile until the end of days. Arthur never wants Merlin to witness the cruelty of the human race, to look upon the world and mourn. He holds Merlin’s skinny body to himself, arms tightening reflexively.
“You’re so damned young, Merlin.”
“Yeah, we established that.”
“No, I mean, now that we’re bonded, I can’t ask you… I could never make you do what I do. Fight. Wage wars. You’re made for brighter things, Merlin.”
“What exactly are you saying?”
“I can’t – I can’t choose between you and my duty. But I’m naïve if I think I can have both right now. I won’t put you in a warzone, Merlin. You understand? If something were to happen to you –”
“Bollocks,” Merlin says stonily. His eyes glitter molten gold. “You came to Ealdor to recruit us to be soldiers, to fight and maybe die in a war. I saved your life in that car park today. I can hold my own. You think I’m going to let you run off and be a big damn hero without me to watch your back? Fucking think again, arsehole.”
Arthur wants to protest but his heart won’t let him.
He can see it then, the shimmering thread that links his heart to Merlin’s, an unbreakable cord. It’s almost tangible in the silvery darkness of the room. It vibrates softly and he can feel all of Merlin’s love and fierceness and devotion tumbling down the line like a child’s string telephone.
“Whatever is waiting for us outside that door, over those walls and in the world beyond, we deal with it,” Merlin whispers, stealing a hard kiss. “Together.”
There is really only one answer he can give.