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Them Gods Gonna Hurt You, Son.

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July, 2001
“It happens in zoos sometimes.” Merlin had said, head tucked between his knees, body ducked up under his arms. “It might happen in the wild too, we don’t know. But we know about it in zoos, mostly with lions, because we can tell the dominant and submissive lions apart from one another. There was this whole book about it. They think it’s a stress reaction.”

“Oh.” Arthur had said, sitting across the room, attempting to absorb himself into the wallpaper and trying to distract himself by studying the texture of his socks. Neither had proven successful.

They hadn’t meant to do anything like this.

“What do they do with them?” Arthur asked after a long, morose pause.

“Separate them.” Merlin replied, head rising up from his armadillo curl so he could stare at Arthur for a long, quiet moment. Arthur dropped his gaze back to his socks.

 

 

---

 

 

January, 2010
Arthur Eigyrson was twenty-four and single. Every month since January ‘09 Arthur'd gotten an extra hundred pounds— along with his normal bi-weekly pay cheques from the community learning centre— in exchange for writing articles about the city’s nightlife for Loose Ends. It’s not the premier magazine for people who are, for whatever reason, looking for a bit of extramarital, single, or swinger fun, but it is the magazine that liked Arthur’s sample article enough to be willing to pay him for it. And since he only teaches at the community learning centre every Tuesday and Thursday evening he needs the supplemental income.

It wasn’t that Arthur wanted to be a writer, he just figured that between the two of them, Merlin and Arthur knew every single bar, club, dive, meet-up, hook-up and cruising spot in a fifty-kilometre radius of their flat. They’d been to the shitty ones, and the sketchy ones, they’d been to the learning groups for younger doms and subs that just wanted to get some practice in before marriage. They’d been to the swanky places, the elite places, the places you only got into by being out on the market so long that someone important picked you up and brought you home. They’d been to specialized locations, those for dedicated donalgists looking for a high-tolerance algoamist to cane, or with stables for pony-play, or places for feeders and eaters to party. It’d started as a hobby and turned into a full-blown Project.

Arthur was twenty-four and single. If someone were to create a dossier about him, for, say, a spy agency, or so he could become part of a super secret sub-band, they would note that he was blond, blue-eyed, 6 feet, 183 pounds, a sub, and an organ donor who’d gotten his driver’s license at the age of twenty because he’d watched too many driving movies. He lived in a two-bedroom flat with his best-mate-since-forever who worked as a barista for shit money (but decent tips), and a student for great money (provided you were the university in that equation.)

Arthur was twenty-four and single. He suffered through stilted small talk with his aunt and uncle on the phone once a month. He delighted in the care packages that Merlin’s mum sent them once a week. They had a modest liquor cabinet above the stove, a jar of maraschino cherries that neither of them bought, but which never seemed to go bad, three different kinds of half-eaten ice cream in the freezer (chocolate mocha, raspberry white chocolate, and double chocolate fudge. Arthur had bought all three of them, having forgotten the previous ones, all of which had about one bowl of ice cream left, and the containers each had sedimentary layers of frost), and a drawer full of silverware that didn’t match at all. The room he shared with Merlin had two bookshelves since Merlin kept books like some people kept pets, and he’d come home with new strays at the absolute minimum of once every three days. The living room had another two bookshelves to try and deal with the ever-growing population of Merlin’s book serfdom, but the end table was piled with more, and the floor generally had book-marked and notated books scattered everywhere.

“What’s that one about?” Arthur asked, window open and newspaper down on the floor while he added a coat of varnish to the sturdy jewellery chest he’d been working on since they’d sold the dinner table and he wasn’t able to afford supplies to start a new one right away.

Merlin looked at the new book he had and frowned, probably unaware he’d even had it. “The Story of The None.” then opened the inside flap. “It’s about a nun.” Merlin didn’t buy books because he wanted to read them, or the cover caught his eye, or someone told him to. Merlin bought books because they caught on his fingers and stealing was bad.

“Seriously?”

“Well, she’s non-dynamic. She’s a non-dynamic nun. That’s why it’s funny, Arthur.” Merlin tossed the hardcover between his hands.

Arthur would have rubbed his face, save his hands were somewhat stained with varnish, and there were things he had learned long ago not to do. One of those probably should have been “laugh at Merlin’s jokes or he will explain why they are funny.” But apparently, something about year six Merlin when he was enthusiastically explaining an oft-repeated dirty joke with: “it’s sex. That’s why it’s funny. It’s funny because they’re having sex.” tripped some wires in Arthur’s brain and now he just lets Merlin be a giant dork.

“—I outside a church every Sunday and ask the congregation who the Holy Spirit was, and, likely, never get a very clear or helpful answer. You might, perhaps, get the story of the tongue of flames that appeared over the heads of the Apostles if the person in question had been paying particular attention. But given that the Holy Spirit is an entire third of the holy Trinity and given so little notice or attention is, and always has been, baffling to me why it is only the dynamic-diverse that take note. The Holy Spirit is without sex. The Holy Spirit is without gender. It is without form, and so, it best defines those of us who do not fit the form society wants us to fit. ”

Merlin kept reading aloud as he walked past the kitchen doorway and Arthur settled the box in a way that it could best dry without splotches. It had the feel of a gift, the right shine, and weight to it to be a present for someone. He’d carefully matched the leaf-detailed latch with the same brassy root-like feet on the bottom, the carving reminding one of tendril vines. Merlin had four such boxes, one as plain and sharp angled as you liked. Merlin collected things in starts and stops, and Arthur made boxes for him to put his collections in.

Arthur was twenty-four and single. If asked he said that he was pretty sure his dom was taking suppressant drugs, he’d never been able to feel zer, just a buzzing, confused static echoing in the back of his head. The base of his right ring finger never tingled, never ached, never did anything. And then he’d shrug, smile, ask if maybe they wanted to get out of there, because he was twenty-four and he was single and he didn’t have to get up early, or he’d shrug and smile and suddenly turn to look at the sub he’d come in with, finding him, perhaps unerringly, in the crowd and say he had to go, but it was nice talking.

Arthur was twenty-four and single, and when it was necessary, he’d pick up his sleepy, frustrated flatmate up off the lopsided sofa they’d purchased for a song and dance and carried all the way home. His flatmate would grumble and complain about narrative and variants and culture while Arthur carried him to their shared bedroom, placed him on their shared bed and, through their shared efforts, got him in his flannel pajama bottoms, lifted the sheets, and got them both into bed. Merlin would wrap himself up around Arthur—who couldn’t sleep in anything more than boxers—and Arthur would stroke the base of his flatmates’ ring finger until he fell asleep.

Arthur was twenty-four, had been twenty-three, and would be twenty-five. But he was certainly single. You could ask anyone.

 

 

---

January, 2010
After Merlin got over his (“perfectly reasonable!”) Scarlet O’Hara episode with Freya, the three of them became decently good friends. Which, in Arthur’s opinion, was marvelous, seeing as how they moved to the city and knew no one, and all of Merlin’s uni friends looked down on him for not being in uni, and all of Arthur’s friends weren’t much good for conversation outside of a few very basic topics.

So Freya was good for them, as long as she didn’t wear green around Merlin, because Merlin wasn’t really a reasonable human being. “I’m not trying to put you on a pedestal or objectify you, I’m just getting you confused with an actual object that became this huge thing in my-Arthur save me from my mouth.” And Arthur would cover his mouth and Merlin would look at him gratefully. Merlin frequently needed to be saved from his mouth. Especially when burning hot molten lava cheese was involved, but mostly from fair-skinned burnettes in green.

She'd wrangled them up for a night in with her and Gwen, because she'd realized they were much more likely to actually come round if they then got to stay in and eat some form of snack food. They were watching “Moon.” Merlin wasn’t really paying attention, since (as his Netflix could tell you) he didn’t like “Understated Visually Striking Films”

Arthur loved understated films. He could sit there for days watching people give each other shifty glances and have mildly traumatic secret pasts that they kept under wraps. But then someone else found it out and kept it very quiet, and someone probably died in the beginning of the movie, but it was off-screen and you never even saw the body.

Merlin liked movies that if there were a body you saw it, but sometimes there wasn’t a body and that was exciting too. He liked overly dramatic shows, where everyone was cheating on everyone, and taking bond suppression drugs, and hints of adynamic play and whatnot and there was probably some cannibalism and incest in season four to keep things going. And then some singing, or lip-syncing, or something. Of course, they always brought in alternate sexualities and it always debased them and then he always had to stop watching, but that usually wasn’t until season five and he hated all the characters by then anyways.

“What?” Merlin asked because Arthur was enthralled with people, being people, staring at people. In space. “What is happening? Arthur, we said no more dialogue heavy movies. We said.”

“Why is it that you can read a book as thick as your head with no problems, but if a film has more than three minutes of talking you lose the plot entirely?”

“Words stay still.” Merlin shoved his face into Arthur’s stomach. “Words are beautiful and movies with too much talking are hateful. Either blow something up or start kissing.”

Gwen poked her head up, “What? Is it over? Were there aliens?”

“Not yet,” Merlin gave the telly a weary look, because this movie wasn’t the kind to have aliens. He liked movies with aliens. Aliens made movies better, even if they were terrible aliens. “I doubt there will be.”

Gwen yawned and leaned back against Freya. “You’ll tell me if there are aliens, right?”

“Of course.” Freya gave her an abbreviated neck rub and Gwen relaxed into it, already halfway back to sleep. “Right now there’s just a clone of him for some reason which I’m certain will turn out to be an evil government plot.”

“No, no it’s always The Company. The government doesn’t do anything. It’s just The Company.” Merlin corrected. “Remember Alien? Remember how that is a movie we should watch instead of this movie?”

“No.” Freya asserted. “Nothing bursting out of anything else. It’s a rule.”

Gwen stretched her legs out and plopped them on a discarded pile of blankets. “A clone is slightly more interesting than Justin Hammer going crazy on the moon.”

“You know, he wanted to play Tony Stark, until Robert Downey Jr. was like: no. No. Actually, I am real life Tony Stark. Give that part to me thanks.” Merlin made grabby hands as an example and moved to flop over Arthur more fully. Arthur’s hand came up to scratch the back of Merlin’s head.

“After this, we should watch something with explosions and kisses.” Merlin mumbled. “If I wanted to think about the social and personal ramifications of solitude and corporate greed, I would do my Globalization homework.”

Arthur pulled a face and Merlin looked at him a moment before mimicking him. Arthur examined Merlin’s face, then pulled out his lower lip with his finger because the look of distaste wasn’t quite right without the proper pout. Merlin reached over and poked up Arthur’s eyebrow, and Freya gave them a look and shook her head. 

“You two are dysfunctionally twee. I hope your soulmates really like each other because you’re going to have to end up living in a run-down mansion somewhere.”

“Does Arthur fix the run-down mansion and do children tell folktales about me?” Merlin asked.

“Yes.” Freya kept her eyes on the screen, and she never had a problem following cerebral movies, even without paying attention.

“I like that about them,” Gwen said. “Telly always shows sub friendships as backstabbing and manipulative, but they’re not that. It gives me hope for the universe.”

“He’s playing with my eyebrows,” Arthur pointed to Merlin and Merlin continued to do so. Since he could. And all. Arthur had ceded control of his eyebrows to Merlin. “He’s being manipulative.”

“We need two more people here to be telly friendships,” Merlin said. “They’d have to be doms, and we could get into hi-jinks.”

“Six people is such a clumsy amount of people in real life,” Freya argued. “I mean, sure on telly it’s fine, but in real life it just gets confusing.”

“In real life, we hang out with seven.” Gwen pointed out.

“But we don’t all hang out together as a single unit all of the time. Like, on sit-coms, it’s like those six people are the only people who exist.” Freya scoffed and then went back to considering how best to make them a telly show. “We could drag Elyan in, so then we’d have the sibling relationship covered, we’ve got the two dysfunctionally co-dependant sub friends, so we’d need to bring in a dom that Leon is with all the time, so Percy. But I’m not sure what sit-com stereotype Percy fulfills besides huge and precious.”

“We can make that a stereotype.” Merlin insists. On time Merlin had sprained his ankle on one of their few mutual days off when they’d (Merlin) had wanted to go to the zoo, and Percy had come to carry Merlin piggyback for the entire day trip. True story.

“Wait, what stereotype is Leon?” Arthur asked.

“Earnest.” Everyone else answered.

“Gwen’s the weird flower child one who loves ponies and rainbows and then some third one that doesn’t fit with that at all.”

Gwen held up her feet to show her calluses and blisters, her strong and bent toes from dancing until they snapped and continuing onward. “Namely abusing myself for the sake of expression and social commentary.”

“Okay, so we need the weird one.” Freya looked at Merlin and Merlin raised his hand obligingly, Arthur pulling his head away so Merlin didn’t hit him in the face.

“That’s me. I claim that one. I’m charmingly offbeat. Arthur can be the fussily neurotic one.”

“Who's the harem master?” Merlin asked. “I vote Freya.”

“Seconded,” Gwen said. “Except her and Elyan sort of ruin that.”

“Lame,” Merlin grumbled.

“It’s telly, they’ll be a thing. But can I not be dumb? Like, I can talk about sex all the time, but in a smart way. How I Met Your Mother rather than Friends or Coupling but without the consent issues, because dear God, Barney, dear God.” Freya rubbed the bridge of her nose and Gwen head butted her to keep rubbing her head.

“Why is there another Justin Hammer getting destroyed?” Arthur asked of the telly and Merlin looked and shouted “Finally.”

“Six is a cumbersome amount of friends.” Gwen yawned when the brief moment of excitement ended.

“Also there would be no room on the couch,” Freya noted. “Especially as we had romantic hi-jinks waiting for our soulmates. And Gwen just having hi-jinks because this is something we don’t talk about.”

Gwen rolled over. “Who meets their soulmate and then goes soul-searching on bond-blockers in Tibet?”

Merlin and Arthur did not know the story behind this. They had only been in Freya’s orbit for about a month. it felt rude to ask, especially as no one had filled them in, as they had for most of their inside jokes.

“Can we not discuss what show our lives most resemble? It’s creepy.” Arthur said. “Especially given the sorts of shows Merlin watches, we’ll all die and hate one another.”

“How about the fact that we somehow all have Arthurian related names,” Merlin said. “Can we talk about that?”

Freya put her hand over Merlin’s mouth. “We swore never to mention that out loud.”

“I didn’t swear that,” Merlin said because she didn’t know how to cover his mouth properly. “I would have remembered it.”

“Well, we didn’t swear it outloud, because then we would have had to mention it. It was an unspoken rule.” Gwen frowned at Merlin, “Like Fight Club. You can’t talk about our names Merlin. Also, you and Arthur have to fight each other. Also, we’re all Tyler Durdan.”

“But-“

“All of us,” Gwen insisted and flopped back to sleep so Arthur and Freya could turn back to the movie and Merlin could continue to whine how it needed more sandwiches because all great movies should have kissing, explosions, and sandwiches. Maybe a dog if you could swing it. But the dog had to be alive in the end. Otherwise, it was a terrible film and should burn.

October 2011

Merlin Emmeryson was twenty-three and single. He’d shown up atfour-fifteen, right about half an hour after Gwaine got home from his shift. Gwaine had changed out of his work uniform, but hadn’t managed to put anything else on, just holding down the handle of his busted toaster so that his bagels would cook, enjoying both Pell and Owen being out, likely for the evening. He’d looked up at the knock on the door, didn’t put on trousers and opened up to Merlin’s smiling face, which was a vast improvement on his night, in Gwaine’s unimpeachable opinion. He would, of course, gleefully fuck Merlin (in his room. With the door locked. And the stereo playing) with his flatmates present and accounted for, but it was nice to do it without the commentary.

Merlin was the first sub he’d slept with who both didn’t have an exhibition kink, but also didn’t comment on their complete lack of tact or boundaries.

“Can Gwaine come out to play?” Merlin had asked, like a giant dork that said porn lines with complete sincerity. Gwaine had tugged him inside and forgotten about his bagels—which, thanks to the toaster being broken did not burn. They just sat there. Being bagels.

Merlin was twenty-three and single. He was a PhD track student up at the university, still currently working on his Masters. He knew a disturbing amount about animal mating habits. He liked when Gwaine pressed him down or against things, when he shoved him around a little—hauling him inside, and shoving him into the bedroom, but if Gwaine had to think of one adjective and only one adjective to describe him it would be “adorable”. Like some kind of puppy that was all feet and ears, and yeah, sure, he’d probably grow into them, but right now you just wanted to smash his face against a pillow and bite him everywhere—which was where the puppy metaphor ended. But he was still adorable and Gwaine wanted to hold him down and do bad, bad things to him.

Merlin liked being shoved around, he liked a little light impact play—paddles and hands, maybe a good suede flogger, but nothing with a bite or sting, and really nothing sharp—he really liked being picked up and held down, breathlessly whining if Gwaine gave a sufficient show of strength against him. He was deliciously physical: Merlin liked to be marked up, he forgot how to talk if you tied his hands up, but he liked to be bound or spread by his ankles, and, most of all, he liked role-playing. All of which were fine with Gwaine, even if he wasn’t especially good at acting. But he liked Merlin’s stories. Or, well. He liked how much Merlin liked Merlin’s stories.

“Suppose if I were the manservant of a right git and you were a handsome, rakish wandering swordsman, we could seduce each other. He could give me to you, for a night, since you don’t have anyone to help you take off your armour and bathe in a really historically inaccurate, sexy kind of way. And we’d get on like crazy and you’d want me to go with you and I would want to go but honour and jobs and stuff, so we spend a lot of time having really desperate sex in all the corners and alleys and everywhere. And then you’d have to kidnap me so the lord would pay my family, because I would have been captured in the line of duty. And then you rather like how I look, seated in front of you and bound up, so you would decide to keep me that way, and I’d be sort of entirely fine with that, and then we’d have a lot of adventures and adventurous sex.”

Gwaine had kissed the tip of Merlin’s nose. “I like it. Do I need to get a horse?”

“No, I’m good.” Merlin had said, like maybe there could be a circumstance where Gwaine would, in fact, need to get a horse. Gwaine had slung him over his shoulder and taken him to the bedroom while Merlin fake-complained bitterly about the state of things.

 

 

~~~

Sir Gwaine of Orkney sat in the private confines of his rented room, a thunderstorm pounding against the roof, but the room was warm and dry, decently clean and just big enough for a bed and a chair.

They were in the chair, presently, him and the pretty little prize that he’d won from the Prince in a test of combat. “You are, by far, the best thing I have ever won.”

“You didn’t win me, you kidnapped me.” Merlin panted, gripping the arms of the chair. If he let go, Gwaine would stop, immediately, whether Merlin wanted to or not.

“I liberated you,” Gwaine corrected, smoothly. He had Merlin settled in nicely on his lap, even though he was, perhaps, just a bit too gangly to do so entirely comfortably. Gwaine was a man who was more than happy to make do, and if he had to wiggle Merlin around a bit to get all of his limbs in order, then that was by no means a hardship. He had one hand curled around the meat of Merlin’s temptingly bare thigh, and another enjoying the heat of Merlin’s stomach through the thin linen of his new tunic, another lovely piece Gwaine had chosen to free from the oppression of somebody’s wardrobe. The fine weave caught on his calluses, but he liked the way Merlin shivered as the soft, fine cloth pressed against his skin.

Gwaine held Merlin tight to him and nuzzled into his long, bared neck, enjoying the little hiccup of enjoyment that echoed down in Merlin’s belly, right up against his hand.

“And can you cast even a shred of judgement on me for doing so? There you were, under the heel of a terrible cock of a human being, and you put up with him and did his laundry for whatever reason-”

“He was paying me,” Merlin interrupted. Gwaine opened his mouth and pressed his teeth into a remnant of a previous bite, into the straining tendon of Merlin’s neck until he rode up into it and relaxed his head against Gwaine’s shoulder, his narrow torso a singularly long arch, ghostly visible through the thin, fine fabric of his tunic. Gwaine felt Merlin’s pulse thump hard in his stomach, only interrupted when he needed to take a breath.

“-and I thought to myself, well, Gwaine. Why don’t you look at this gorgeous, intelligent, hardworking sub whose good nature is being taken advantage of right in front of your eyes? Why don’t you see what you can do about that? Especially since that disgusting little brat was so gracious as to lend you out to me.”

“He wasn’t disgusting, he just had a lot of pressure on him and-” Merlin briefly lost his ability to communicate as Gwaine slid his hand up the smooth skin of Merlin’s thigh.

“And you were so exhausted that you fell asleep right after I introduced myself-”

“Which you did, I might add, by jerking my cock and mauling my neck.” Merlin dug his nails into the chair arms. Merlin had come to Gwaine’s borrowed-chambers looking several kinds of beautiful, but also entirely exhausted, and Gwaine—being the courteous sort—had made him eat the dinner he’d brought for Gwaine and then offered to relax him.

Gwaine had positioned Merlin’s hands on the back of the chair, spread his legs wide, and told him all he had to do to make Gwaine stop was say so. And then he had, indeed, proceeded to introduce himself more properly by jerking Merlin’s cock and mauling his neck. Merlin had, still holding position, fallen asleep almost immediately, and so he’d hefted Merlin up and put him to bed, having to pry Merlin’s fingers off the chair, and kissing his knuckle to tell him he’d done well. Merlin had relaxed then, smiling to himself and snuggling into the covers.

“—and you were far too lovely a human being to leave to rot there for little pay and less recognition, ergo: liberating you.” Gwaine stroked his knuckles along the underside of Merlin’s rigid prick and sighed, “But with me, all of your accomplishments will be recognized. Like how you are currently being a very good boy and sitting still for me.”

Merlin wiggled, as he always did when embarrassed and pleased to be praised, and turned so he could fully press his face into Gwaine’s shoulder. “Stop it, all I’m doing is sitting here.”

Gwaine nuzzled the top of Merlin’s head. Thus far his experimentation in having a travelling partner had been a wonderful success, especially the part where Merlin seemed happiest when he got to fuss over someone a bit. Gwaine surprised himself with how much he genuinely enjoyed being fussed after. He liked especially the way Merlin’s ears turned red when given even a modicum gratitude owed to him.

“Ah, but you’ve been hard this entire time and you haven’t done a thing to try and relieve yourself, or to convince me to do anything but continue playing how I want to.” Gwaine wrapped his hand around Merlin’s hot little cock (not that is, in emphasis, small, as everything about Merlin could be sufficiently described with the word ‘long.’ It is a pleasant handful, but Merlin seems to enjoy it when Gwaine refers to it, and Merlin in general, as smaller than he is.) “Good boys take what they’re given.”

Merlin’s hips jerked up, but he settled himself down on his own, ears red and lower lip tucked neatly under his teeth. Gwaine undulated his fingers and nuzzled down to Merlin’s neck. Merlin’s hands are still curled to white-knuckled tension around the arms of the chair and Gwaine loves it.

“Here, hold on, lift your legs.” Gwaine commanded and Merlin just did, his stomach tense as he pulled them up as high as they would go and Gwaine moved his hands so he could catch Merlin by the knees, scooting them both back in the chair and resettling Merlin until he was awkwardly splayed open, his legs over his wrists as his hands continued to grip the knobs at the end of each chair arm. His body was curled in on itself and he needed one of Gwaine’s arms curled around his thighs to keep him from slipping too far down and getting a crick in his neck, or falling off the chair entirely.

“Comfortable?”

Merlin shifted, but he didn’t have much leverage at all, not unless he untangled himself, and so he relaxed against Gwaine. “I’m going to strain something if you keep me like this long.”

Gwaine took his free hand and went back to slowly pumping Merlin’s prick. “Gives me a bit more room to work with, I think. Also I doubt you’ll last long, will you? You like being where I put you far too much.”

Merlin was delightfully easy; his cock was already dribbling. It was enough that Gwaine’s hand was slick as he moved: the skin of Merlin’s cock loose and hot, moving easily under his hand as Merlin struggled to, and then to not (because he wanted to be good) push up into it. And when Gwaine judged Merlin ready, he collected as much fluid as is available and sunk two fingers right inside him. They slipped in without stretching or effort, easily as if they belonged there, and Merlin just whines.

“I wouldn’t even need to stretch you, would I?” Gwaine asked, because Merlin’s body was just open. Everything about him is delightfully warm and welcoming in every aspect and he deserves some kind of reward for it. So Gwaine twisted his fingers and searched until he found that rough little place that made Merlin do a full body twitch. Gwaine hummed his approval, keeping his fingers crooked and moving in slow, teasing circles. Merlin’s cock spurted a thin line of fluid across his stomach, twitched heartily. It really always was nice to be appreciated. “I would just need to slick myself up a bit and you’d welcome me like a guest.”

Merlin huffed, but his thighs were shaking so Gwaine switched hands, letting the one supporting Merlin shift until he can still sink a few fingers inside, but also wrap his right hand around and seize Merlin’s prick. He fisted it in counterpoint to the thrust and twist of his fingers. He nuzzled his mouth against the swan-perfect length of Merlin’s neck.

“Not fair-” Merlin managed, his feet kicked the air, his toes in a hard curl and looking like he’s going to shake himself to pieces.

Gwaine caught a twitch out of the corner of his eye and ceased movement entirely. Merlin’s fingers had twisted to dig his nails into his own thigh. Gwaine lifted off, despite Merlin’s long, distressed whine. He sorted Merlin out, got his limbs all in the right order and Merlin just stared at him with wide, blown eyes, and needy little whimpers escaping on each exhale. Gwaine hushed him, soothed his hands down Merlin’s sweaty flanks and Merlin just panted at him, but Gwaine doesn’t even need to hold Merlin’s hands away. He stood as Gwaine redressed him and does nothing to try and satisfy himself—

 

 

~~~

—he finished watching Merlin tug up his corduroys. Merlin was, by far, the most eclectically styled sub Gwaine had ever slept with. One day he’d be dressed up to the nines for a shag—corset, make-up, choker, the whole of it—and then he’d come over in baggy corduroys, a too-billowy button-down under his thick jumper like he didn’t want a single human being to have the slightest idea of what he looked like under all that, and wildly flying between the two with no clear preference.

Merlin also liked to leave before finishing, he liked to leave still worked over, hard in his pants, no orgasm, no aftercare, just finish out the scene and get dressed.

Gwaine had found that out by accident. He’d gotten Merlin shuddering and shivering, as turned on as he’d ever been, and he’d gotten him all tucked away and then set him out in the hallway. He’d expected, at minimum, for Merlin to stand where he put him so Gwaine could fix himself up and he could spend an evening dragging Merlin around town a bit to embarrass him public a little, make him squirm during a film, or hide his face away on a walk around the block, his cock hard in his trousers and a splotchy flush working its way from his chest to the tops of his cheekbones. More likely, he’d thought, Merlin would demand to come back in, tackle him down so Gwaine would wrestle him down.

By the time he’d been dressed, Merlin had gone on home. Gwaine had left a message on his mobile, because. No. No that hadn’t been what he wanted at all. And then called Arthur and left a message on his mobile, and hadn’t calmed down until Merlin called later that night and said he was fine and not to worry and have a good night, sounding perfectly chipper about everything. Or, well, Gwaine hadn’t really stopped working until Merlin had come back the next day for seconds of the same. Gwaine had cheerfully given him more, because orgasm denial? Not a problem. He would happily tease Merlin into a perfect madness; it was just the whole Merlin leaving afterwards. It felt. Well it felt a bit like the first time his sub had asked him to cane him, and Gwaine had never caned a person before. Sure a pillow covered by a wet towel, but not a person. And he’d been nervous, so he hadn’t. It was one thing to think about the idea of someone who liked to get hurt a little, and you being able to do that for them. Another to actually…hit someone.

Gwaine got that a lot of people thought being a dom was a cakewalk. You got to tell people what to do, and people did what you told them to, and you didn’t have to throw yourself under someone else’s control. Except. Except that, to Gwaine, it wasn’t about dominating someone so much. They weren’t land to be conquered. Or if they were, you had to conquer it and then take care of it, not just run it into the ground with taxes and pretending the indigenous people were beneath you. You had to take care of it, work with it, and reach a peaceful understanding. He believed it was more like a trade agreement than anything, with diplomatic negotiation and the occasional embargo when things went wrong. He had aggressive tendencies, but so did every dom. It was hardwired in there, the need to control and fight and protect and he’d been taught to redirect them into something constructive and not get into fights or hurt anyone.

And then you had to let go of all that control and tell yourself they wanted to be hurt, but that didn’t conquer a decade of holding back. He wanted to make his subs feel good. He wanted them to leave happy and he wanted them to be comfortable. But he also wanted to hold them down, leave visible marks and see how much they could take for him. From him. It was a balancing act.

“I couldn’t sit still all the way home,” Merlin had confided, pushing his face against Gwaine’s stomach, having dropped to his knees right there in the entryway and thank fuck his flatmates were both out for a bit, because Merlin hadn’t even checked to see if they were in. Gwaine had just opened the door and Merlin had gone down. “I didn’t even care if anyone saw. Fuck. Arthur had to buzz me in and I dropped my keys and-“ that’s where he stopped, breathing heavily fingers clawed against Gwaine’s thighs. “Again, please, sir?”

“What? What did you do?” Gwaine carded his fingers through Merlin’s hair, entranced and thinking with his whip hand more than anything else. The door was still open. Merlin was looking at him like he was magnificent. He could see it, Merlin’s hands shaking

“Uh. Just. Wanked.” Merlin shook his head. “Got off like a clever analogy. You know. Um.”

Gwaine let it go, because he knew when he was missing something, but also could generally figure out when that thing was being hidden from him on purpose. He just couldn’t think of what it was.)

He liked the idea of Merlin going home hard, still reeking of sex and Gwaine. He liked the idea of having to sit on public transport obviously ridden hard and put away dripping. Which had to be balanced with his worry about Merlin going home still wrapped up in a story he was telling himself. So they did it again with the caveat that Gwaine got him a cab and paid for him to get home and had him on his mobile the whole ride there, since Merlin was pretty sneakily insistent that Gwaine not see where he lived.

Maybe he had another dom who liked that he came over ready to go and they finished him off. Merlin never said as much, and Gwaine had never asked, but he wasn’t an idiot.

And so for a bit they did that. Merlin showed up at his door and then they didn’t even need small talk. Pre-care would be wrapped up in fervent kissing, Merlin dropping the first idea of the scene as he dug his hands into Gwaine’s hair and Gwaine pressed his wrists down against the mattress. “I’ve kept it in, all day. Just like you said.” Merlin would say and, of course, Gwaine never told Merlin to do anything once Merlin left his flat, except to call and say he’d returned home safe, but he’d open up Merlin’s trousers and find he’d plugged himself, and Gwaine was more than happy to go along with it. More than entirely pleased to tease Merlin until he sobbed and whined and went completely lax and then send him on the way home, listening to him breathe on the other end of the mobile until he got back to his house and did. Did whatever it was that he loved so much.

“You could stay if you wanted,” Gwaine sprawled out across the hungry bed and watched him. “I know this is your thing, and that’s cool. But just so you aren’t thinking it’s me who wants you gone.”

Gwaine had slept with a fair amount of subs. Some he’d slept with right up until they found their dom in the queue of a coffee shop, or sitting in the next lane from them in heavy traffic, or, in once case, as said dom opened her apartment door and Gwaine snogged the living daylights out of said sub right up against it. That had been more than a little awkward, but still, a funny story.

Most people were just killing time with each other until they found their other half, and you knew it. That was the thing. Everyone Gwaine had ever shagged, you could feel their disconnect. They were with you, maybe, but they were focusing on that other presence in the back of their head, that strong live-wire flickering of soon and you could tell.

Merlin paused in the middle of buckling his belt, his back a nice, neat, naked arch peppered with bite marks. If the light weren’t so low, Gwaine imagined he would be able to see the beard burn colouring Merlin’s neck, the light trails of nail marks outlining his ribs and hips, but in the grey scale sort of non-light Merlin became a sort of soft-core art noir type of model, frozen in a way that could mean he was undressing for you, if you wanted to think of it like that.

Gwaine kept his body as relaxed as possible. And it wasn’t that he minded either way, honestly, he really didn’t. If Merlin was one of those subs that needed space after scening that was fine, that was what he needed. But if he was secretly longing to stick around, and didn’t because he didn’t want Gwaine getting ideas, that was bullshit. It was just stress relief, just a dom and sub having some fun before the inevitable day where Merlin fell to his knees before a complete stranger and he was off the market forever.

And Gwaine’s sub would maybe stop taking suppressant drugs, or whatever, because it’d been ten years already and this was getting ridiculous. He’d had zer for such a ridiculously short period of time, considering they were supposed to be with each other for life, and then ze had gone and blocked him. Just. He’d woken up one day by himself, no note, nothing and he didn’t know why. Gwaine was twenty-six and being shut out, constantly shut out, and, thus, single.

“Do you…uh. I mean.” Merlin searched around for his shirt. “I’m not leaving you to top drop am I?”

Everyone was just practicing, figuring out what they liked, what they didn’t like, so when they did it for real it was perfect. So they could go up to that one person made special-order, just for them and they could ride off into the sunset together in blissful co-existence.

Gwaine couldn’t ever help but notice that absence, that disconnect, because he wasn’t similarly distracted. The only thing he knew about his sub was that ze was still alive and didn’t want him in zer head. Merlin…wasn’t like that. He wasn’t waiting, or practicing or… killing time. It was a hard distinction to pick apart, but Merlin never went distant or distracted. The opposite, probably, actually, if Gwaine sat and thought about it. Merlin paid too much attention, if there were such a thing. He followed Gwaine’s hands carefully, like he could memorise them. He never closed his eyes and lost himself, he was always deeply, presently in the moment and it took Gwaine far too long to notice that that was what was making the entire situation a bit odd. That intense, single minded need to see everything

“It’s a thing.” Merlin defended, when Gwaine dismissed the idea. “It’s a total actual thing, and I don’t want to be an arse if you’re like, sitting here suffering and not saying anything because you’re too dommy.”

“I know top drop’s a thing, but it’s never been a problem of mine.” Gwaine promised and that was true enough. He’d never had anything a good sleep couldn’t fix, generally. “This is not a passive aggressive cry for attention and I don’t think you go home and pine on the underground.” Gwaine rolled up and dragged his pants on, because it was his flat and he didn’t need to wear trousers if he didn’t want to. “I just want you to know that if you want to kick around here a bit afterwards, that’s perfectly fine by me.”

“What does pining on the underground even look like?”

“Listening to sad music as you stare out the window and pretend you’re in a music video.” Gwaine answered handing Merlin his socks. “Or maybe writing my name in your notebook and sighing a lot. Staring at my number on your mobile, working up the courage to call, but oh, what would you say—”

Merlin shoved him and sat down on the edge of Gwaine’s desk to put on his socks. “I told Arthur I’d be back soon, and he’s keeping me on track for my essay.”

“So I was just a study break to you? The disgrace. The horror.” Gwaine put his hand to his forehead and Merlin threw a pen at him. “And now you’re throwing my own pens at me. For shame.”

“I have none.”

“I enjoy that aspect of your personality deeply,” Gwaine agreed.

“He said if I said another word about how irritating it is when people treat folklore like it’s only something you can study in, like, isolated hill folk and ‘indigenous people’ when it is not and anyone with a brain can see that it’s happening everywhere every day in how people interact with the world because we are the folk, and we’re constantly redefining our universe through stories and media and retelling who we are and… and…ah, well. Um. He was going to lock me out on the patio with a bowl of kibble and some water and not let me back in until I’d calmed down.”

Gwaine noted that Merlin looked a bit wistful at the thought.

Gwaine offered. “Well. If you need another study break shag I promise I will dutifully listen to the gibberish that leaves your mouth like it is actual word making sense.”

“Cheers.” Merlin grinned and hopped and wobbled on one foot as he tied his left shoe and Gwaine walked him to the door, rubbing the back of Merlin’s neck during a quick goodbye snog. Merlin’s eyes were still blown, and he leaned in heavily against Gwaine, but he was also clearly happy to get gone, so. So Gwaine let him go because that’s what he liked.

“Hey,” Merlin said and tucked his hands into his jacket pockets. “See you soon, yeah?”

“Sure,” Gwaine kissed his cheek and sent him out the door with a pat on the bum. Merlin gave him a face before sauntering down the hallway. Or, not so much sauntering. More like Merlin had seen a film with someone sauntering in it, once, long ago.

“Walk like a normal person, you berk.”

Merlin laughed as he turned down the hall and Gwaine went back to his bagels.

 

 

---

The Story of Psyche And Eros

There was a time that there were no soulbonds, and people did not know in whom they should trust and love, protect or obey, and it was up to the Gods to determine who it should be that would fall in love. The domme, God of Love, Beauty and Control, Aphrodite would send her obedient son to bind mortals in the ties of love as it suited her desires and rivalries with the other Gods.

Aphrodite was a jealous, possessive God, and thus determined that none should be more worshipped, loved and desired than her. Love is a possessive creature and should not be looked down upon. When Aphrodite heard of anyone, submissive or dominant, that the people spoke of being as beautiful as she, her punishment was cruel and immediate. And Psyche, princess of Greece, was the most beautiful of all her beautiful sisters, and the people spoke of her in glowing terms and her protector had many offers placed at zer feet in offer to win the submissive.

Aphrodite saw those offerings as belonging to her, and, in a rage, sent her son down to punish the mortal Psyche for her crimes. Eros, ever obedient, took his arrows and went to earth. Eros’ arrows were not physical weapons, but would pierce through the soul of one person and bind them to another. Eros, mischievous in mind, decided to bind Psyche to the soul of a goat, so none could ever look upon her with love.

He settled into her sleeping chambers, and being himself submissive, saw none of the beauty in features and none of the attractiveness in her presence, and was committed to his plan. He pricked her with his arrow and went out to find a goat. Had he found one of easier temperament, this story would have ended there. But Eros stumbled upon a goat the had once outrun Artemis’ hounds, and thus won her favour. Artemis enjoyed Aphrodite’s agony over Psyche and thus blessed the goat with the ability to sense the Gods.

Instead of pricking the goat with his arrow, Eros found himself kicked firmly into a mountainside and stabbing himself with his strand of Psyche’s soul, and none are immune to the powers of love, not even a God, and when he pulled himself up from the rubble, and despite being submissive himself, he was committed to a new plan.

Eros stole back into the castle, and, wrapping up his love in secrecy, stole her away to a mountaintop, where one of his many mortal homes waited (for when he so chose to take mortal lovers, as he and the other Gods so often did), and laid her to rest in a bed wrought of diamond in a home more beautiful than any mortal palace, with all the finest delicacies and luxuries that his Psyche would ever want or need for.

He thereupon returned to the castle, and in her place left many treasures and gifts, of such finery and beauty that her Protector would know that she had been taken by a God, though he was careful to keep his identity a secret, for though he was a God, and the thoughts of mortals mattered little to him, he did not wish to draw attention to himself.

Eros hid himself from sight, so that his wife might not know of their shared nature, and when she awoke, and though she could not see him, she sensed him in her mind, and loved him as any sub loves zer dom, and invited him into the bed, feeling no fear or worry for her family, because she felt loved to the very core of her being.

Eros claimed to be a hideous and deformed creature that had hidden himself from view, and he told her to never look upon his features, for she would not love him then, and she obeyed, as any sub would obey zer dom, even as she protested that she did not care about how he appeared, and would love him, that she had beauty enough for them both. He agreed and asked for her hand, and she gave it to him.

He proved himself a gentle, firm lover, though he had to play a part that sat wrong with him, but he did not mind, because his love was happy. They stayed in bed for many days and nights, Eros letting the dark hide him his wife’s eyes when night fell, and forbidding any light or lamp in their shared rooms. Food was delivered when she needed it, and he doted on her, knowing her every want and desire and granting it to her, and she, for many days and nights, had not a single worry or thought other than being with her husband, as well it should be with new soulbonds.

And, for a time, it was good.”

cont.

 

 

---

July 2001
The air in the room had been sticky-desperate-hot. They’d shut and locked all the windows, stuffed sweaters under the crack of the closed and locked door, and shoved Merlin’s unpacked bag up against the closed heating vent and then sat away from any walls, in the middle of Merlin’s chaotically confused room. Half-started projects and half-moulded models, a one eyed head here, a base-painted train engine without details or wheels, all mingled into the crowded press of the things he had finished. The paintings, blue prints and sketches on every spare inch of wall, the pots and bowls from his pottery class filled with screws and coins, the eyeless papier-mâché masks hanging from the ceiling with diving airplanes and gently floating dirigibles.

The heat had grown the longer they sat there, their bodies filling up the small, crowded room as the sun rose and the day outside grew warmer and baked them from the outside in. They lay on the floor, like the opening and closing parenthesis to a clever aside that no one ever said. Merlin’s hands were tucked close to his body and Arthur crossed his arms over his chest and twisted to stare at the bellies of jet planes and the blank-eyed exaggeration of the masks.

At some point Merlin’s fist had crept away from his chest and his knuckles ended up brushing up against Arthur’s shoulder. Arthur had known it was coming, seen the movement as Merlin hand slid closer, and he hadn’t moved. His breath caught as Merlin unclenched his hand and his fingers trailed up over the swell of muscle. Merlin’s breath sounded shaky, but he inched closer and Arthur continued to lie still. Merlin’s hand stayed still, splayed over his shoulder and chest, both of them lying the heat and trying to breathe.

Then Merlin’s right hand began moving down the slope of Arthur’s right arm, trailing down towards where his fingers were protectively curled up against his own bicep.

 

 

---


LoaeX3

[Promotional poster for independent psychological horror film Glass, written and directed by Howard Isen. The picture features two women: a shorthaired, angry dominant (the Stepsister, (Kelly Stan)) covering the mouth of a frightened blonde submissive (Cinderella, (Rachel Hans)).]

---December 2003

Arthur was seventeen, single, and on a bus. Arthur tugged his thick, charity-shop jumper tighter around himself and lifted his chin as he started out the window. There were two doms who’d just gotten on and immediately zoned in on him. He’d met the taller one’s eyes on accident, just sort of staring mindlessly into the middle-distance like anyone did on a bus, saw movement, tracked it, and ended up staring into the eyes of someone who was going to take it wrong.

He had his bag on the seat next to him, and the bus had plenty of open seats. It was an off-hour. Even the muggy exhaust-and-sweat smell of buses had started to air out, a little.

He wished he had a book. People left you alone if you put up enough defences. But some people, they would sit right next to you and make comments and ask what you were reading, if you read a lot, if it was for class, about this and that and whatever until you looked at them, and then the conversation would build and then they’d be giving you compliments you didn’t want.

Or they sat behind you, like these two, and you could feel the moist drag of their breath on your neck and the way they jostled each other and murmured comments to one another that you would be able to hear if you put any effort into it. There were doms who took their orientation to mean that they could do anything if they just pushed hard enough.

The one directly behind him gripped the back of his seat; Arthur could feel the hard points of his knuckles against his shoulders. Arthur was not scared. He wasn’t ever scared. When there were unannounced footsteps behind him in a car park his heart didn’t beat harder because he was about to piss himself, but because, much like Bruce Banner, Arthur’s anger was a seething, smashing monster that lived like a bezoar of undigested resentment lodged right under his sternum.

He rubbed the base of his ring finger, where, if he had a fiancée (which he did not, because he was single) there would be a protective ring (hence the name) both to signal he was taken, and to protect the sensitive bundle of nerves right there at the base of his dominant hand. He hated the bus. The way it started and stopped, the constant rocking motion. He hated the smell of it, and the knowledge that any seat you could sit on probably had had someone throw up on it at one point or another. Mostly it was the smell. And the noise. And the motion. And basically everything about the bus. Everything about it was horrible, except for the part that it was faster than walking.

It was better when he could listen to music, but it had been Merlin’s turn for the CD player (they shared, since Arthur had busted his, and Merlin had taken his apart for Reasons, and they’d only had enough money between them for one), so he was stuck staring out the window, which didn’t really help the headache, since it was unseasonably sunny. Better when it was raining and he could pretend the raindrops were protozoa eating one another.

(“I think everyone else races them,” Merlin would say, head on Arthur’s shoulder and eyes closed, ear bud in one ear, the mate in Arthur’s. “But what if they do morph into one giant Megazord raindrop? Who wins then?”

“They were overcome with their aggressive desire to win and decided to fuck it out in the coat room.” Arthur would say and Merlin would snort and shift around in the bus seat until he was more comfortable. “Everyone wins.”)

A rush of empathy exploded behind his eyes, rushing down his throat and coating his stomach like cold milk after a too-large-bite of something entirely too spicy. He sighed, got up and moved to the other side of the bus without comment. Most of the self-help books Dr. Whitman had prescribed for homework (all read aloud by Merlin as they flopped in his unmade bed and Arthur wrote short, non-committal sentences about how his day had gone in his “daily stress journal”) stressed the need to leave a situation when he thought he was going to have—and here, Merlin always substituted whatever buzz word the book was using for “a Hulk out”—and come back to it when he was calmer. He relaxed back into the seat and let the borrowed feeling soothe out the rough edges of his mood.

In school half his classmates looked drugged, their doms getting off on being able to gentle them into a soft, entirely-tupped submission, the other half going all alpha-top over everything one second, and then purring with satisfaction over their dominance of someone they hadn’t even met yet the next. You could walk down the halls and catch three moods off one person before you even finished turning the corner.

And then there were the lectures about it. A few years ago it had been Teacher Lester’s classes about learning to pick which was an emotion you were having, and which was feedback from your fiancée, and how to set up a signal when you needed to focus on something. About how the cluster of nerves in your ring finger was something physical and grounding that you could use to tell your fiancée “not right now, please” or “I could use some assistance.”

(“Or ‘fancy a wank?’” Jennifer Watz had muttered just-loudly-enough from her little co-op of friends.)

He opened his eyes and smiled, enjoying the growing warmth in his stomach.

One of the doms, who couldn’t have been much older than Arthur, but still had no business making a fuss, slid across the aisle to sit kitty corner to him, leaning forward enough that he took up most Arthur’s peripheral vision, close enough that Arthur could choke on his body spray if he wanted. The other just laughed like a dolt and Arthur was frustrated all over again, turning to look out the window “Hey there. Hey do you have the time?” The one right next to him asked, basically right into his ear. That’s what they did. They asked innocuous questions and then you were stuck with them for the rest of the bus ride, because you’d be rude to ignore them, right? They were just asking the time. Like Arthur hadn’t just gotten up to move away from him.

And Arthur got angry. His most immediate negative emotional response was anger. When his favourite character in a book died, he didn’t cry, he got pissed off. When two young, idiot doms—who were all hyped up because they’re dominants—thought they could stare at him like he was the last zebra in the Serengeti. Because, hey, they could do whatever they wanted and if they got in trouble they’d just front their way out of it. Arthur was positive if he’d been a dom, he’d never have to see Dr. Whitman for “anger management” because then it would have been “natural for his age” and it would have just needed to “run its course.”

Some days he had more patience than others.

“Hey, come on. Don’t be like that. I just want to know the time.” He knew flipping them off just encouraged them, and he could never get a good insult going. But ignoring them doesn’t help, and they’re still talking, to each other: shooting him glances. He could beat the piss out of them, if he wanted to—probably. People didn’t get into fights like they used to, like it is in older books or films, back before people could actually find their fiancées as opposed to them being— for the better part of the population— a steadying, loving phantom in their heads.

There used to be gun duels and sword fights, still were in movies, of course. Some people still thought was romantic, but Arthur—having actually been in a fight and broken two knuckles, bit his tongue, and had plenty of bruises besides and he was the one who’d objectively won—thought it unimaginably stupid.

And he was a sub. Most doms, generally, backed off once you started bending fingers back, or got them one in the nose. Most doms would go away if you just said you weren’t interested, most people were decent and left you alone if you didn’t look like you wanted to be approached. Being able to read your partner’s non-verbal cues was a huge, giant part of being a dominant. But sometimes you got morons. And morons were morons regardless of gender.

And so the dom touched him, put his hand on Arthur’s shoulder and shook him. “Come on, babe. Don’t be like that, I’m just being friendly.”

Arthur’s hands were hard from carpentry, covered thick with calluses, and his arms tight with hard-earned muscle. He had plenty of experience with rugby scrums and after-game scuffles.

He sat up and turned, grabbed the dom by the wrist, jaw set and he didn’t have a big, impassioned speech. He might have one later, but if he talked now it wouldn’t come out right, so he just shoved the man’s wrist back at him. Something about they’d always be sucky doms if they couldn’t read people, or… or something cool and action movie hero-y. Merlin could think of something, something awesome to say, so he could get up right at his stop and put them in their places. But as was he couldn’t stop grinding his teeth and if he didn’t want to punch and not stop punching the only real solution was to sit up at the head of the bus like a scared little dork who couldn’t handle himself.

“Jesus fuck, are you mental?” He heard from behind him and he held on to his bag and got off on the next stop so he wouldn’t become that bloke who got kicked off the bus for biting off someone’s ear.

(“If it makes you feel better, you did the right thing.” Merlin would say later. And then, “if it makes you feel more better I have ice cream and a really unhelpful anger management pamphlet that we can set on fire.” Which would, actually, make Arthur feel better.)

 

 

---


The Handy Pocket Five:
Tips And Tricks To Calming Down And Keeping Your Cool.

It’s important to your friends, family and peers that you keep yourself well. So keep these handy, so you can keep yourself in hand.

o Breathe: it sure may sound basic, but taking a second the breathe can help clear your thoughts, and helps your heart to slow down so your brain thinks it’s okay to calm down now. Try it!

o Walk Away: if you feel like you can’t control yourself, then the safest and best thing for everyone is to Get Out Of There! It’s not rude if the other option is to lose your cool.

o Evaluate The Situation: Is it really you whose angry right now, or did it come out of nowhere? Sometimes your bondmate can feed you feelings of anger, and it’s important to be able to tell the difference between what ze’s feeling and what you are. Take a moment and remember to breathe!

o Count To Ten: give yourself time to think about a situation. Don’t just count, but clear your thoughts, don’t just wait ten seconds to think of how to respond. Pretend it’s a little mini vacation in your head! If you’re still mad Get Out Of There,

o Learn Your Signals: you probably know when you’re getting angry long before it spirals out of your hands. Learn what specifically triggers your anger and why it does, and then, when you’re calmed down, talk it over with a responsible adult. They’ll probably have some ways to help that you never thought of!

Remember: we’re rooting for you!

 

 

---

July 2001

 

Merlin and his mum had gone for a holiday to look for his mum’s fiancé, since ze was probably legal now. It was Merlin’s first proper trip, seeing as Merlin’s mum was always working. Arthur had never really been on one either, since he and his guardians had, somewhere along the line, decided that their barely functioning relationship would terminally suffer were they to be locked together with only each other as company for any extended period of time.

Arthur had felt oddly…nervous when Merlin had finally climbed into Arthur’s Aunt Rebecca’s car. No, maybe not nervous. Nervous was what you felt before a match you really wanted to win, or when a pretty dom looked at you speculatively and you felt your knees quake a little bit, or before you went to visit and see if your dad was having a good day or not.

He was cat sitting for them—Frizzle, since Missy had died last summer, and neither of them had gotten over it, but Frizzle was sort of helping. Better, at least, than coming home to a house you felt should have a cat in it that did not.

It took all of that long, drawling afternoon in oddly clean and sparse space of Merlin’s-house-without-Merlin for him to put two and two together. At first he just walked from room to room, double checking that he was alone, picking up little knick-knacks that he hadn’t had time to examine before. He’d been in Merlin’s house about as frequently as he’d been in his own, but it felt…weird, without anyone there. Merlin’s mum had made sure the fridge had plenty of his favourites, and if Arthur broke into her liquor cabinet, well, it wouldn’t be the first time. Hunith was one of those parents whom would rather you drink at her house where she knew where you were, and what you were drinking, and who you were with, rather than out in some field somewhere with strangers drinking whatever terrible concoction you could get your hands on.

He sorted through Merlin’s CDs and put in one because if he heard anything from the Moulin Rogue soundtrack one more time, he was going to throw something expensive at something really solid. Arthur also wished they’d left the carefully labelled five-member dom or sub bands back in the 90’s. He really did. There were always five of them, and they were always billed as the “____ One” and then you had to deal with magazines asking which one you could have a steamy affair with, or which one you would be if you were marketable enough.

It was weird. Everything about the house suddenly felt too big, and his skin felt too small, like there was more of him packed inside it than there had been previously. It felt like too much of him was feeling that strange crawling mixture of apprehension and excitement before he noticed that the dull, fuzzy, omnipresent weight that had sprawled in the corner of his mind was breaking apart, was clearing out like a fresh breeze rolling across his neurons. He stopped in the middle of the kitchen, gherkin half chewed in his mouth, filled with a foreboding-kind-of good-sort-of-weird, which was not how anyone else would write it. In books these had long, beautiful paragraphs about how these things felt. Poems that people put on t-shirts or said at weddings, or quoted at each other when they were high on love and stupidity.

Then again there were also a lot of songs with just the lyrics “you were made for me/I was made for you” repeated over and over to a thumping techno beat. So Arthur was, at least, better than that. Hopefully.

But he just stood with his hands on the corners of counter and tried to find the thread of the feeling like it was a thought he’d just lost track of, trying to focus on it, trying to lose himself in it like a daydream. Words didn’t work, or ideas, or pictures, but he was curious. Was this? This was what this was, wasn’t it? Because he shouldn’t be this apprehensive just standing around and snacking. So it had to be. And he had no idea how to…you didn’t send feelings. They weren’t packages. And you couldn’t make yourself feel really curious, but apparently just focusing on the problem helped, because the apprehension bled away and was replaced with a feeling like an exclamation mark.

The flickers he got of his fiancé were…pleasant. Happy, all of a sudden, like ze had just noticed Arthur, finally, and was entirely too happy to find him there, in zer head. Arthur shivered at the approval and leaned against the washing machine. Arthur was used to the feeling of being blindsided by anger. He knew what that was like. He’d had to sit in Dr. Whitman’s office and try to describe it, words fumbling out of his hands like he was a toddler with a spoon. But he’d never been stuck with joy like lightning. He’d never stopped still and felt everything in him expand as opposed to tighten, not without a reason. But here he was, smiling at the air, laughing like he’d lost himself somewhere.

His dom was happy with him, ze was finally there and ze was happy to find him. Ze was happy for him, and Arthur wanted zer nearby, he wanted to be able to greet zer, and flop all over zer, and drop right down his knees and not feel dumb or embarrassed or stupid about it. He slid down until he was sitting on the floor, legs spread open and he wanted zer right now, for zer to show up and the two of them could just. Leave. Get out of this place and they would bring Merlin and find Merlin’s dom and live together in some disgustingly domestic house somewhere and Arthur could be someone else entirely. Hopefully. Maybe.

His brain wasn’t yet used to separating his own feelings from the ones flicking in from the outside. He’d overheard a conversation at lunch, where someone said: “It’s like they’ve got a different smell. Like, your happiness smells like blueberry pie, because when someone asks you what makes you happy, that’s the first thing you think of. But then their happiness smells like engine grease because that’s what comes to mind for them. And you can kind of smell it, just a little bit, but you also feel happy.”

But currently Arthur couldn’t separate the bubbling laughter coming from outside and the sharp and painful relief coming from inside himself, or, obviously, it could easily be the other way around. His dom probably had been blocking Arthur out and now was sharply relieved to find him there, or was happy and Arthur was relieved ze wasn’t blocking him and Arthur couldn’t find the centre of it all. So he just laughed to himself, tilted his head back and basked in the attention, eyes squeezed shut.

It’s a disgustingly blissful thing, knowing that there is someone out there in the world for you, who’ll love you exactly for the person you are, and you can’t pretend around them because they’ll know, and they can’t hide from you either. Terrifying, a bit, but it’s like Merlin’s unrestrained love of Scarlet O’Hara, she’s not exactly likable, but you know why she’s doing what she’s doing and who she is and where she’s coming from and so you can get over her less sterling qualities because they are a part of her. “Except for the racism, which we would need to have a conversation with her about, but that’s true of most people,” Merlin would tend to add.

It was a soulbond. Not that people knew if souls were real, or whatever, and different languages had different words for it and different reasons. You had Plato in The Symposium with humans having four legs and arms, one head with two faces, but they were so awesome that Zeus hacked them up because Zeus is the worst person ever. So your soulmate was like a physical hunk of yourself that had been torn away from you, and you wouldn’t be happy until you found them again. Or the Jewish idea of “Bashert” that God had destined someone (or made all marriages in heaven) for everyone, and so they’re looking for their bashert, so it’s more like God made you both and set you on earth, to find one another.

Or a lot of other examples that Arthur hadn’t paid enough attention to, because his head had been fuzzy and unclear and so who even cared? Who cared about the mysticism or connectivity of souls or neurochemicals or the collective unconscious or single-flesh-theory or social structure theory, or any of it? It didn’t mean anything when you felt like you didn’t have one. And he didn’t care now, either, because who cared how it worked, or why? Why not just spend the rest of your life happily bouncing joy from one of you to the other like a tennis ball in space?

And then the happiness went out, just snuffed out because Frizzle was standing on Arthur’s leg and staring at him and Oh God, Merlin.

Arthur had been…disturbingly pleased to find Merlin was as cut off from his dom as Arthur was, because then Merlin wouldn’t become another one of the drugged-out looking classmates, only ever really half there and always looking like they’re just waiting for their turn to talk, instead of listening.

Your fiancé was perfect for you. Like, the one other person in all of creation who could stick by you through everything and would fill up all those dank, horrible empty places you kept finding inside yourself. And he didn’t want Merlin running off and loving someone else more than he loved Arthur. And his gut twisted up because now, here he was, going to be that guy who was only ever half there, sharing every second with someone Merlin would never really know.

There were pamphlets about it, about what happened when your best friend went and found himself his fiancé and you were just at this giant loose end because all those long, sleepy Saturdays and those adventure packed evenings were being spent with someone else who made your best friend happier than you ever could. There were coming of age books, and all these empty, stilted paragraphs about what you were supposed to do when your best friend went and got himself engaged and you were stuck by yourself and single, or if they connected with their fiancée before you did and you were stuck in your own head without a sympathetic audience. And all those paragraphs had been about frustration and jealousy and loneliness.

They didn’t hit on the bone-chilled terror of it, or being on the other end. What if Merlin came back and he had the same screeching microphone-feedback? What if Merlin also had his bond and now everything was going to be stilted and weird because they weren’t really sharing the same experience anymore? Or. Or fuck. What if Merlin had found his fiancée? What if, even if Arthur could now feel his other half, they were off in Finland or wherever and Merlin was cavorting with some idiot in Brixton who was going to love all his ideas, but not know about all the fence posts and gazebos they’d carved their initials into (but never living trees, because what if Ents?) Or worse. Or. Or so much worse, it would be Arthur who would turn into the distant, lovesick one and leave Merlin off to figure out things for himself, and Merlin was pants at that. Arthur got that friendships were supposed to grow and change and evolve, but, seriously. That was party line bullshit that no one actually believed. Maybe later, when everyone had their fiancé and you were looking for a couple to double date. Maybe then. Not a whole lot of friendships survived the Honeymoon period.

His worry was apparently enough to set his fiancé’s heart racing because now it was a weird, echoic kind of worry, heart hammering away and his palms sweating. Why did this have to happen now?

He should tell Merlin.

Merlin would probably be happy for him.

Maybe they could both renounce and run away to some commune somewhere and make jam for a living. And he knew that his fiancé must be feeling all this anger out of nowhere, but that was zer own damn fault. Arthur had been doing just fine without zer.

There was a sharp jab of worry coming from somewhere outside of him, and Arthur shoved it out of his mind. Why’d ze need to show up all of sudden for anyway? If ze’d been suppressing Arthur this long, why not a bit longer? Why now?

Frizzle jumped up onto the desk and stared at moment at the blinking cursor on the screen, before claiming the monitor as his territory. Arthur reached up and rubbed down his back, trying to find a sense of calm in the arch of Frizzle’s back, or the springy wiry curls of his fur, scratching underneath his chin.

He eventually tapped out: Did you get yourself in jail? Did you forget entirely how to type? I’m very disappointed in you, Merlin. I may steal your cat. and sent it, even though the words looked boring and bland and impotent just sitting up there, on screen.

He didn’t. There were not a sufficient amount of books about this. There were more books about this than a human could read in their lifetime. He should have some character to fall back on. Instead he was over-empathizing with the house from Wizard of Oz, because there it had been: being a house, which was suddenly ripped out of the ground for no good reason. Then it had gone and killed someone by mistake, far away from the place when it had any sense being and no magical journey to show for it. Just left there with all these munchkins and its foundation completely gone and all this colour everywhere like it had the right.

Merlin’s trip lasted another two days, and Arthur spent those two days in a feverish emotional hangover-y limbo. And maybe drinking more out of Hunith’s liquor cabinet then she’d be entirely okay with, but it was better than…well. It seemed the thing to do. That’s what people did in books when they had too much going on. They drank a lot. It didn’t actually help, at all, seeing as it just made his own emotions seem dull and boring, and the new ones bright as Christmas decorations. Merlin didn’t email him back or pick up his phone and Arthur was sort of happy about it. His ring finger throbbed and he refused to touch it. His chest hurt in fits and bursts, aching one moment, and completely fine the next. He didn’t. He didn’t know what to do with himself.

So he hid and stayed quiet. Those were the only things he was good at doing, besides breaking things, and that didn’t seem appropriate.

He’d fallen asleep in Merlin’s bed, Frizzle had made himself comfortable on his chest, and there wasn’t any safe place on earth, so he might as well sop around like an idiot where he was. Somewhere along the line, the sense of what was Merlin’s space and what was Arthur’s got completely lost to semantics. He was sort of drunk, but sort of not drunk and sort of wanting to go back to last week and live there, even if last week hadn’t been terrifically special, or even that good.

He’d woken up to a sudden, sharp jerk of terror, which sat him straight up, disturbing Frizzle right out of the room. The terror tempered itself into a strange, limping sort of happiness and sadness and…and Arthur didn’t know how he could separate one from another except that he could.

Arthur didn’t get what was going on right away. He just saw Merlin standing there. And Merlin was just standing there, not talking or doing anything. Just standing there like a complete idiot, with his luggage at his feet and the door closed following Frizzle’s departure.

So Arthur sat in Merlin’s bed and looked at Merlin and had the sudden, irrevocable urge to fall to his knees in front of him. But. It was Merlin. Nothing about Merlin was commanding. Effusive and extravagant, sure, someone you noticed and paid attention to, but Arthur’s knees were shaking and his throat was dry and his ring finger ached and it was perfectly stupid how long it took for him to understand what was going on.

Arthur had looked at Merlin’s shaking hands, he’d looked at the slumped slope of his shoulders, and how he was leaning heavily against the door. He looked at Merlin’s face, lit up only by the street lamps and the glow of various electronics left about the room, and it looked just as scared as the thudding, sick feeling in Arthur gut.

And. And then. Then. As slow dawning as Merlin’s Great Food Epiphany. And then he understood.

 

 

---

cont
“But, of course, there came a time when Eros had to return to his duties and was forced to leave his bride, only able to return at night. She entertained herself in her new palace of wonders, as she had always learned to entertain herself, but began to pine for company besides the steady, loving presence nestled next to her heart.

“My dear husband,” she said, when they had finished for the night and were, by then, drowsing in the sheets as couples do. “Though my heart is completed by you, when you are away I find myself missing my siblings, who were great friends when we were younger and before they were wed. Might they come and visit while you are away? I do miss them so.”

“Of course, my dear wife.” Eros said, wanting only her happiness, and having felt the pangs of mortal loneliness in such a way that disarmed him utterly.

So it was that Psyche’s siblings were sent word of her marriage, and journeyed to visit her. While all lovely, not one was as beautiful or more desired than Psyche, and had, many nights, raged with jealousy over how they should only be wed by doms who’d sought Psyche’s suit and failed, for one reason or another, but been deemed worthy of a secondary prize. Their jealousy only worsened upon seeing her new home, with all its’ glorious wonders, its’ luxuries and comforts. One could not more than step in the door and feel the rest of the world pale in comparison, and had Psyche not loved her siblings so, she might never had longed for anything. Psyche did not know of her siblings’ jealousy, having only ever loved them and thinking her beauty no more than a passing token of the Gods.

They spent the morning feasting and carousing, like they had when they were children, and it was not until that it came time to leave that their jealousy returned. “But Psyche!” they cried, “Where is your husband?”

She told them that he had gone for the day and they pressed for details, but she could not tell them what he looked like. “He says he is a hideous monster and to look upon him would turn my heart to stone, but I could no more hate him than I could hate the very air.”

“Sister!” they warned, “If he is this monster, perhaps he has put a spell on you. You should protect yourself, keep a knife in your bed and a lantern nearby so you may know of what sort of monster he is.”

Psyche trusted her siblings, but loved her husband too much to pay them heed, and when she left she tried to put their advice from her mind, and took to study.

When Eros returned he stood in the shadows of her study and requested she blow out her lantern, so he might kiss her. Psyche had taken to study of monsters during the day, and none, she thought, could be her husband. He had no horns upon his head, his fingers were not clawed, and his feet were soft, human feet. When she had touched his face, his features had seemed fair, and these were the things she told him in the dark. “What is it you ask of me?” He pressed his face to her shoulder, because he knew that he would refuse her nothing.

“Do you love me?” She asked, and Eros stated that he loved her more than Apollo loved his lyre, than Hephaestus loved his anvil, and any husband had loved any wife in all the history of mankind, and with this was satisfied and asked nothing of him except to take her to bed.

Some time later her siblings came to visit her again, and they spent the afternoon having joyous fun, eating foods they had no names for and drinking wine until they were giddy, and the day passed as pleasantly as ever there has been. However, once again it came time for them to go, and once again they cried for their sister to be careful, that the monster was no doubt fattening her up to eat her, or would spring horrific, terrifying children upon her. Psyche loved her husband and tried to pay them no mind, but still, when Eros returned, she was in the study, thinking now of the fat, happy children she had intended to bare him as wretched in some way or other.

These were the things she told him in the dark, and once again Eros pressed his face to her shoulder and asked what she wanted of him. “Do you love me?” She asked of him again, and he responded that he loved her more than Hestia loved her kettle, than Artemis loved her bow, or any dom had loved any sub in all the history of all of the worlds ever to be or imagined, and with this she was satisfied and asked only that he take her to bed.

It was this night, after many nights of lovemaking, that Eros made a request of her, that she treat him as he had treated her these long, lazy, perfect nights. “It is because I am a monster,” he lamented, feeling it true, “if you wish to refuse me, you may, and I will love you still.” And she, being a loving and caring wife, could not refuse him, though she found the request odd and unsettling, as submissives are not meant to act as dominants, and the play suits them ill. Though she still loved her husband, Psyche felt herself filled with uneasiness.

For a third time her siblings visited, and they spent the evening in revelry, playing games, and listening to music and eating their fill of good food, and they all wished to spend the rest of their days as such. But, time came again for them to go and they were once again filled with jealousy that their sister should get to live so. So once again the counselled “Monsters are full of strange and unhealthy appetites, you must beware Psyche, you must find out what beast he is and be prepared.”

Psyche loved her husband, but recalled the night he asked her to hold the whip instead of him, and she was afraid. So once again she turned to study and when Eros came for her, late at night and thick with worry he held his hand to his breast and asked what he could do to calm her fears.

Though she worried, his presence soothed her, and she asked again, “Do you love me?”
And he said that he loved her more than the owl loved Athena, more than the sea loved Poseidon and more than any creature has loved any other and she was not satisfied, feeling fear again and held her hand to his face and asked him to show himself, so that she might better understand. And Eros, unable to refuse her anything did so in a single, glorious moment, and when he saw the recognition in her eyes and the worship begin to swell in her heart, he fled away, and in his despair, told his mother the whole, woeful tale, and he wept and her heart softened for her son’s plight. She saw the strand tying him to Psyche, and knew she could not break it without causing her son’s downfall.

So it came to Aphrodite to form a plan.”

cont.

 

 

---

July, 2001
It wasn’t until this that Arthur properly spoke to Dr. Whitman. Before it had been a trial, a game, a tourney, an experiment. Dr. Whitman was the enemy and Arthur had to outwit him when they were in private session, and endure during the family ones. That was the only thing you could do during a tribunal airing your every fault and mistake. Endure. Pretend you were someone else.

But this. This proved he was wrong. He was made wrong. Maybe he was like his father, maybe the car crash had ruined something in his brain and now he’d dragged Merlin into it. And Arthur could have endured this, would have been fine with the fuzzy nothing in his head and never finding anyone, if he hadn’t dragged someone else in it with him.

Merlin needed someone who could focus him. Merlin wanted someone big. Merlin was his best friend. Merlin was happy. Merlin was happy that it was Arthur. It filled him up to the brim, and he looked at Arthur like this was the greatest thing that could have ever happened and didn’t that just prove it? Sure Merlin was maybe slightly demented, but he wasn’t completely crazy. He wasn’t any kind of pervert or anything. So it had to be something of Arthur making him like this. Making him happy.

So here they were. The two of them. In Merlin’s darkened bedroom and everything was wrong about them. Merlin didn’t fight the urge to drop on his knees, didn’t try to look at Arthur with anything but worship. Arthur didn’t want it. He wanted. He wanted to be there, he was supposed to fall on his knees. He was supposed to find that person who would let him be angry when he was angry, but know how to calm him down. Stop him from shoving someone into the mud, or throwing things, or doing anything. They would let him be angry, but not do anger.

This was wrong. This was so stupidly fucked up.

So he fell too. He got on his knees because he wanted to. He wanted to be on his knees (but more, he wanted someone to put him there). He stumbled out of bed and onto the floor, because he knew that he was supposed to be there. But then they were on the ground together, staring at each other like the stupidest of morons, and actually? They probably were. They had to be. Or Arthur had to be. But Merlin didn’t help. Merlin was an enabler.

Merlin licked his lips and Arthur tracked the motion before looking away. “How. You’re. I’m.” And that encompassed everything. Just. The entire problem was right there. But you. But you are. But you are you and apparently I’ve been in love with you, but you’re you. Apparently we’re supposed to be together forever. But you’re you. And I’m me. And we’re not. This isn’t. We can’t. But you. How.

“Yeah.” Merlin swallowed, hands hanging loose at his sides, in simple agreement with everything to do with that. Arthur wanted to throw things, but he wanted to touch, he wanted to press his face into Merlin’s stomach, and he wanted to wrestle Merlin to the ground, and he wanted to run away and so he just…knelt there.

Merlin crawled closer, stopping just a breath away from him and then kneeling up again, his hands hovering in front of him but not breaching the gap. It was wrong that they were both down here, one of them should be on their feet, the other on their knees. Arthur should have. He should. But, similarly, somewhere in the lizard part of Arthur’s brain, he thought that if he saw anyone else put Merlin on his knees he would hate them out of existence. He wouldn’t even kill them. They would die from hate. Merlin was his. Merlin was made for him. He didn’t belong to another soul.

“What.” Arthur cleared his throat. “What did we do?” It had to be their fault. It somehow had to be their fault. Or. Or his fault. Because this wasn’t normal. This didn’t happen to normal people. As far as Arthur knew, this didn’t happen to anyone. You had subs and you had doms, and they were made for each other. You. That just made sense. You couldn’t have two subs or two doms that was just. That didn’t even work.

“My entire brain is this huge argument where one side wants you to shove me on the ground and fuck me so badly that I’m shaking, and the rest of it is shouting but that’s never going to happen..” Merlin lifted his hand to demonstrate the shaking and Arthur didn’t touch, because if he touched it’d be real.

Merlin watched him, his body trembling in uncontrollable shudders then wrapped himself around Arthur all at once, because Merlin had never met a whim he didn’t immediately fulfil. “What do we do?” Merlin asked into the crook of Arthur’s neck and Arthur didn’t know. Merlin was the one with the ideas,

“We could.” Merlin’s voice caught in his throat.

Sometimes things went wrong. Arthur’s father was still alive because the car accident had destroyed the part of his brain that would bond with someone else, that had bonded with one of Arthur’s mums. So instead of dying alongside his mate, he lingered on, remembering her sometimes, and sometimes not. The car accident hadn’t been the clean, controlled surgery of a permanent bond nullification procedure. The accident had damaged plenty of other tissue and so Arthur’s father had no ability to control himself, no way to regulate. According to the facility, sometimes he spent days in a mindless, hazy, stupor, and some days he flew in a manic rage and Arthur didn’t need to know more than that.

Someone had come to Arthur’s school to talk about it, to talk about how, in 15% of the population, something went wrong and the bond had to be severed or, at minimum, suppressed for the health of one or both of the participants. Mental illness. Extreme physical illness. Lasting emotional distress.

But you didn’t get a new one. That was the key. No matter what, you didn’t get a new one. You got one shot at the whole two-sides-of-the-same-coin deal, and after that you just had to stumble through life on your own. Half of a broken thing, maybe even meeting your fiancée on the street and never having any way of knowing or ability to do anything about it.

“Don’t be dumb, Merlin.” Arthur had said.

And Arthur had felt the zing of relief spark from Merlin right into his head and Arthur had no idea how. How this was supposed to work. You heard, sometimes, maybe, about doms getting off with each other. Like, with the Greeks at war, and whoever was the bravest got to put someone else on their knees in reward. Or an older dom teaching a younger one how to hit and what the lash felt like.

And subs, sure, subs might comfort one another. They were, generally (whether by nature or by nurture) more openly affectionate, and you had harems with a dom and zer partner, and then a gaggle of unmarried subs whose mates had died at war or they’d never had them, or whatever, and the general fantasy went along the lines of the subs kissing one another and playing around, but it was never real. It was a game.

No one had come to school to talk about this. They talked about switches, about what if this and what if that and what to do in this particular case, and there were short films with bad actors and unhelpful pamphlets with bad drawings or stock photography and young adult novels with boring one word titles, but there wasn’t anything about this. It was a giant hole in Arthur’s education.

“Do you think this has ever happened before?”

“It has to have.” Merlin rubbed the back of his hand against his mouth, thoughtfully. “Nothing new under the sun.”

Arthur watched the slow back and forth of Merlin’s hand. He’d never kissed anyone before. “What do you think happened to them?”

“Shh,” Merlin had said, changing gears entirely, because he was Merlin, and he could feel Arthur’s fear buzzing right up against his throat. “Shh, we’ll figure it out.”

He nuzzled against Arthur’s neck. “It’ll be okay, I promise. We’ll think of something. We’ll research. We’ll find out everything we have to. It has to have happened before. For some kind of reason.”

Arthur rested his head against Merlin’s shoulder, arms coming up and then clutching onto Merlin, fingers clawing into Merlin’s shirt, nails digging into the bony landscape of Merlin’s back, a landscape Arthur already knew, technically, in a haphazard, mindless way. He was fourteen and Merlin was thirteen. They’d lived in each other’s pockets for a decade, they’d gone swimming and changed in the same room and flopped around, too lazy to put on shirts. He knew the rising bumps of Merlin’s spine and the dips of his ribs. But he’d never cared before. He didn’t know why he should care now, except that he did. He cared like he was just now learning to read, and suddenly the world had untold meaning it hadn’t contained previously.

Merlin was the one who got them to their feet. He had to feel the same sickly-sticky drip of guilt that Arthur was, but he didn’t comment on it. Didn’t try and shove it away. He just let Arthur keep it. Merlin was thirteen and still dealt with change better than Arthur was ever going to.

Arthur was fourteen and Merlin was thirteen, and if they’d been normal then they wouldn’t be allowed to hang out without a chaperon of one kind or another until they were sixteen. If they were normal they would need one. Arthur had seen the films, the voice-over detachedly describing the instincts that took over when you first found your fiancé. How you, a young sub, might lose yourself in making them happy and doing whatever they said for a little while, might lose the sights of your own limitations. How they, a young dom, would be high on power, would be protective and possessive, and the two of you, young and untrained, might try something “unwise”. So it was best to have adults around until the two of you settled into your bond.

Merlin moved to the bed and Arthur stopped. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but. You weren’t supposed to. Not. Not at fourteen-almost-fifteen and thirteen-a-good-long-ways-from-fourteen,

“We’re two subs.” Merlin said in the face of his hesitation, sitting on the mattress. “What would we even do?”

And so Arthur had carefully slid under the blanket Merlin lifted up for him, on the side closest to the door, leaving Merlin all smashed up against the wall. They’d fallen asleep in the same bed before, plenty of times before, and this is how they’d always slept, because otherwise Merlin would fall out, and Arthur would step on him on his way to the loo. It felt different now. Like Arthur was keeping Merlin to himself.

They didn’t do anything, that first night. Not like how it should have been, the first night in bed with your fiancée: with fervent kissing, with the negotiation of words and bodies, leading and following each other until it didn’t even matter where they were going.

“It’ll be a secret,” Merlin said finally, carefully. They weren’t touching. They were breathing carefully so there could be no mistakes, a twin bed being what it was. “If nobody knows then nobody can do anything about it.”

“How do we keep something like this a secret?” Arthur’s fingers twitched forward, just a breath more and he could touch. He should be able to touch. Merlin was his, Merlin belonged to him, and he should be able to touch. He didn’t know if he was allowed to touch, what he should do with his hands, what to do with his anything.

“We already share a plate. And we spend all our time with each other. All we have to do is keep being how we always have and no one will ever know.” Merlin swallowed, shoulders hunched in on themselves, arms crossed over his chest, holding himself back.

“Your intense and complete inability to understand personal boundaries has saved the day.” Arthur would have normally shoved Merlin. Merlin even tensed for it, smile halfway on, before realizing he hadn’t been touched. Merlin looked at him, steeled himself and reached forward, pressing his finger to the tip of Arthur’s nose, his hope twisting in Arthur’s gut like poison.

“Can I touch you?” Merlin asked, after another awkward beat that was nothing like them at all. “I won’t do anything. I won’t. I just want.” His hand came up and he didn’t move. “Please let me.”

Arthur reached forward too, lining up his fingers with Merlin’s, feeling like he was breaking some kind of rule. “You can do whatever you want.”

Merlin made a noise low in his throat and then was on top of him. Not doing anything, just lying on top of Arthur like a lizard who’d found the ideal rock for sunbathing, shoving his face into Arthur’s neck and inhaling, mumbling into Arthur’s shirt like a moron. Arthur hesitated before wrapping his arms over Merlin’s back, fitting a hand to the back of Merlin’s neck with a shuddering, gasping, almost bone-jarring contentment.

Merlin breath sighed hot and wet over Arthur’s skin and Merlin’s fingers kneaded at his sides, a near constant hum of relief gushing out of him and into Arthur.

“What are you so happy about?” Arthur physically turned Merlin’s head so he wouldn’t just lose the answer in his own shoulder. Merlin shivered and Arthur’s hand flew away, hovering awkwardly in the air and was thankful he couldn’t see Merlin’s face.

“It’s dumb.”

“Most of what you say is dumb.” Arthur argued, but it fell flat and Merlin didn’t comment. Arthur put his hand down on the sheets. Merlin turned and settled down on Arthur’s side, pressed up along Arthur and the wall and Arthur knew his arm would go to sleep, but didn’t entirely care. “You’re stuck with me now. So tell me.”

“I’m stuck with you.” Merlin’s grin was audible. “That’s it. I’m stuck with you and you’re stuck with me, so we’re not going to end up like all those other people who lose contact with their childhood friends. We’re stuck together. You can’t go and leave me for a bunch of sports-guys.” Merlin wiggled and caught his right hand with his own. It was still a jolt—falling headfirst into Merlin’s head, feeling Merlin tangled up in his own, both of them suspended above the other, and Arthur had honestly thought Merlin was just going to get sick of Arthur. He’d figured that once Merlin could leave the neighbourhood, go to uni or something and then Arthur would never hear from him again.

He’d planned to just let him go and not say anything about it. Move away somewhere so Merlin wouldn’t have to see him when he came to visit his mum (also to get away from his aunt and uncle). Or maybe not. Maybe he would have been an asshole about it. Arthur didn’t really know.

He hadn’t known Merlin had been thinking it would be Arthur who would wander off. Would grow into himself and become fabulously popular at his school and not have any time for Merlin. And now that couldn’t happen. They’d never just be a story they told their soulmate one day with the ending of “I wonder what ever happened to him.”

“You’re mine now.” Merlin let the connection go slowly, flopping his hand down onto Arthur’s stomach. “Nobody is going to change that. We’ll figure the rest out.”

 

 

---

“Now, while it is important to remember that your child will not develop a fixed gender until just before (or during) puberty, it is also important to help them develop the skills and attitudes that will best help them fit into their eventual peer groups. A study of over nine hundred new American parents proved that while your child may not have a fixed gender until they’re eleven, they begin to associate with one gender more than another much earlier, which in nine out of ten cases, proved to be the child’s final fixed gender, and that final one out of ten included all non-conventional gender identities (e.g. switches, nones, ect...)

“This leads us to the developmental stage of “pre-gender orientation.” As I’ve covered in previous chapters, during the first few years of life a child will attempt to mimic the behaviours and habits of both submissive and dominant parents. It is vital that during this stage you do not attempt to push one gender identity over another because of what you want. Do not ignore the signals and behaviours of your child because you think if they “should” be one gender or another, as this can cause psychological distress later in life.[1]

“For instance, to begin with a child may play with both dolls and trucks, but as ze gets older, ze may prefer to make loud noises while crashing two trucks together and cease paying attention to the doll entirely. The child may then start to display other key features, such as heightened energy and sense of agency (which can often be mistaken for heightened aggression), or prefers large groups of comrades as opposed to a singular playmate. It is then you can begin to introduce your child to pre-gender appropriate activities, letting your un-fixed submissive-leaning child learn how to negotiate and compromise, or teaching your un-fixed dominant-leaning child how to lead and intuit. Later in the chapter, I’ll cover the most obvious signs and signals for finding your child’s pre-gender identity” – Palmer A. in Teething Through Teenagerhood: Growing Up With Your Child, 7th ed, (HarperCollins: New York) ©1980


[1] For more on that, I suggest reading Dr. Howard Church’s entire body of work (labelled more specifically in my “Further Reading” appendix) which covers various disorders and psychophillias that can develop and acts as a comprehensive guide to mis-parenting, or, for a more personal and specific look into the subject, Entertainer Georgia Price’s autobiography Disoriented.

 

 

---

August, 1992

When Arthur and Merlin first met, Arthur had been an (endlessly) angry five-almost-six year old and Merlin been a dirt covered four year old and he’d been mobile for the better part of that. He had been a kicky foetus, and had been climbing out of his cot far before the rest of his peers. He, at four, had already been missing a tooth, because he’d fallen down the stairs, able to barrel around at great speeds, but not quite so good at stopping just yet. There had been a play-gate at the mouth of the staircase, and it had done its level best to slow him down, but the manufacturers had not taken into account the momentum of a fat baby covered in pots and pans stampeding right at it.

It had taken until then for Merlin to realise he could leave his own house, and oh, oh, he could go talk to a person if he wanted, without his mum helping. It had never occurred to him previously to try this, and like a switch was thrown, he’d gone from being a deeply shy and recluse toddler into Merlin: The Fearless Friend-Making Toddler Who Could Make Friends Anytime He Wanted. And, at that moment, he’d been playing in his garden, and Arthur had been sitting in his aunt’s garden, and it had been a prime Friend Making moment.

Arthur had been there for Merlin’s Epic Food Epiphany in which Merlin’s ten year old worldview had been entirely shaken when he’d realised that he could, if he wanted, venture into the kitchen, take things and create food and then eat the food without his mum being present or involved. He’d burst into Arthur’s house with the fever-eyed-gaze of a zealot and announced: “Arthur, we could make cookies.”

According to distant memory their first Friend-Making conversation had gone thus:

“Hi. I’m digging a hole to not-China.” The filthy creature (and, in Arthur’s later opinion, there really should be an adjective or adverb that encompasses the idea of “appearing from simply nowhere” seeing as Merlin and their furniture were both in the habit of doing so) in front of Arthur proclaimed.

“What?” Arthur had been, justifiably, confused.

“I can’t dig a hole to China, because of the map. So I want to see what is on the other side. It’s deep. Imma catch a tiger.” Merlin had said.

“The Indian Ocean.” Arthur had said, because his aunt and uncle owned a globe. A fancy one that had a fancy stand and it stood in the corner of the sitting room. He spun it a lot because it felt like the opening to a good movie. He’d found the other side of the globe from the UK (he couldn’t read the words, but he recognized the chocolate brown blob’s shape) and it had just been an expanse of tea-coloured ocean. When he asked his aunt which one it was, she’d told him. So the farthest you could get away from the UK was by swimming in some ocean somewhere that was kind of sort of near New Zealand. Which was sort of a tiny Australia but with fruit-that-was-birds-that-was-also-maybe-people according to the education programming on the telly.

Merlin had cocked his head and dropped the trowel he’d been waving enthusiastically. “Huh?”

“The hole is going to the Indian Ocean. You’d drown.” Arthur corrected and crossed his arms. “So you can’t, because that’s stupid.”

“Oh.” Merlin considered that a long moment, sticking his tongue in the gap between his teeth. “Then it’ll be a tiger trap.” He studied Arthur like a baby wondering if ze can fit zer fist in zer mouth. “You gonna go to a birthday?”

“No.” Arthur had said, and apparently Merlin had taken that as permission to grab him around the wrist and show him the beginning of his tunnel-now-tiger-trap, which hadn’t been nearly deep enough to catch a tiger, because Merlin had been digging it wrong, and so that’s how Aunt Rebecca found Arthur, him doing the digging and Merlin thumping out the door with capers because tigers wouldn’t just fall in without some bait. They weren’t stupid.

Aunt Rebecca had made Arthur take a shower straight off, but she hadn’t been mad at him, because it was, according to her, later, the happiest they’d ever seen Arthur in the year since his two mothers died and his father might as well have. Then Merlin had asked them over for supper.

“I’m sure you’d need to ask your parents, Merlin.”

“We’re gonna catch tigers and I have a cat.” Merlin had said, pointing to his house, “There’s food.”

They had ended up going to Merlin’s which was much better than the awkward, stilted meal that Arthur knew would have happened back at his aunt and uncle’s house: eating off the thick plastic plate they’d gotten him because they didn’t want him breaking or scraping the nice china, listening to his Uncle Tristan telling him to sit straight, and his Aunt Rebecca piling more overcooked peas onto his plate without even asking if he wanted any and then chiding him for not eating them all, even though they were gross and sewage swamp green and turned to mush the second he shoved them into his mouth.

Aunt Rebecca took Merlin’s mum aside, after they’d talked about whether it was actually okay for them to be over for dinner, whispering in a way that Arthur knew was about him, because you always know when adults are talking about you. The way they shoot glances, and turn away, the hot flush that sears the back of your neck like sunburn or a too-hot bath. Arthur had looked down at his hands as Merlin showed him his round up of toys with a semi-coherent stream of information about them.

Merlin’s mum had smiled and nodded, and then still handed Arthur a plate exactly like everyone else’s, with a steaming half-breast of grilled chicken all cut up into nice, even pieces-just like Merlin’s-a pile of slightly sweet and still-crisp carrots, a slice of wheat toast and she even asked what he wanted to drink. Aunt Rebecca gave Arthur apple juice for every single meal, like kids just drank apple juice and nothing else. Instead Arthur followed Merlin’s example with a glass of milk and liked how it didn’t leave a syrupy sweet aftertaste after every sip. She asked if Arthur or Merlin wanted more, and entirely unlike the dinner he’d been expecting, she served cake for afters. Aunt Rebecca never had afters, because she said it exacerbated his “condition.”

“Um.” Aunt Rebecca had started.

Merlin’s mum had waved it off. “You said he just gets a bit energetic, they can work it off in the backyard. Look, he’s getting along fine with Missy. She senses a calm soul.”

Aunt Rebecca had set her mouth and continued to stare at Arthur, like she was daring him to make one wrong move.

Merlin’s cat had taken a liking to Arthur, so he had to sit still and not talk too loudly, because he liked the heavy weight of her sprawling over his lap and the thick strum of her nearly constant purr. She’d been very soft, loving to be brushed and her shed fur a thick, cloudy tuff when he rolled it between his palms and he hadn’t thrown anything all meal, because Merlin had said that his cat had probably the Queen of Cats in Egypt, so he should be nice to her, and Arthur had liked the idea of a Queen using him as a throne.

After that he had spent a lot of time at Merlin’s house, and some of that sitting still while she sat on him, since Merlin was a bit of a whirlwind and after four or five hours Arthur usually needed to detox a little. And she would sit, happily, for as long as he could manage to stay still. He, to this day, misses her.

He’d told Dr. Whitman about that later (when he was older and anger still wasn’t something he had, but something that grew inside him like a parasite) awkwardly—as he told everything he told Dr. Whitman awkwardly: in starts and stops and extended pauses. Dr. Whitman had made a note of it, like he made a note of just about everything, and said something Arthur had thought only movie psychologists said. Arthur had replied he thought the cat was a more effective therapist than Dr. Whitman. Arthur still didn’t think it entirely fair for a therapist to write you up as having an attitude if the same said therapist was a giant cunt.

They’d played past dark, Merlin showing him the ant colony and the tree stump and the weird knot on the fence that looked like a face and Merlin wasn’t the best at walking, but when he fell over he just shoved himself up again without a fuss and unsteadily weaved over to the next item of interest, with Arthur trailing behind him, Missy crouching in the window and watching them lazily as the sun went down.

 

 

---

cont.

“For three days and three nights, Psyche wept in her palace of wonders. It had gone stale and nothing there could please her, for she knew to whom she was wed and he was the very opposite of a monster. Her love was the most beautiful there could ever be, but, in a horrible twist of fate, was the submissive God, Eros. He had pretended, for her sake, to be dominant, and had hidden himself from view so that she should never know the truth of their marriage. And though she knew she should not, she still loved him with all of her being.

When her tears had dried, she stood up, put herself into her travelling clothes and began to walk. Though their joining was unnatural, and though the Gods might frown upon them, she would not give up her husband, for he was hers and she was his, and this would be not be stopped. She found first a temple to Demeter, where she found the offerings in much disarray and in some disrepair. So she set herself to fixing it, sort the grains by type for many nights, and though she grew hungry, she ate nothing belonging to the temple. She cleaned the alter and washed the icon, and when she had finished, weary and famished, she prayed for guidance, because, of course, Demeter, who was full of such sorrow in the winter when her daughter was taken from her, would understand the need to bring one’s loved ones back to them. Demeter, pleased by the offering, told Psyche to eat her fill and take the rest, and Demeter would help her on her journey.

Psyche did so, and the next day she journeyed farther, until she came upon a donkey, weary and starved, beaten and lame. He shivered as she approached, and hung his head, and she sat and shared her food, talking to the beast until it laid down next to her, eating from her hand, and transformed into a magnificent beast, as well kept as any. From the forest limped an old man, carrying a hammer and tongs and she bent her head to him.

Hephaestus asked her what she wished for, and she told him her story, and beseeched him to help her, for didn’t he know what it was like to love? And being married to Aphrodite (though she did not return his love) he agreed and promised to help her on her journey, and put her upon the donkey and sent them along their way.

When she arrived at the bottom of the mountain she came upon a pack of robbers, and when they tried to take her mount and steal her food she stepped down and gave them her bag, but when they attempted to steal a token she had taken from the palace to remind her of her quest, a powerful rage came upon her and she killed the one while the donkey killed the other. Ares, pleased by this, gave her a knife with which to protect herself and promised to help her on her journey.

Finally she reached a temple to Aphrodite, and she fell upon her knees and pleaded that she help and guide her, that she loved Eros and this could not be changed. She cut off her long, beautiful hair that so many had admired, and laid it on the alter, and Aphrodite, pleased by this, did not ignore her, and instead sent her to do three labours for the right to see Eros again. First she was sent to Poseidon, and for him she had to wrangle four hundred of the sturdiest, strongest stallions back into the waves to return as dolphins. She could not pull even one, and the moment she approached they trampled away, and after a long while she called to Demeter for her aid.

She was surrounded with bushels of the freshest, fullest, most beautiful wheat, and it was with this that she led the horses to the ocean and they ate and became dolphins once more.

Second she was sent to Hades, who set her to capture a single soul that had attempted escape, but she must not look upon the world of the dead, for it would be too much for her and she would perish. She stumbled, blindly, seeking with her fingers for the lost soul, and finally, broken and bruised and bleeding, she called upon Hephaestus, and for her he created a chain and collar that would seek and snap around the throat of a spirit. She dragged the escaped soul back to Hades and he sent her on her way.

Finally she bent before Aphrodite, the hardest and worst task of all. Aphrodite stood upon the shorn-off locks of Psyche’s once beautiful hair and demanded that she say something that would cause her joy, to make up for past vanity. Psyche thought and thought and could think of nothing that would please the God, until, finally, she opened her mouth and called for Ares. Ares, being Aphrodite’s lover, appeared and set to distracting her, causing her joy and allowed Psyche to pass up another mountain. There she climbed and she climbed. She climbed until her body grew tough and her hands were as thick with calluses as any warrior, and then, finally, Zeus came in one of his many disguises

She bowed her head and continued to climb and he, as a gust of wind, tried to blow her off the mountain, but she clung on, and then continued to climb. He as a goat, stole her food and she let him, and she continued to climb. He came as the fog, and blind, Psyche reached and reached, stumbling and tripping, continued to climb. Finally he spoke to her and asked her what it was that she wanted.

“I have come for my husband, Eros.” She said and continued to climb, though she knew whom it was she spoke to. “I will not leave without him.”

“The two of you are ill suited, the union with end in tragedy,” he warned.

“I would have it be tragic and us together, than joyful and us apart. I will not leave without him,” Psyche said and continued to climb. She was dirty and baked from the sun, heavily muscled and scarred, no longer the beautiful maiden of song, and she did not care. She would not leave without her husband.

“Perhaps Eros does not want you. He has done nothing to aid your quest.” Zeus said, at last.

“I know that he loves me, I know that he loves me more than you have ever loved and I will not leave without him,” she said, knowing she spoke to the King of the Gods, but refusing to stand down though she was afraid.

“Very well.” Zeus said and she reached the top, where Eros lay bound and gagged, unable to help her and she freed him. They went to Mount Olympus where Psyche was given ambrosia, the drink of immortality, and a whip. The ambrosia burned away her submissiveness, so she and Eros would be best suited, and she had proved herself in this respect, showing patience, caring, protectiveness, understanding and tenacity. They were bound in eternal marriage, Eros kneeling to her and she standing over him, their hands joined as they should be.

It is through them that we now have the soulbond, with Psyche understanding the two people in all the world who can love each other fully and completely, and Eros binding them together with his arrows.”

-Dr. Henry Orthos “Complete Anthology of Grecian Myths Volume II”

Chapter Text

May, 1999
Dr. Whitman’s office was calculatingly soothing. Everything was cream coloured, the pictures on the walls were pointedly inoffensive, and there were things on the table between them to fiddle with. Arthur stared down at the dice, the glitter-liquid filled baton, the Rubik cube and eight other assorted oddities while his aunt explained every single iota of his existence to the Doctor:

The car accident. The period of not talking. Merlin. The Hulk-outs. Seeing his father (once, only once, never again. Not ever). How he never brought anyone home from school. What he would eat. What he wouldn’t eat. The time he fell down the stairs. That time he was found on the floor amidst his uncle’s malaria pills. Arthur sat while she detailed his life like everything was symptomatic, arms crossed and staring stonily at the wall.

“We read the books,” his uncle says, fiddling with a stack of cards. Shuffling. “We thought he identified pretty strongly as a pre-gender dom, so we let him get away with his tantrums. But clearly if that isn’t the case, we needed to do something.”

No one asks Arthur to talk.

---

October, 2011
“Hey,” Gwaine said to Merlin’s drowsing form. It was after round one, with a distinct possibility of round two around the corner. Merlin stretched against his side and nuzzled closer.

“Gimme a sec.” Merlin mumbled rubbing his hand over Gwaine’s stomach. “Or, like, thirty minutes. Or you need thirty minutes. One of us needs thirty minutes. We could order a pizza. Pizza would get here in thirty minutes. Then we could have pizza.”

“No, I mean hey, as in a start to a conversation, not hey, can you hand me your belt for a quick second.”

“It’s a good belt.” Merlin agreed, reaching over to where it was curled on the bed. “Good belt, you get a biscuit.” He yawned and then looked up to Gwaine. “What you want to talk about?”

And, considering that most of Gwaine’s conversations with Merlin, outside of sex, had gone about as deep as “hey, you want get a takeaway or something?” Merlin looked wonderfully unconcerned. Which sort of made Gwaine just want to ask if he wanted to get a takeaway, because he didn’t really have an evidence of weirdness. He just had a feeling. A weird sort of sideways feeling, and that wasn’t really worth bringing up, was it? Wanting to go home, still in subspace, still hard, rather than stay over to be coaxed out of it. The way his entire being studied Gwaine like he could save him for later. Not wanting Gwaine to know where he lived. Arthur. Gwaine didn’t need to know. He didn’t. He should let it alone.

“So you know how you’re a fountain of useless knowledge about weird animal mating habits?” Gwaine said instead of anything helpful at all.

Gwaine knew this because it was Merlin’s come on. He’d introduce himself, mention that slugs had prehensile penises that were several times longer than them, which would get stuck in the female slug so she’d have to chew it off, and then round off with “and now that you have that in your head, any sex you have tonight will be awesome and completely normal in comparison.” Gwaine didn’t know how effective it was, but it’d worked on him. Or. Well. Merlin smiling at him in an over-big hoodie, looking for all the world like some poor country boy who’d just come to the big city and needed a big strong dom to save him from the evil sex slugs worked on him.

And then afterwards Merlin had shown up at his flat with the reasoning of “Male angler fish can’t hunt for themselves so they spend their entire lives trailing after the scent of female pheromones until they find her and then they gnaw into her flesh while liquefying until they’re just a pair of balls she can use to impregnate herself with, and in comparison to that, me showing up again at your flat in the hope of sex is totally normal and fine, I swear I’m not going to stalk you.”

“Vampire bats have the highest rate of monosexuality among animals that aren’t dynamic-normative.” Merlin agreed drowsily.

“So me and my mates always do a pub quiz on Tuesdays, and we’re pretty well-rounded when it comes to sports, music and pop culture and the like, but we’re rubbish when anything about animal science comes up, and one of the bartenders is studying to be a zookeeper or something. So, like, last week, one of the questions was what animal had the biggest cock in proportion to itself and I said slugs, because, you know, the thing, but it turned out it was barnacles.”

“Well it’d have to be. They just sort of latch onto stuff, so in order to fuck they’d need really long and mobile pricks.” Merlin considered him a moment. “So you want me to come out with you so I can share my extensive, but not creepy or indicative of a fetish, knowledge of animal sex and mating habits?”

“You could bring some of your mates too, obviously. Especially any film buffs, because we’ve got Hector who’s into quirky indie films and Citizen Kane or whatever, but he’s got this giant hole where shlocky-horror flicks and B science fiction movies should be. And Kay is a good bloke for music made between 1950 and 1976, and we’re good for anything after 1990, so there’s this giant gap between the two that needs filling, Lan is good for high fantasy stuff but shit for science fiction, and obviously you’ve seen what good Owen and Pell are in anything but a cat calling contest.” Gwaine rubbed the back of Merlin’s neck. “So you’ve got the science fiction and the biology stuff down solid, and I swear this is a completely selfish bid to use your for your brain and not a secretly a date or anything, because you said no dates and I respect that.”

Merlin turned his head and considered it, or considered something. “Maybe,” he said at last, which wasn’t really helpful at all, but he also didn’t get up and start getting dressed, which was a win. Gwaine gave him a moment and then soothed his hand down Merlin’s back and Merlin sighed, relaxing.

After a prolonged round two, he got Merlin dressed again, leaving his cock trapped between his stomach and his waistband, tugging his baggy shirt over the weeping head and zipping his jacket up to his chin. Merlin clutched onto him, whining and hips making tiny, little aborted thrusts. Gwaine cradled his head, stroked his neck, and calmed him down until Merlin was leaning his full weight on Gwaine, face pressed to Gwaine’s shoulder, relaxed and completely inattentive of his prick. Gwaine couldn’t quite resist sneaking his hand under Merlin’s layers and resting his fingers against the head of his dick.

“Shh, hey, you want me to send you home like this, don’t you? You like riding home reeking of sex and still hard in your pants.” Gwaine rubbed his thumb over the leaking slit of Merlin’s prick and kissed his ear. “What do you get off on? Is it the people staring at you? Is it being turned away, all used up an unsatisfied?” Gwaine nuzzled down the slope of Merlin’s cheekbone and couldn’t resist the urge to curl his hands around Merlin’s face and kiss him, drink him down like a mug of hot soup. When he let up Merlin just smiled at him, bright-eyed and legs barely able to support him. Gwaine gathered up more of his weight easily, curled his left arm under Merlin’s shoulders and Merlin automatically just giving Gwaine control of how to arrange him. Automatically trusting Gwaine to take care of him.

Gwaine could have happily moved into that moment and lived there. His hand was caught between the two of them, Merlin all loose and happy and laughing a little to himself, staring at Gwaine. He’d probably do anything, just then.

“Look at you. You must be a sight when you finally stumble home.” And wouldn’t that be a surprise, if Gwaine were the person Merlin was stumbling home towards. Wouldn’t it just be gorgeous, having this beautiful, willing boy collapsing at your feet and out of his head. Maybe it was a game, and it wasn’t one Gwaine minded being apart of, if Merlin did have some dom at home who got off on Merlin smelling like someone else. Maybe they liked Merlin to repeat everything Gwaine did to him, maybe they liked the way Merlin talked. Of course they did. You couldn’t like Merlin and not like the way he wanted to conquer the world with his voice.

“What does Arthur think of it, hmm?” Gwaine asked absently, figuring Merlin wasn’t really paying attention to words. Or. Or maybe not really paying attention to what he was saying either, wrapped up in the idea of Merlin getting home, only to be put through his paces that little bit more. But then, when wasn’t Merlin paying attention to words? Merlin loved words.

Merlin whined high and helpless at that. Gwaine took his hand away, moving it back to Merlin’s stomach and rubbing against the firm skin and muscle. “Hey, hey. Shh. It’s okay. Everything is okay. I’ve got you.”

He was onto something. He just wasn’t wholly sure what. Embarrassment kink? Exhibitionism? Arthur was the only person Merlin had ever mentioned; with just enough information that Gwaine knew he was submissive too.

“Does Arthur watch?” He tried, because he was a curious bloke, really, and he figured it was far off the mark, because, well. That didn’t happen outside of porn. But then Merlin was nodding and Gwaine got them into a controlled fall to the ground because. Uh. Unless. This was just Merlin feeding into some sort of two-sub-one-dom fantasy? Gwaine should not have picked a real person to get this going with. Merlin could make a fantasy out of anything.

Merlin licked his lips and his stomach was wet with all his pre-come and Gwaine didn’t resist the urge to rub it into his skin. Merlin fell backwards across the floor, and Gwaine followed him.

Merlin’s pulse thudded under Gwaine’s lips, under his palm, Merlin’s breath as quick and laboured as a rabbit and when Gwaine pulled up the edge of Merlin’s jacket, he’d leaked straight through the thin cotton of his shirt. “You like me to send you home desperate for shag, so what? You’re terrible at being quiet, so he must not mind how noisy you are, at the least. What happens next? Do you tell him what I did to you?”

The yes that came out of Merlin was so quiet that Gwaine was certain he was supposed to miss it, but he was listening carefully as he rubbed Merlin’s stomach. “Shh, it’s okay. You like talking, I know you do. And he likes listening? You always pay such good attention.”

Merlin nodded that little tiny bit and this was interesting. If this is what makes him happy, then Gwaine can give him something to talk about, pleased, suddenly, that he might know what’s going on. He doesn’t know the whole story, he really doesn’t, but he knows more.

“You’re a good boy,” Gwaine kissed Merlin’s throat. “So generous. I’ll make sure you have plenty of stories to tell him next time. Ride you hard and put you away soaked. Would you that make you happy?” He rubbed his cheek over Merlin’s exposed skin, and bit the back of his neck. “I’ll make it so good for you that you’ll need to make up new words to tell him about it. Whatever story you want, and you’ll think of something brilliant. I know you will.”

“Fuck,” Merlin’s arms flailed and he caught Gwaine by the hair. “Please kiss me, or touch me. Touch me, just please. Please, please, please-” His eyes squeezed shut before flaring open again, studying him and Gwaine tugged Merlin’s head back and sucked a bruise under his jaw, bright and visible and beautiful and Merlin keened for it. Rising up under him and panting, thanking him because he was a good boy. He had manners. Gwaine stroked through his hair and told him as much. He could eat the sounds Merlin made, the way he twisted up. Gwaine held him down, shoving his wrists against the carpet. Merlin’s fingers curled inwards, relaxed, head tilted back and neck stretched long, belly up and hips lax. Gwaine settled himself over Merlin, sliding a knee in close and Merlin rode up against it, tiny little choked off noises getting bottlenecked in his throat.

“Tell me.” Gwaine ordered, nudging his nose against Merlin’s cheek. “What do you do when I send you home?”

Merlin bit his lip, eyes wide and blue and Gwaine kissed his nose. “Shh. It’s just a story you’re telling me. You tell me lots of stories. Once I invited you to my secret lair on Skullcrusher Mountain. You met my assistant Scarface.”

Merlin smiled, then, fingers flexing. “I can’t.” He said, though.

Gwaine squeezed Merlin’s wrists and slowly dragged them over Merlin’s head, pressing them down to the carpet. Merlin liked being manhandled. Merlin liked being told what to do, but he liked—far more—to just be made to do it. For someone’s domination over him to be silent and sure and real, because words are something Merlin lives in. Words don’t trip him up like actions do. Merlin should, at any opportunity, be shoved and held down and pressed against things, in Gwaine’s not-so-humble opinion. Gwaine settled the fingers of his free hand under Merlin’s shirt, not even trying to resist the urge to tickle him a little. Merlin arched up and fucking giggles right on cue and Gwaine in these moments (and, perhaps, others) wishes they were in the kind of novel that would mean he could just...have this. Always.

Merlin’s mobile rang.

Merlin’s hands jumped under Gwaine’s grip, so he let go. Merlin fumbled over his body for his phone, but he couldn’t seem to get the co-ordination together, so Gwaine got it out for him and showed him the caller ID. Arthur, speak of the devil. “Do you want to answer?”

Merlin nodded, hands fluttering in front of his chest like lost birds.

“Can you talk?”

Merlin’s throat clicked as he swallowed, and his hands shook as he tried to take the phone.

“I can hold it up for you.”

Merlin nodded and Gwaine flicked it open and held it to his ear, stroking Merlin’s belly, sitting up on his knees over him

A single, breathy little “Arthur,” was all Merlin could manage, and Gwaine was glad they’d gotten to the floor from the way all of Merlin just went completely drugged-up relaxed. Gwaine could hear Arthur speaking, a low, tinny rumbling through the speaker of the phone. Gwaine supported himself over Merlin, held the phone steady.

Merlin listened for while, eyes dark and lips bitten all to hell, eyes flicking up and over Gwaine, his cock still obviously red and hard, his shirts rucked up to under his armpits.

“I’m coming home.” Merlin said, licking his lips. “I’m. I’m coming home. Arthur. Arthur.” His voice cracked and he looked up at Gwaine helplessly. “He’s got me. It’s okay. I’m coming home. He’ll take care of me. It’ll be good. I’ll be good.”

Merlin rocked his head to the floor and Gwaine picked up the phone, riding high on instinct and low on judgement and pressed the speaker to his ear, not really listening. “I’m sending him home to you. The cab will be here in a bit.”

Arthur’s voice stuttered to a stop on the other end, there was a beat and Gwaine stroked an open palm down Merlin’s chest.

Gwaine heard it. He heard the way Arthur was listening, and he wasn’t going to push. He wasn’t going to drag out something best left in the dark, but there was something there. Gwaine pressed his thumb into Merlin’s mouth and set the phone aside on the ground, still active. If Arthur wanted to disconnect, he could.

“Don’t come.” Gwaine ordered, just loud enough to maybe, possibly be overheard, if someone wanted to hear it. “You need to save that up for later, don’t you.” He ran the heel of his hand over Merlin’s prick, enjoying the way pre-come just dribbled out steadily, smearing over his stomach, shiny and obvious. “I’m going to suck you down, and you need to stop me before you go off.”

Merlin let out a serious of meaningless fricatives, gutting himself like a candle and Gwaine unwrapped him a little, got his prick free but sorted out the rest of him, tugged his shirts down, fixed his jacket and his hair, before crawling back and pulling Merlin into his mouth. Merlin was too wrapped up in himself and Gwaine to move much, hands flopped against the floor and a high noise struggling out from his chest. “Gwaine. Gwaine. I need. I have to. Home. I have to.” Merlin mumbled and his legs kicked weakly. Gwaine squeezed the base of Merlin’s prick, kept the blood trapped up top and sucked hard. “Arthur’s waiting. I have to. I have to go. Arthur.” Merlin dropped his hands over his face. “Arthur needs to.”

Gwaine kept sucking and Merlin’s hips rolled up into his mouth and so Gwaine held them down with one hand, digging his fingers in to the bruises he’d already collected from the previous two rounds. He let up, letting the spit cool before sucking him down again, tongue undulating and Merlin helplessly kicked against the carpet. “Arthur.” Merlin tried again, and then after another few moments, “Gwaine, I have to. You need to stop. You said-“

Gwaine lifted off and rubbed Merlin’s hip. “You’re close? You have to hold onto it, otherwise you’ll be empty by the time you get home.”

Merlin sobbed, cock standing high and purple, balls heavy against the fly of his trousers pulsing, but he didn’t come. Gwaine rocked back, letting Merlin calm down and he picked up the mobile. He listened to the harsh noise of Arthur’s breathing and then settled it against Merlin’s ear. Merlin blinked fuzzily and mumbled “Arthur” again, before the honk of the cab outside the door gave him the impetus to tuck Merlin away again and help him up. He shut Merlin’s mobile and slipped it in his pocket along with the address of the pub, giving Merlin a kiss to the temple. “Let’s get you downstairs.”

Merlin kissed him hungrily before getting into the backseat of the cab, Gwaine paid the fare and gave the cabbie some extra to make sure Merlin got home safe and sound. Merlin stared from inside the cab, turning as it drove off slowly in the traffic. Gwaine shoved his hands in his pockets, unsure of what to do with himself, hyped up on power and hard in his trousers himself, head as empty as it’s ever been. He went back up to his flat, got to his room. He received a short phone call about two hours later saying Merlin got back and he doesn’t know what to say then, either, and the phone call was over before he could think of anything.

He won’t blame Merlin, later—when he’d come down and back to a saner frame of mind— when Merlin doesn’t ever stop by again. He won’t know what it’ll mean, won’t try and come up with any theories, and won’t tell any of the blokes. It. It wouldn’t be his business.

It was never any of his business.

---

“How best to prepare myself? With creamy
egg wash over my still unbaked body
rising too big for these confines? My war
paint over fluttering eyelashes and dry
lips, streaked pretty pink across
my cheeks to appeal to that dewy innocence
lost across
that cramped twin bed.

It left tangles in my hair, set fire to my under
growth and I walked proudly back to my
own hairbrush, smoothing back ringlets and rises
of fingers that were not yours. I will not be your blank
canvas, but leave
the whorls and depths
of my imperfections so your brush’s
fingerprints are that much more dear

than on the newly stretched nothing
of that wobbly wide-eyed I brushed aside.”
● “Brushwork” by Cynthia Lawrence found in Faux Fire: And Other Poems.

 

---

September, 2008
Arthur had come home after his first paycheque from his new, better paying job, with two pairs of expensive, padded, handcuffs. They had a built-in timer, a wireless panic button along with a set of physical keys. The timer could be set up to six hours; the panic button worked immediately, both pairs springing open. Merlin kept the keys on a chain around his neck, more for a symbolic gesture than anything.

Merlin wanted to be next to the phone, so Arthur took the panic button and tied it to the headboard, easily within the grasp of his hands, even if he had to do a bit of awkward fumbling to get it.

They were set for two hours, both of them with the handcuffs behind their backs, leashed to tie-points on the bed frame so they had to strain forward. Merlin liked the tug in his shoulders, the burn in his arms from the strain of leaning forward. They just had enough give to reach forward, kiss, just enough to rub tongues, to just barely lip at one another, a slow, steady, maddening tease. Merlin smiled at him, nudged his nose against Arthur’s, happy with the surprise. He loved surprises.

The toys weren’t enough. Of course they weren’t. It wasn’t what they really wanted. Arthur had smacked Merlin’s ass until it blared red, because it wasn’t like he couldn’t. The actual physical actions of dominating weren’t hard, he knew how to spank and use a paddle and a crop, he could hold Merlin down, and he could pinch and bite and scratch. That wasn’t hard; it was the whole instinct of it, the whole mentality. Arthur was always doing it because Merlin made up a story that gave Arthur a reason to. And he would, and Merlin would sort of get what he wanted, and Arthur would end kissing up Merlin’s spine afterwards, licking up the sweat and kissing his neck, wiping under his eyes, stroking over his cheekbones and wiping away the tears. And then Merlin would kiss him, four or five quick happy pecks, nuzzling up against Arthur. And Arthur could hold him, but he’d feel shaky and nervous the whole time, frantically worried that he was doing it wrong, that he was going to hurt him, that…that… And Merlin would just let him keep going, trying to prove how brave he was, and Arthur would keep trying to make sure he was happy and blissed out and good and Arthur was bone-deep terrified he was going to go too far, in some sort of horrible feedback loop.

“We have a soulbond.” Merlin would shrug, “I think you’ll notice if I don’t want you to do something.”

“There should still be verbal limits.” Arthur would reply, because he didn’t like leaving things nebulous.

Or Merlin would hover on all fours over Arthur’s face while Arthur sucked him off, lying passively underneath him. Well, not all fours, on his knees at least, the two of them holding hands until he was just about to go off and then he’d pull past Arthur’s wet, bitten, suck-thick lips and come on his face, crawl down and lie down on top of Arthur and whisper “Look who made a mess of himself.”

Arthur would wipe it out of his eyes and pant, cupping his hand over Merlin’s neck.

“Lick it up.” He’d say, and Merlin would.

So the toys weren’t what they wanted. But they helped. Made it feel a little more normal than if they got rid of the trapping entirely. If they tried it without anything then it felt a little too…weirdly animalistic.

Arthur pressed his forehead to Merlin’s.

“I love you too.” Merlin agreed, wrapping his legs around Arthur’s, rubbing his calf against Arthur’s knee.

They played with vibrators set on random, intervals changing, them on the bed curled up around each other, rubbing off against each other, Merlin holding on so tight and burying his nails into Arthur’s shoulders, Arthur’s hands tied behind Merlin’s back so neither of them would take off the cock rings and go too quickly, Merlin talking, talking, talking and getting them so deep in a story that everything was fine.

Arthur bit him, he’d scratch his nails down Merlin’s back, except they were blunt and just slipped down his skin, and he never bit very hard. Merlin wanted him to, but Arthur refused. “Do you know what kind of diseases are in the human mouth?”

“I know, I know I just…” Merlin buried his face into Arthur’s shoulder. “Please. Please.”

“I know.” Arthur said back. Arthur squeezed Merlin’s calf between his legs. “I could try and teach you any kind of contact sport “

Merlin shuddered, hips jerking against Arthur’s thigh.

“Remember how that felt? You were bruised and sore in the morning, because I kept slamming you into the ground. That was good, right?”

“Yes.” Merlin said pressing harder against Arthur’s hip. “Oh please, yes.”

“I want to touch you.” Arthur whispered, hands flexing behind him, “I just…”

“You can’t.” Merlin reached and Arthur pulled away and Merlin licked his lips. “Kiss me, come on. Please.”

“No,” Arthur said, flushing, and Merlin laughed. They rubbed off on each other like that, giving and denying kisses, Merlin reaching forward and Arthur pulling back, then Arthur surging forward and kissing him as hard as he could, gasping into Merlin’s mouth as they moved, Merlin fingers twitching behind him.

Once the timer hit zero, the handcuffs just sprang open. Perfect. Arthur pushed Merlin down, because he liked to protect and Merlin liked to be covered. Except then Merlin would wrap around him like a clinging vine and they rolled so Arthur was on his back, supporting him, because that worked too. Merlin thighs tight around Arthur’s hips, kissing under his chin as they thrust and Merlin finished first—he always did, it was just one of those things—and he lay there, tangling a hand around Arthur’s cock and his knuckles smearing the come on Arthur’s stomach. “I’m not even going to let you wash it off.” Merlin mumbled, nuzzling Arthur’s neck. ‘Just going to leave it there until it’s dried and flaky and itchy and you’ll love it.”

It wasn’t the same as what they wanted. But they were trying.

---

Loki and Sigyn

Ragnarök is still far off yet, my loves. Loki is tied, deep in the dark, by the entrails of one of his sons, his wife catching the venom of Skaði’s snake, mourning each time the liquid falls into the eyes of her chosen beloved, causing all that is and was and could be to shudder and shake and wonder...will it be this time? Will it be this time that he snaps free and closes all that has been and will be and has yet to never come?

Ah. Yes. Chosen.

Loki, father of Hel, father of Fenir, father of Jörmungandr, father of Nari (or Narfi), sometimes-father to Váli and mother to Sleipnir, is known to many as a creature of tricks, of insults and wit, who will bring doom to the gods as a sleight-of-hand for offering aid. Unlike Odin and Frigg, whose love was destined and written in their bones before they could ever be, Loki was without bondmate or soulmate, and no one’s name was written upon his ribs, him being of equal nature and gender, and a creature of both decisions. So it was that Loki had many sorts of children, who carried monstrous natures, because his nature demanded he obey some, such as the female jötunn Angrboða, to whom he gave his service, when it suited him best.

But there he lies, tied to rocks and protected—as much as she can protect—from the wrathful punishment that has been bestowed upon him, until such a time as he slips his bonds. How came such a union? She was not twice souled, so she, somewhere has a proper bondmate, a man or woman to whom she should obey with all of her being.

And so it was that Sigyn was a proper daughter, with a name scripted upon her ribs, and the feelings of another heart bumping against her own, and it was thus that she waited, most faithfully, for such a time as when her beloved would arrive and they would be married.

Loki is a creature of many natures, but still a creature of desire. Some called him “of fire”, and it is to him that we owe the end of all things, and to no other. And it so happened that there was a day where, perhaps, Loki desired Sigyn. Or a day where, perhaps, he desired simply to cause deceit or harm. Perhaps he merely wished to know what it was that he could do, and so set his course. Do not, my loves, presume to know what a creature of many natures thinks, for that is not known even to them all at once.

Loki was amusing himself when he saw a thick strand of destiny. Presumably he sees many such things and does nothing to any of them. Or, perhaps, this was his first and he felt compelled to his mischief. Perhaps he would have left it alone on another day. Perhaps he would never have seen it at all.

But as it was, he saw what it is that joins two souls and did not leave it to its’ rest. On one end of the rope stood a handsome, striking dom, and upon the other stood a lovely, dutiful sub. Both were of their own merits and Loki, being a creature of many natures, did not know which he desired, or he wished both. He gave his submission to his monstrous dom lover, when it suited him, but equally he took his right with others as it pleased.

For one reason, as clear as coin’s choice as it still flips in the air, or another, Loki turned his eyes to Sigyn. He cut a hole through himself, tearing out the muscle and bone, leaving them as they lay and laced the rope through him, looping it around his rib and slicing through it, letting the dom’s end shudder and die, nourishing the remainder with his blood and power—for all it did not connect to him truly, (for the soil of his soul was not rich enough for roots) it did knot to his bone, clinging to what nourishment that it might have.

It was not, my loves, a true bond, for her name did not appear on his ribs, nor did her heart begin to beat with his, but he could feel her through the cord and could make her believe she felt him, plucking the cord as if it were an instrument. It is by this way, though Sigyn felt a terrible pain in her heart, it soon settled as if it had never been, soothing her with the fine trembling of love and ownership, and if it felt different than it had, Sigyn soon put herself at ease knowing that it remained.

Loki, sewing his skin shut around the cord so it would not close entirely and cut the bond, journeyed to her Protector’s house in order to keep her and have her as his own.

cont

---

May, 1999

“If what you want is more discipline I can make sure you get that,” Aunt Rebecca had said, sitting in his room (his room), having followed him up there after Arthur had been done with their conversation. “We can send you to school that will monitor you more closely. If you don’t want to talk to Dr. Whitman we’ll just let them put you to rights.”

“I’m not going to go to boarding school.” Arthur grit through his teeth. “I am fine. Just leave me alone.”

“I’m not going to leave you alone.” Aunt Rebecca crossed her arms and stood in front of the door. “You need to learn how to behave in society. We coddled you long enough. You keep acting out and that tells me you need to learn your boundaries. So, either you talk to Dr. Whitman, or you can expect us to start making calls. No more telly, no more computer, and you can just say goodbye to your friends here.”

Arthur went cold and his throat tensed up. He wasn’t going to go. He wasn’t.

“Your behaviour is unacceptable, and if you think that anyone in the real world is going to care a lick why, you are sadly mistaken. No one is going to care that your parents died, all they’re going to see is that you are out of control. And don’t for one moment think that if you end up in prison your uncle and I are going to do anything about it.”

“I won’t be, because the second I get out of this house and away from you, I’ll be fine.” Arthur didn’t yell. He didn’t yell. His throat was tight and he wasn’t going to cry. “You’ve made it very clear that you don’t want me, so once I’m gone you won’t need to hear from me again. So how about we just don’t talk until I do.”

“Well, I’m the one who needs to listen to your teachers, and explain your behaviour. Your actions reflect on this family.”

“So I’ll just run away and you won’t have to deal with me.”

“And what? Become a prostitute? You’ll be dead in months. You are not running away and you aren’t going to ignore this. You have a problem and I’m not leaving until you admit it and talk to Dr. Whitman.”

It was one of those arguments that never was going to go anywhere, with two people digging in their heels. Especially as Arthur couldn’t escape and Arthur’s aunt had no intention of backing down. The sort of argument where threats escalated and Arthur started to hear a buzzing in his ears. He couldn’t win, because he couldn’t argue his way out of it, and if he lost his temper then that was just more proof he was mental. He couldn’t leave, because that was just avoiding the problem. He wasn’t going to cry. He wasn’t. When you cried people insulted you for not being rational. He’d tried leaving. He had. He had tried leaving and now it was just...

He didn’t want to be here anymore with his aunt listing every single one of his faults- but then she mentioned Uther, so he threw his water glass across the room. When his aunt jumped out of the way, he pushed out the door and down the stairs. He didn’t grab his shoes, or his jacket; he just got out of there. And he ran.

---

October, 2011

“So wait, is this a universe were submissives are automatically bought and sold, or is this a debt indentured servant thing again?” Arthur asked as Merlin drafted the plot in the air with his hands. “Or are they bred for it? Because I’d like one where dominants are sold too, because you can’t tell me rich subs don’t want a bit of rough.”

“Damn that gets meta.” Merlin noted. “I like it. I’m making a note for later. We already did robots, and that was fun, and genetically designed companions, but not where we buy the top, so maybe later.” Merlin placed his fingers in front of his mouth and considered their options. “I suppose it could be a bit of a classism thing, where parents of lower classes sell their children when things get too tough. Or, or-” Merlin interrupted himself. “Because of all this nonsense with America outlawing hormonal birth control, because sex should just be between soulmates and what have you, there’re all these unwanted children and instead of an adoption system, unwanted children go into The System. And they aren’t all brought up as companions, but that adds a lot of political weight to the whole scenario.” Merlin made a face. You could only have so much societal commentary in a scene before it turned into a meta discussion and nobody got off.

“It really does.” Arthur agreed. “The robots one was good because we were just robots, but then it was weird, because we were robots. I like the robots one better in writing when it’s not us.”

“Robots in love are the best things.” Merlin chewed on his lower lip and stared up at the ceiling. “Aliens?”

“Yes, but then we’ll spend all day scripting the alien culture, unless we steal wholesale from someone else, and then we spend all day nit-picking sci fi shows.”

“Right. But once we figured it out it would be amazing, because if the aliens are the ones who regulate their submissives, because, I don’t know, sex hormones, then it’s less political. But then if Master is also an alien, things get taken as read and that just gets confusing again. Like with the robots.”

“We could go for historical again. Conquering King subjugating the bratty but handsome Prince and his noble, adorable whipping boy.”

“Why are you always handsome and I’m always adorable?” Merlin pressed his face into Arthur’s stomach and bit at him. “I mean, that’s always fun, but then we don’t get to use any of the toys, which seems a shame, because we spent money on those. Oh! Oh, I know.” Merlin slid up and curled in close. “I have it perfect. Alright, we’re us. We’re the two of us, basically, and we need money.”

“Sounds realistic thus far.” Arthur wrapped his arms around Merlin’s waist, because Merlin was warm and no one could see them.

“And selling yourself as a submissive isn’t quite as entirely skeevy. I mean. A little skeevy, yes, but not totally skeevy, due to reconstruction of societal mores and whatnot and we find some rich sugar daddy who likes both of us and offers to pay us to be his subs. And there aren’t any soulbonds or anything, people just…fall in love, and we’re in love.”

Arthur cupped his hand around Merlin’s waist. “So we just fell in love?”

“There was a lot of distress and pining and whatnot, but we’re past that, I think. Or, or, we’re really good friends who are in love and work together and don’t say anything. Or that’s our shtick. We work for this super classy escort service, or at least expensive, and that’s our thing. Our thing is we’re two subs and we’re kind of in love and people get into that. And we are in love, but it’s better if people think it’s just pretend. So we get to be some rich dom’s pet boys and we get to kiss and cuddle and adore all over each other and get paid for it.”

“We’re very clever hookers.” Arthur rubbed Merlin’s back and grabbed one of the pillows to wedge between one of Merlin’s many bony places and one of Arthur’s tender ones, because bruises should be on purpose and discussed beforehand. Merlin fidgeted and played drums on his thighs like he always did when he was on a roll.

“And so Master comes in and sees us and we play a few times, and he’s probably played by Robert Downey Jr. in my head and yep, yep that got in there. Can’t be changed.”

“Really, you can see him playing a top after Iron Man, really?” Even though Marvel claimed all their heroes were doms except for the doms’ sexy sub fiancées, who were also, occasionally, superheroes, because no. No. If Tony wasn’t constantly begging for love and affection and control and attention then Arthur was natural redhead.

“Can’t be changed.” Merlin intoned. “Anyways, and after he keeps coming back a few times because we’re awesome and hot, he decides to put us on contract, and he’s not all sunshine and rainbows, but one steady client is easier than more-than-one and he gets us this big soft mat that we fall asleep on at the end of the day, and sometimes he holds us both afterwards and we can’t do anything, because we’d wake him up, but we can’t stop kissing or touching because. Well.” Merlin shrugged and cupped one of his hands around Arthur’s neck and nuzzles in closer. “And he doesn’t mind that.”

“So just a bit of asshole?”

Merlin grinned and nuzzled into Arthur’s neck. “You like rich, entitled assholes who look like famous actors. Don’t pretend. And so we live in his house and he has rules in the contract about how much we can touch. Like. Not how much, I guess, because he likes the way we flop all over each other and that, but what ways we can touch.”

“Chastity devices?” Arthur settled his hand under Merlin’s shirt, curling it around to the divot of his natural waist, nosing at Merlin’s hair. “We need to invest in some of those considering how much they turn you on.”

Merlin nodded against his chest and rubbed his palms over Arthur’s shoulders. “But we need to save up so we can get good ones, because I don’t want to cripple my prick with some cheap shit.” Merlin sighed. “At least the fucking machine works.”

They’d made it. They were quite proud.

“What’s the name of this one?”

“I don’t know yet.” Merlin tapped his fingers against the back of the sofa. “Graham, maybe? No, that was someone in my lessons. Erik? No, Erik Howler is the hipster spider I made a tumblr for. Ronald, Fred, Peter, Robert—no, that gets weird— Gregory, Howard, Daniel, Quince, Cecil, Joseph, Patrick, Loren, Baxter! Baxter? Baxter. Baxter? His name is Johan Baxter and everyone calls him Baxter except his mother and he plays tennis but hates it, but he had to take lessons for most of his childhood, and so he might as well and he owns six nice suits and nine very nice sports jackets, even though he doesn’t need them for work, but he liked the way the sales associate smiled at him when he came in, like she remembered him, even though he knew she didn’t really, and he always let her pick out the shirts and ties even though he had plenty because she just looked so happy, until he came in and found out she wasn’t working there anymore, but he’s grown to love the way he looks in charcoal pinstripe.”

Like all of the back stories Merlin made up it came tumbling out of him in a rush and then he hopped up to get a file folder so he could work on Johan Baxter’s file, which would include things about tennis and menswear, as well as what he liked and didn’t, how much he was paying them, and what he did for a living.

They had a locked file cabinet for the people they made up to own them, Anderson, Lydia (mechanical engineer who’d taken two prototypes home to monitor their behaviour in a structured environment, wearer of jeans a bit too big and fell down her hips and tank-tops that never quite covered her torso which caused her some degree of frustration, but at work she wore coveralls, so who really cared what she did at home? She, the drinker of novelty beers and maker of a damn good artichoke dip, scientifically interested and artistically motivated, loving in the same way anyone loves their best and most brilliant toys.) would now be followed by Baxter, Johan, instead of Curtis (asexual but not adynamic vampire who captured them both and decided he liked them in his own way, refusing thus far to either kill them or let them go, used to work in silent films and lived a scavenger lifestyle of thrift store cast-offs rather than leather or silk, living in converted and abandoned real estates and plucking furniture from where ever he pleased, nesting like a magpie and off-handedly cruel as frequently as he was awkwardly kind.)

Each file folder was layered with a typed up dossier and then littered with scribbled napkins and sketchbook pages, magazine collages and fabric or paint samples, extra typed pages filtering in as this or that developed, each one as lovingly maintained as any of the rest of their toys. They kept it clean and organised and occasionally flipped through when they were both a little drunk and in the mood for it, Arthur’s head on Merlin’s stomach as he read the dossier out loud and they edited, or added.

Merlin’s hands trailed down to Arthur’s right arm, picking it up and Arthur just watched as Merlin’s thumbs worked at the strained and tense tendon in his forearm. “So, let’s say we’ve been living with Baxter awhile. We’re just pet boys, he’s got help for cleaning and he orders in for food. So our entire job is to just be good and pretty for him, and I study in his giant Beauty and the Beast library, and we read aloud and do whatever during the day when he’s off doing whatever it is rich people do.”

“Business.” Arthur relaxed as Merlin smoothed out the thick, angry pain of his arms and moved up to the cramped muscle of his palms, the increase blood flow making his fingers tingle.

“Rich people business things,” Merlin worked at the meat of Arthur’s thumb and Arthur trailed his nails over the curve of Merlin’s ribs. “And sometimes he’s gone for days, and calls us to make sure you’re getting your thorough daily fucking with the machine.”

“Why don’t you need one?”

Merlin started at the tip of Arthur’s pointer finger and slowly massaged his way down to the second knuckle. “I’m easy, but you. You always take so long to go under, so he’s training you up to sufficient sluttiness. Until you get cranky and angry without your daily hour of it.”

Arthur’s breath caught and Merlin started in on Arthur’s middle finger, working down and careful to keep his fingers from straying.

“And in support, I go in and help you.” Merlin worked his way back up Arthur’s hand and then caressed down the sides, over his wrist and back over the top, stroking his fingertips up Arthur’s pinkie (bent at an odd angle from a fight, but that didn’t need thinking on).

Arthur tucked his face against the top of Merlin’s head and pulled him close, hand trailing upwards to under his arm, back down again, breathing in with as much measured calmness as he can.

“But he likes how much we like each other, even when he figures out it’s not an act. And he doesn’t mind. Doesn’t make fun of us, and doesn’t try and split us up. When he brings us along we both go, and we always get to sleep together, and he’s always on the right, and you’re on the left and I’m in the middle.”

He touches the top of Arthur’s ring finger and Arthur is trying very hard not to thrust up against Merlin’s arse, trying, also, not to beg, or to whimper or to buck up and fight it off, because Merlin’s need to do the same is curled up tight inside Arthur’s head and it’s always. It’s always strange, when one of them begs the other and they can feel that need bouncing back right to them. “He ties us up so we can just reach each other to kiss and we do and I get to watch when he canes you.” Merlin thumb presses right up against the base of his ring finger, right into the nerve cluster and he does thrust up, and their arousal is all tangled up together. Arthur grabs for Merlin’s hand and grips hard, Merlin’s breath gusting out of him, right over Arthur’s neck.

Merlin feels closer to him than his own lungs, their every thought an feeling mirroring back towards the other until they’re not even really two people, just one big mess of neurons and skin and Arthur can feel the way Merlin thrusts up against his stomach, the hard press of it and the soft give of his own belly, the harsh bite of Merlin’s zip.

“He’s tired from travelling, a lot. He’ll come home jet lagged and exhausted and he’ll just sit, sit right over there and tell us to give his eyes a rest.”

“Does he tell us what to do?”

Merlin nods, trying to catch his breath. “Sometimes. He’ll tell you to press me down. He’ll tell me to bite your neck. He knows us. He doesn’t interrupt and we can just. Right on the couch. We can just. And he loves it.”

“And you’re happy?” Arthur asks. “We’re happy?”

“We’re so fucking happy.” Merlin squeezes his hands and whines. He clearly he wants Arthur to hold him down, his neck is arched and his mouth is open and so Arthur takes him to the second bedroom—

~~~

Arthur had never gone down easily. He just didn’t. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust people, or that he didn’t want to (and, well, if he doesn’t and he doesn’t, then he just plain won’ttry. He just didn’t go down easily, not like Merlin. Merlin could go down between one word and the next, a well timed shove of his face to the pillow, the right words in his ear and he was perfectly gone and desperate and half in love with you, and so giddily desperate to make you proud...

And Arthur wasn’t jealous. One of them needed to keep their head, and, for the most part, he acted well enough. Mostly they get Merlin to do the things one really should be high on trust and adoration for. But Baxter wasn’t....satisfied with Arthur pretending or Arthur acting as a support role. He never had been. He had never blamed Arthur either, thankfully, because it wasn’t Arthur’s fault he’s sub-on-hard-mode. It was not. Baxter sometimes blamed their...lifestyle choice. Baxter sometimes sits over them and stares at Arthur, like he could detangle all those knots Arthur’s made of, if only he could find a single, loose end at which to start. But he had never once blamed Arthur, or himself. He just... kept trying.

Merlin squirmed up under Arthur and ruffled his hair. “Don’t look so grumpy. Do you want to be on your front or your back or what? He says we can switch, but it needs to be the full hour.”

“He’s setting me up to have extremely high expectations of his stamina.” Arthur grumbled, but rolled onto his back and lifted up as Merlin tucked a pillow under his hips. He liked being on his hands and knees better, he didn’t like so much of his chest on display, but it was just Merlin and Merlin had seen it before.

“He also said I can only use two fingers today and not to go overboard on the foreplay and take advantage,” Merlin sighed and rested his chin on Arthur’s stomach,, one of his legs hooked under Arthur’s. “So try to focus on relaxing, please.”

Arthur crossed his arms over his chest and fidgeted. Some days he was turned on and some days he wasn’t, but that second one was getting less and less frequent. He had to let the machine fuck him anyways and he was getting used to it. It was usually around the same time, and just like he got hungry before lunch, or sleepy before bed, his stomach would twist right around this time of day. Merlin stared at him and rubbed his fingers against his arse, dipping them in slowly.

Arthur was terrible at going down, and he wasn’t going to today either, and he only got to come when he properly let go and stopped caring if he got to (which was counter intuitive, really), so his balls felt overly full and he sort of wanted to take his dick out back and have a talk about setting itself up for disappointment.

“Hey, it’s just me.” Merlin rubbed at Arthur’s hip. “I’ve seen it all already. I think they’re badass. The machine doesn’t have eyes. It does not judge. It is a machine.”

“Baxter never asks.”

Arthur turned his head and Merlin slipped up his body and kissed his neck, his jaw, and his ear. “About any of them. He hasn’t asked you, has he?”

Merlin shook his head and kept pushing his fingers in and out of Arthur. “You can only really see these ones,” he traces over the worst few scars, “the other ones you could see better when we were younger, but they’ve all faded out now. Sunlight and time. They got all stretched out and skinny because you’ve grown.”

Arthur rolled his hips up into Merlin’s fingers, so Merlin pulled them out and put the machine in place, slipping a condom on it and then nudging the head up against the ring of Arthur’s hole. “Ready?”

“Let’s just get this over with. Start the timer.”

Merlin did as he slid the head in and started the machine.

It was on a slow, steady pace, deceptively quiet and it took some awkward shifting and positioning before it slid in and out as fluidly as they would like. Arthur let his hips fall open and Merlin curled up in next to him and kept his hands above Arthur’s navel and off his own prick, because he was only allowed to get off by himself if he put on nipple clips. Baxter wanted Merlin to work on his pain tolerance and Merlin’s nipples are, and always have been, a ripe and ready target. Arthur could take a great deal, even liked to, mostly. He needed to be tied down for it, because otherwise “but I want this to be happening” gets lost in translation to his body. He also just liked the smell of rope, liked watching the knots being formed, liked...liked having skill up next to his skin. He just hated how he couldn’t move right up until he liked it for the same reason.

The machine was reliably relentless. They could vary the pace, to some degree. It could go faster or slower, but this setting was the one they’d discovered was most effective. Fast enough for Arthur to feel it— for there to be enough friction and heat—but not so fast that it would leave him swollen and sore for it the next day. Baxter hated, above all, for them to be hurt due to negligence.

Merlin was warm beside him, fingers sliding over Arthur’s nipple, cheeks pink, lips chapped, and Arthur turned until he could catch Merlin by the mouth, pulled until Merlin was half on top of him and Merlin went easily, even when Arthur started pushing back up against the machine. Fifteen minutes in, he was sweating from holding still and getting frustrated.

“I…I can’t-” He growled.

“It’s not about that.” Merlin tangled their fingers together, something they did in secret, in private, when Baxter couldn’t see. “Just let what happens happen. He just wants you to feel it. Relax. It’s about relaxing.”

“I should be able to.” Arthur got frustrated with himself. With…everything, really, because he wanted to. He wanted to be good, he did. He wanted someone to see him and know he was trying and he just couldn’t, most of the time. It’s not even subspace, that’s beyond him, if it exists, really, at all. He’d given up on that. Just. Just to get into a decent headspace, really. To get into a place, mentally, when he isn’t pushing back because he has to because…

“Hey, hey, it’s fine. It’s just us. No one here but us chickens.” Merlin smiled and he’s a calming influence, he sat heavy on Arthur’s chest and Arthur rubbed his hands over Merlin’s arms, his neck, his scalp because he isn’t going to go down, but he feels better for having Merlin there and—

~~~

—that was Arthur’s main problem when he tried to scene, in real life, with other people. With Merlin all-but-mentally absentee he can’t relax. Right then he was as relaxed as he was likely to get, but Merlin can’t drag him down. Merlin just rubbed Arthur’s chest and looked so earnest and he was trying. They were both trying, and sometimes it worked and mostly it didn’t and maybe, someday, they’d get it right. Maybe.

Still, he got hard, which is something, and at the end of the hour he and Merlin are both turned on and tangled and confused, gripping on tight to one another and quietly—quietly, quietly—rubbed up against one another, so close together that it didn’t count, it didn’t count, it didn’t count if you didn’t make a sound. It didn’t count if they got close enough that no one could tell them apart. It didn’t count if they were asleep. It didn’t count if they were in the second bedroom. It didn’t count if it was just a game. They weren’t broken, because it didn’t count.

---

cont.

Sigyn awoke in the night with an astonishing heat, having gone to her chaste bed alone, as was her custom. Her body felt as if an earthquake, shuddering. Her body felt as if a fire, consuming. Her body felt as if on an anvil, beaten and glowing. And in her head, as if next to her ear, the words come my love, for I am here, and I am me.

Never before had she heard the words of her dearheart, but the order was inescapable, and so it was that she left her Protector’s house and entered the night, barren and new, as a deer taking its’ first steps upon the grass. The air trembled and she bowed her head, waiting for her dominant to come and claim her, feeling him come ever closer, though not knowing how she knew his sex.

Kneel before me, my love. For I am here, and I am me. The voice echoes down from deep inside her, and though she was afraid—for she’d never heard of a bond with words—she fell into her most worshipful prostration and felt as if the ocean itself could not contain her joy when the fingers of her dearest landed atop her head. “I have found you at last,” he spoke, “and we shall never again be parted. We will be away.”

“Will you not ask your price from my Protector?” She asked and did not raise her eyes, instead loving dearly the sight of her dearest’s feet, pressing her fingers neatly to his toes.

“I require no possession but for you. We will be away.”

“Will you not wed me as is proper?” She asked and did not raise her eyes, instead loving, completely, the smell of him, as fierce as smoke but pleasant as homecoming.

“I require no one’s approval or sanction to take what is rightfully mine. And you, no one’s but mine. We will be away.”

“Will you not allow me to say goodbye to those who have sheltered and protected me, all in wait of you, my love?” She asked, and did not raise her eyes, instead loving the stroke of his voice, strong as mountains and deep as rivers.

At this he was silent and he helped her to her feet, and she did not raise her eyes. “So it shall be. We will have a single day and no more, and then we will be away.”

She was filled with joy and thus they returned to her Protector’s house, and he lay with her as a husband lay with his wife, though they were not married. She gave him her submission, and he took it with ferocity, subsuming her self, remaking her into a shrine to his power. If she felt anything was wrong, she decided it to be the sorrow she felt over her need to leave her family.

When they awoke she looked upon the face of her love and saw him for who he was, because he had done nothing to disguise himself.

“You have tricked me.” She said and he opened his eyes, staring into her, and he smiled.

“You are of two natures,” she said. “Your soul cannot be tied to mine, because your soul is complete unto itself. Free me of this farce and give me back my other self.”

Loki disrobed and knelt in front of her, out of spite perhaps, or to let his being melt more fully into her knowledge. Do not guess at the aims of madmen, my loves, for you will simply turn yourselves into them. He showed her the knotty rose of flesh where the cord that tied them together had burned into his being. “Would you carve it out of me? The other is dead, the bond severed and he was no more.”

“This is unnatural.” She protested, covering herself for the first time and turning away, for though she believed her words, the love she felt would not be quenched. “There is no room for me, in you. I will be crushed. You have killed the one who was for me. I cannot forgive you.”

And at this she fled.

cont.

---

March, 1999
Aunt Rebecca and Uncle Tristan did not take the news of his gender orientation well.

“What?” Aunt Rebecca had asked and Uncle Tristan had just sort of frozen and stared at him over his bowl of heart-healthy cereal. Arthur hadn’t even particularly felt like telling them either. But he knew and he could feel it in his bones, and it was just a matter of time before everyone else could just tell, and he didn’t want to walk in one day and have them demand to know why he hadn’t even told them.

“Are you sure?” She tried after a moment, and Arthur frowned, spoon stuck in the same heart healthy cereal as his uncle, because good sense knew that his aunt wasn’t going to buy two kinds of cereal, that was just madness. “I mean.”

“You like sports, you have a large group of friends, and you’re very assertive.” Uncle Tristan frowned a bit harder, like assertive was a curse word. But it wasn’t like you could just disagree about someone’s orientation. It was what it was. “Is this about Merlin?”

“What?”

“If you’re lying we’ll find out about it soon enough, and you and Merlin can still be friends even if you are a dominant.” Like she hadn’t just yesterday been giving Arthur a tacit speech about how people grow up and develop separate interests and maybe it was time for him to expand his horizons. “It’s just. You’re not terrifically.” She cleared her throat. “We’ve just been operating under a few expectations and this is. Well. It’s a paradigm shift.”

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to be on a sports team with a group of newly oriented dominants.” His uncle ground out, because that was the issue at play here. That. That was the issue.

Arthur felt his face heating and he gripped his spoon. “I’m not quitting footie just because you decided I should. I’m not a dominant, so what.”

“Well. Your behaviours and attitudes did align you more closely with a pre-gender orientation of dominant. So we just. But this is good. We’re happy for you.” She said, suddenly, like she was remembering that she was supposed to be.

“Yes.” His uncle said and then continued to stare at him like Arthur was just some random stranger who decided to eat breakfast with them and they were simply too polite to mention it.

When Merlin had told his mum she’d just ruffled his hair and told him good job on growing up, and they’d gone out for dinner. Merlin had even identified early and his mum hadn’t even batted an eye, and Arthur was a year later than average so it wasn’t like he hadn’t given himself time to be sure or anything.

“You’ve always just been so. Independent. We thought.” She cleared her throat. “Are you certain? You don’t have to rush it. Just because you missed the average doesn’t mean you have to force anything, plenty of young adults take until they’re thirteen or even fourteen to find themselves. I hope you don’t think we’re pressuring you.”

Arthur clenched his teeth, pulse thundering down in his stomach and it was either leave or throw the dishes again because they weren’t even giving him a chance to talk, and it wasn’t his fault they’d gone and decided he was going to be a rich, married dom in a socially acceptable and profitable field who graduated with top honours even though he had just-passing marks. And it wasn’t even that they were pressuring him to succeed, they just ignored him and talked about his future like it belonged to somebody else who they liked more. Some sort of fictional Arthur that only existed when real Arthur wasn’t around to see him.

“Maybe you should take some time to think this through before announcing it legally.” His uncle had cautioned and Arthur had gotten up and gone to steal Merlin away. He’d physically recognise soon enough, and then they wouldn’t be able to say he was a liar just because they’d decided to raise him the way they did. Not every sub was…well. Merlin.

“Mom said she figured I was a sub since basically forever, but she also said she hated the way people forced gender stereotypes on their kids so she’s let my interests have free range.” Merlin had told Arthur at one point or another. “Her parents really forced it on her, so you know, all the dolls and stuff and she had to wear dresses all the time and if she got too loud they sent her to her room, but that was bullshit so she wasn’t raising any kid of hers that way, no sir. Some people would say I’m just a sub because I didn’t have a strong dominant influence, but plenty of single parents raise oppositely gendered kids, so, you know, stuff that where the sun don’t shine.”

So Arthur grabbed Merlin and Merlin’s coat (because Merlin was a skeleton who had no ability to regulate his own temperature) and Merlin showed him another one of his million-and-six-places-no-one-else-knows. They hid in a car that had been abandoned so long a tree grew through it. Merlin had somehow moved a bench into it and they hadn’t said anything for a while, sitting there, Arthur laying with his head pillowed on Merlin’s lap, looking up at the leaves through the rusted out roof of the car. Merlin tinkered with his CD player and eventually got it playing loud enough for them to hear the music— tinny and echoing— coming from the cheap earphones resting on Arthur’s chest, the heavy weight of the vibrating CD player resting on his stomach like a living thing, Arthur completely not caring that he was skipping school, and Merlin not having school because they were supposed to be home and working on their projects. Merlin’s was something about ground up crab shells being good for burn victims because something, something, something, so he put it on plants to see if it held water in and sped healing and apparently it did very well and he and Arthur had been hacking away at the research report. Or shrimp shells. Some sort of edible crustacean, but Arthur had mostly been working on the graphs. Merlin was terrible with Excel.

“I think they’re just upset that I didn’t just do what they wanted because it was convenient,” Arthur said at last after the CD player had run out of batteries and they’d listened to all 50.03 minutes of Lynn Harrel and Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Beethoven’s 1st and 2nd cello sonatas (sonatas 3-5 were on the second CD which had been broken, as CDs tended to do, especially in Merlin’s room. Merlin strongly believed in messes).

“It’s not even like your uncle is a really bottom-y sub either.” Merlin agreed, tucking himself deeper into his coat.

Arthur sighed and pressed his face into Merlin’s stomach. “I don’t even know why they care. It’s not like we talk or anything. It’s not like it affects them. I’m just me either way. But they just decided it one day so it has to be true.”

“They also decided where you’re going to university and what you’re going to major in.” Merlin agreed and Arthur was still angry about that conversation because he was 12, who even cared about uni right now, and he didn’t want more years of school, school was rubbish. Everything about going to school was horrible, because his teachers could lecture all they wanted about the different kind of currents and electricity and whatever for two weeks and it wouldn’t sink in, but Merlin showed him how that broke down in a single afternoon and everything was fine, mostly because Merlin commented on how awesome Tesla was and how much a giant flaming failure of human being Edison was, and that helped things stick in his head better.

When he got home he was in for a lecture, but until then they were in a slight gap in time and space, and that was the best you could ever reasonably expect.

---


Glass2

[A promotional from the independent psychological horror filmGlass written and directed by Howard Isen featuring two woman. One a shorthaired frightened and confused sub (Cinderella, (Kelly Stan)) being physically restrained by a blonde, shadowed dominate (The Stepsister, (Rachel Hans)).

November, 2011

Merlin’s birthday was a thing that happened. It used to be that they’d skip school, provided Merlin’s birthday didn’t land on a weekend already, and they would ramble about, spending all their pocket money on food and then clambering over to one of Merlin’s spots to hide out for the day, reading and adventuring. These days Arthur made him a present, they stayed in all day, they watched movies, they bought a cake from somewhere and ate it all themselves, along with Merlin’s Very Special Mum Care package, and maybe they might have sex and maybe they wouldn’t. But it would be a day to flop all over each other, lock the door, disconnect the phone (after calling Merlin’s mum) and not have any kind of celebration until after a full 24 hours of being attached at the hip and drunk off it were over.

But Arthur’s birthday was an event, produced, directed by, and starring Merlin. Merlin took Arthur’s birthday extremely seriously.

“Come on, come on come on come on-” Merlin tugged on Arthur’s arm. “It’ll be fun. I absolutely guarantee you will have fun. If I sense you are not having fun I will be there and make fun happen.” Merlin futzed with Arthur’s hair a bit more and then leaned in for a quick kiss. “It’s just a house party. Not a club, the music won’t be ridiculously loud, they’ll be nice people, decent food, and we can go the second you want to.”

Arthur had woken up to Merlin sitting on his hips and holding a mug of the best coffee in walking distance and the best breakfast available for carryout (which were not, unfortunately, available from the same location). Arthur had yawned and pulled Merlin down, putting the container of somehow-still-warm Eggs Benedict on his stomach, letting Merlin stuff pillows behind his back, the two of them sharing bites of flaky-warm roll topped with thick, juicy pieces of fried ham and tangy-perfect hollandaise covered-poached eggs between sips of coffee and crispy-flaky nibbles of warm bacon.

And now they were going to a house party, because Arthur’s aunt and uncle had somehow gotten it into his head that it wasn’t really a birthday if you didn’t go out and do something, even if you didn’t really want to. Especially as Merlin had actually cleaned the living room so they could make a fort in the center, curled up and marathoning disturbingly graphic crime procedural shows for seven hours while switching between eating brownie batter and cookie dough. Cooking things were for tossers who didn’t suspect the oven smelled like gas every time they turned it on.

They were highly suspicious of that oven.

“Come on. We’ll dance, we’ll eat too much guacamole, we’ll drink too much and sit on the couch and talk about embarrassing things too loudly, and no one will mind if we cuddle too much because we always cuddle too much and we’ll be drunk.”

Merlin figured that most people would put any of their slip-ups down to subs being affectionate and he was purposefully friendly with everyone in their circle of friends so that no one could call him on it when he nuzzled Arthur for a space too long.

He’d once spent an entire evening with his face in Freya’s cleavage, with the explanation of: “My laurels, I shall rest them here. I shall make a mighty laurel kingdom, here.” And she just drank around him, so Arthur figured that any slip-ups could be attributed to Merlin being a baby koala of cuddling.

“Woe upon ye,” Merlin had declared once, latching onto Leon’s back, “for you have awakened my marsupial rage, and for this you must carry me the next block.”

“I honestly hadn’t noticed you were there until you announced yourself.” Leon had replied. Which may have actually been the same night as the cleavage incident. The thing with Merlin putting upon ridiculously affectionate behaviour on top of his natural ridiculousness is that he had a tendency to go to certain extremes. So it was Arthur’s job to rein him back, reel him in, and settle him down, hopefully before someone decided that Merlin’s overt and militarized friendliness was an indication of interest.

This duty of stealing Merlin away from doms coincided nicely with the limping and confused possessiveness crawling in the back of his skull like Gollum. It knew it wanted the Precious. It didn’t know what it wanted to do with the Precious, but by God, it wanted. Arthur knew Merlin was his, he was entirely and fully secure that Merlin belonged to him, that Merlin would always come back to him, and part of him relished this fact like it was the last food in a shipwreck. And the rest of him felt like he couldn’t really claim Merlin because he couldn’t be what Merlin needed in terms of...bedroom things.

And then he had to take a drink because, thus far, Gollum/Ring was probably the closest literary equivalent to their current relationship.

“Which one of us is the deformed hobbit and which one of us is the mega weapon designed for the complete destruction of all that is good and happy in the world?” Merlin had asked when Arthur had mentioned it, the two of them home for the evening and spending time together by doing entirely separate activities in the same space. “And who’s Sauron? Because that’s information I need to know, since he gets you all tortured, and if he wears me the world ends.”

“No, the possessive voice in the back of my head is the deformed hobbit, and you’re the symbol of all that is evil and foul in the world, and it just wants to touch you all over.”

“So what are you, then?”

“A cave system, apparently.”

“Does Smaug-voiced-by-Benedict-Cumberbatch live in you too? Cause I could get on that. Except then Martin Freeman steals me away, and while I like him, he’s married.” Merlin had handed over the tub of ice cream so Arthur could eat while Merlin read his research aloud, Arthur eating ice cream and going over his carefully maintained inventory to see if he could make something out of the odds and ends of bigger projects.

Merlin tugged on Arthur’s arm again and Arthur shoved his hand in Merlin’s face as Merlin leaned back to avoid it. “Stop tugging me. I’ll move as fast as I want.”

Arthur had allowed Merlin to dress him up a bit. Not whole-hog traditional, Merlin only went for complete sub-dress when it was time to write up a new article for Loose Ends and they needed to get into somewhere Old Guard, but it was certainly dressier than Arthur would ever put himself in.

“It’s nice jewellery,” Merlin had defended, “It’s classic. You made it. It’s all wood and hemp. You cannot get more toned down than this. It’s not actually possible. You can be a walking advertisement for yourself. ”

And Arthur had sighed and gone along with him, because Merlin had cheated and wrapped up Arthur in his own excitement. Merlin was never above cheating. Merlin had practically been dripping with exuberant affection, kissing the long stretch of Arthur’s bared collarbone, hands cupped around Arthur’s neck and fiddling with the hemp and wooden bead necklace he’d looped around it from his own collection. Merlin had had to pop open a few buttons from Arthur’s (purchased from the dom’s side of the shopping centre, ergo, tapered but not form-fitting) button-down collared shirt, which Arthur would wear sans tie (ties were... evocative) and with the top button undone for the sake of comfort. All the shirts on the sub side were too tight in the shoulders (and, well, everything else) and didn’t even have the top three buttons, which was sort of insulting actually.

He could still probably get away with going to church in a get-up like this, it was beyond modest for the current clothing industry (Merlin owned one pair of pants that he could not physically get on without assistance. Merlin’s wardrobe was an eclectic mix of whatever he felt like wearing: baggy corduroys and peasant skirts mixed in with nonsensically slim trousers and a black cocktail dress that showed off a...daring...amount of back, if Arthur wanted to talk like a 70 year old) and Merlin had only been able to talk him into some mascara and lip-gloss, and the lip-gloss only because Merlin had kissed him enough beforehand.

“It’s at Leon’s. You like Leon. You wrestle him to the ground sometimes, which isn’t even slightly erotic to watch at all.” Merlin hustled Arthur out the door, laying himself over Arthur like he was the buttercream icing over Arthur’s sufficiently chocolate-y chocolate cake. “It’ll be fun. There’ll be good music, and good liquor and you won’t have to punch anyone, I promise.” Merlin nuzzled his neck as they made their way down the first flight of stairs. “And when we come home we’ll both be turned on and I’ll have a present for you and it’ll be the best birthday ever.”

“Do you remember when you thought birthday was a word that encompassed all fancy things? You called going to church ‘birthday.’” Arthur reached to scritch the back of Merlin’s neck and quietly allowed himself, since it was his birthday, to just...sort of lose himself in Merlin’s head for awhile.

“I also called all animals Missy.” Merlin kept tugging and pushing Arthur down the stairs. “We’ll only get a little drunk, just enough so it isn’t weird.” The stairwell was empty and Merlin stroked his knuckles down Arthur’s side. Arthur grabbed him by the wrists and continued to drag him down the staircase. “I have the perfect thing for tonight. The perfect thing. You will lose your ability to even. Even-ing will be completely beyond you.”

There is a tease of arousal right up against Arthur’s mind, as quick as a slip of tongue right before heading out the door, and Arthur tightened his grip on Merlin’s wrists, Merlin’s arms still thrown over Arthur’s shoulders as they waddled down the stairs. Once they got outside, though, Merlin was already a few steps to the side of Arthur, their hands kept to themselves, Merlin already rolling out a story about work yesterday, about his sleepy co-workers and his regulars and the evolution of a ridiculous coffee drink. (“It starts normal: they want soy milk, sure, cool, they want whipped cream, that’s fine, and then they think ‘oh hey, what if I try a flavour shot?’ and it just spins out of a control from there.”)

Arthur tried to tuck his hands in the pockets of his trousers, but they don’t have pockets, because that would ruin the line of them, apparently. His jacket had both of their purses in the pockets, so he couldn’t really get his hands in there. Merlin only had his one jacket on, so he’d need Arthur’s by the time they were ready to walk home.

It was about a thirty-minute walk to Leon’s house, which would translate to a forty-five minute bus ride, not including wait times and the inevitable walking they’d have to do anyways. It was brisk out. Windy. The sort of thing that stains your face red but didn’t get down deep in your bones. It was too rainy to have a proper autumn—the sort that happened in the panoramic opening of a young someone-or-other coming of age as they stared thoughtfully out the window while the opening score went with either piano or violins to get you in the introspective mood.

Here was the funny thing about walking:

When Merlin walked down the street and someone else was walking the opposite direction, he would give zer the right of way, no matter who it was. He’d do it for mothers with strollers, he’d do it for five-year-olds stampeding down the street, and he’d do it for doms walking along like they own the world. Merlin will flatten himself up against a wall to get out of people’s way. He’d open doors for people (provided they are close enough for it), and has been late to things because he just got stuck holding a door open for a crowd. (On the other hand, he’d collected about thirty quid in tips because people thought he was a doorman, so there was that.). That was just who Merlin was. He gave up his seat on the bus, he let other people have his cab, and if he remembered his umbrella it was soon in the hands of someone else who didn’t have one. He had come home in January without his winter coat because someone looked cold. (They’d returned it. That and Merlin’s purse that he’d left in the pocket like an idiot).

Arthur would only alter his path if the person coming towards him had a good reason for not altering theirs (stroller, a lot of shopping, children, wheelchair). People could open their own doors, and if someone needed a seat when there wasn’t one, then someone else could give theirs up (unless Merlin had already defaulted his). He does not alter his path just because a dom is walking towards him, because they never need to. When Freya walked down the street, she walked with the full expectation that people will move out of her way. She could stroll along with her arms over her head, basking in the sunshine, without anyone focusing on the long line of her back and how they could leave their mark there.

The doms are two steps away and Arthur doesn’t change course, and the dom on the left turns his attention to Arthur a sight too late, frowning and then their shoulders connect, neither of them slowing down, Arthur spinning the dom around, because he’s big and focused and doesn’t change course. The dom turned to stare at him. “What’s your problem?”

“You could have gotten out of the way too,” Arthur said, stopping. Merlin balanced on one foot, preparing for his signature dismount onto a park bench.

The dom frowned, wrong-footed. “I wasn’t paying attention, you clearly were. So why didn’t you move?”

“I didn’t feel like walking in the gutter.” Arthur squared his shoulders and this is one of those things Dr. Whitman would have told him to let go. He would have made a rational argument for Arthur moving. The dom hadn’t been paying attention, he–as the attentive party—should have moved to accommodate him, or, at minimum, said “excuse me” to signal his presence. Or, if they hit by accident, he shouldn’t have made a production of it. Apologize and move on. “Pay attention to where you’re going, yeah?”

Arthur turned and went back to walking as the dom dug into his pocket to see if Arthur had been pick-pocketing him, before giving one last shout of “Dyke!”

Arthur had been, and would continue to be, called worse. A kid in primary had lead the assault, for about a week, of shunning Arthur. There’d just been a random week where Arthur could not find a partner to work with, or a table to sit at, or anything. He hadn’t figured out what he’d done wrong, exactly. He hadn’t thrown up, he hadn’t had a tantrum at school, he hadn’t called any of the teachers mommy or anything. All he’d done, at all, was miss one sleepover that he hadn’t even been invited to and then suddenly his name had become an odd sort of punchline. “If you lose the ball then you have to go sit next to Eigyrson.” or by calling him the very clever: “Lick zer bum” even though that didn’t even rhyme, really.

One day he’d been being safely ignored, and then he’d come to school and everyone in his class had scooted away from him and giggled to themselves. They’d put pebbles in his shoes and stole his bag away from him the moment he put it down. They passed handouts around him, and the day he’d forgotten his book, no one had been willing to share. The only thing that had happened had been Willard Fowler’s birthday sleepover that he hadn’t gotten a card for.

So Arthur had broken all of Will’s coloured pencils. Fowler’d had more coloured pencils than possibly any other child Arthur had ever met. He’d bragged about how they were real, professional pencils, not the ones you got from the crate in art class (where there was never any red or black) and he’d kept them in this special box so they wouldn’t lose their tips, and even then, he’d had the best sharpener in the class. So Arthur had hung back from recess, sat down and broken all of them, systematically, into the smallest of pieces he could, before putting them away in Will’s special box. When Will had opened it and found them all shattered he’d cried in front of everyone. Full on sobbed, snot trailing down his face, eyes puffy, screaming crying and he had become the new class punchline by the next day, Arthur safely forgotten once more.

Arthur had been called names. He clenched his jaw and kept walking, because it was his birthday, and he wasn’t going to let anyone ruin that for Merlin. Arthur’s birthday was Merlin’s favourite holiday. He put a sparkly heart sticker on the calendar for it.

Merlin looked up from his triumphant landing on the pavement and looked around. “What?”

“What?”

“I thought I heard something.” Merlin frowned and looked back at the dom and his friend who were just turning a corner. He turned back and looked at Arthur and Arthur shrugged, pulling Merlin along by the elbow and Merlin happily followed, looking into shop windows and throwing his arm over Arthur’s shoulders.

---

“The Church as a whole generally focuses on Zerself and zer son, the first of whom is considered the sexless Dominant-as-rule-giver Ze-who-rewards-and-punishes, and the second considered a male submissive sacrifice, he-who-serves-and-is-punished, with the Holy Spirit mentioned, merely as a tertiary force, barely defined and oft-ignored. Far easier, all said, to worship the Holy Ruler and zer Holy Son, to make up songs about obeying and psalms about punishment and reward. The Church as a whole would prefer to avoid the grey, fuzzy outlines because that, one priest had mention to me once, was where most sin occurred.

“However, the Catholic Church— while hardly a champion of those with non-traditional sexuality and their rights—has always stood as a symbol of sanctuary for the outcasts of society, for a given definition of sanctuary. That is provided, of course, those self-same outcasts were willing to make sacrifices for their safety. The message is far and above one of mercy and compassion, and to this day, the church remains the number one shelter and safe house for the dynamically-diverse, including: broken pairs, the non-dynamic affiliated, persons outside the gender binary or persons without mates, offering a place outside of society and with people in similar situations, in exchange for devoting their lives to the church in the form of monasteries or convents.

“Hardly, one can imagine, the ideal situation for everyone, but much better than viewing a bondless person as having no soul and thus subject to enslavement, exile, ritualistic brutality, or death as in many religions, cultures and governments predating the Catholic Church’s rise to power. Still, the Catholic Church has been very vocal on it condemnation of same-dynamic partners who do not choose to remain chaste and instead attempt to ‘mimic’ the behaviour of Church approved dynamic partners, calling the behaviour a ‘gross parody’ or ‘subversion” of God’s will.” –Forven M. (2000) The Story of The None Oxford: Hart

 

May, 1999
Arthur had a lot of practice with not talking.

They sat in silence. The clock was digital, but Arthur could still hear it ticking away in his head. It was the sort of situation that should have the slow click-...-click of some sort of stately grandfather clock (and, according to Merlin, there had been such things as grandmother clocks, which had only an hour hand because “ladies need not concern themselves with minutes” which is one of those things Arthur knows and has no use for.) He didn’t fidget. If he were Merlin he would have probably come up with a story about how he was a captured prisoner, or being interrogated about a crime or...something.

“If you want, you could think of it this way. You can an hour each week staying silent and perhaps forcing your uncle and aunt to do something more drastic, or you can at least try talking to me. I think you don’t really like losing control of yourself. You’re angry right now because you didn’t choose to come here. But that’s part of life, Arthur. There are going to be a lot of things you can’t control. What you can control is how you respond to it.” Dr. Whitman put down his pen and paper and clasped his hands together. He had a ring on his finger. Married. “But all not-talking does is allow other people to put words in your mouth. Your aunt had a lot to say about your behaviour over the years. If you don’t talk then you don’t have an opportunity to defend yourself. Maybe I’ll find you don’t have the kind of anger problem she thinks you have.”

He’d been offered a fizzy drink. He’d been offered tea. He’d been offered an ice-lolly. He wasn’t five. He wasn’t going to be bribed into co-operation. Or threatened, either, not by his uncle muttering about approved schools, or any of the like. This was bullshit. This was clearly bullshit and he wasn’t. He wasn’t going to do any of it.

“For instance. In this report I have from your school, it has plenty about the other boy’s side of the story, but it says you refused to comment. So now all I have is a boy saying you shoved him into a pile of slush and sat on him so he couldn’t get up again for no reason. And I don’t think you did that for no reason.”

Gregory Cooper had stuffed someone younger kid’s comic in the loo, and Arthur hadn’t been able to do anything about that, having walked in while the strange boy had been crying after it was already said and done with. But Arthur had been able to take Cooper aside and shove his face into the thawing slush and mud until he begged to be let up, twisting his arm behind him and not much caring if his uniform got dirty. Not all of Arthur’s fights were for other people, and he didn’t just get in fights. He took people’s things, too: broke them sometimes, just kept them others. But at school he was mostly fine, people chose him to play sports with, and he had his footie team.

But when he got back to his aunt and uncle’s house the atmosphere was oppressive. They treated him, constantly, like he was a monster in their home, like at any second he was going to lose his head and break all the fine china, and he wasn’t. He did that when he was younger, a bit, sure. But now. He goes to his room. He pushes the bed in front of the door. He breaks, maybe, his own things. One time his aunt grabbed him by the wrist and he might have pushed her too hard to get her off of him. It wasn’t his fault that they were just bad at parenting.

He’d had screaming tantrums, sure, when he was younger. Not recently. Not since he was nine, and that was ages ago. They didn’t have to treat him like another one was right around the corner.

“I want to give you a chance to tell your side of the story, Arthur. I would like to hear your impressions. I’m not going to take anyone’s side in this.” Dr. Whitman continued.

And the last time had been because they’d gone to a funfair and it had been too loud and too crowded and Arthur had been hungry and tired. They hadn’t gone on a single ride, they just kept looking at stalls and not getting any snacks because his uncle thought they were too full of fat and sugar and he’d just wanted to go home, but they didn’t listen to him, and didn’t let him touch anything and his aunt had kept a firm grip on his wrist like she thought he’d run off. So he’d just had enough. And he’d just wanted to go home. He’d just sat down and refused to move, and when she yanked his arm he’d just ... he’d just wanted to go home.

And they had, and she’d snapped at him that she had never been so embarrassed, and his uncle had said they couldn’t take him anywhere, that they had thought he could be a little more adult by now. But he’d said he was hungry, and he’d said he was tired, and he’d just wanted to go on one ride or try one game and they’d just kept walking past everything interesting. And he’d told Merlin that. Merlin was always on Arthur’s side.

He didn’t need a psychiatrist to listen to his side of the story, because he had Merlin for that.

---

November, 2011

It was less a birthday party and more an Arthur Party Of The Most Arthurness. Merlin made the playlist, so every single song is one Arthur liked, which was a pleasant change from the normal party line-up of “I don’t know this song, I don’t know this song, I don’t know this song, and I want to shoot this song in the face.” And Merlin even left off the songs Arthur was embarrassed to like, unless they’re particularly fun to dance to.

The snack table was piled high with Arthur’s favourite crisps, his favourite brand of pickles, his preferred dips, and cake and cookies. They’ve got his favourite lager, his favourite wine, Merlin’s favourite blue lemonade mixer and citrus vodka because liked to make “Sonic Screwdrivers” and he couldn’t be stopped, and best of all, everyone just let him poke around as he wanted and didn’t make a big production of him.

Freya gave him a Happy Birthday fist bump, Leon clapped him on the shoulder and talked about sports---the basis of their entire relationship--Elyan stole his cupcake and noisily stuffed it in his mouth to balance out Gwen giving him a hat that she knit— all by herself and it had some dropped stitches, not too many, and she went back and got most of them, and it’s really warm, but here she ran out of red yarn, but he liked blue too, so she added blue, and that isn’t too Captain America? “My name is Jack,” Merlin said tugging it over Arthur’s ears “Union Jack.”

“I’m sorry, was that a ‘Please, Arthur, please shove my face into cake?’” Arthur grabbed Merlin by the neck and tried to drag him towards the cake and Merlin was laughing and wiggling away. Percy moved between them, and the cake because no one wanted to eat a Merlin’s faced cake. Percy had made it himself, because Percy had dated a pastry chef, and thus had felt it his duty to make every single birthday cake ever for all of them. There was ganache and sour cream chocolate icing and whatnot. (The pastry chef had gotten a better job in Wales, and Percy—being Percy—had helped her move, and visited once a week, until she’d fallen for her restaurant’s Head of House—who he then had became good friends with. True story.)

By ten the party had a slightly higher percentage of People He Did Not Know than he would have liked- people bringing their roommates, and those roommates bringing a friend to talk to, and that friend maybe bringing their partner or whatever- but even they dropped money in the hat for alcohol and brought snacks, and no one rushed him, so it was fine. The living room was free of furniture, the windows cracked open so the dance floor didn’t get oppressively hot. Merlin was flailing somewhere in the middle, three drinks in, and a cheap date to start with. Arthur himself had tipped over to friendly and people were more than entirely used to seeing Merlin flop on him while dancing.

“Arthur!” Merlin flung his arms up in the air. “You’ve returned to me. Were you seduced by my awesome moves. I know you were. Join me in the dance of my people.” Merlin ended with his arms haphazardly over his shoulders as the singer promised “show me what a real whip hand can do/I’ll make you forget everything else when I’m through” and the bass thumped up hard from Leon’s speaker system, which was better than the oft-repeated “beat me black and blue for you” that Arthur had sort of expected from the song the first time he’d heard it.

“The dance of your people is to awkwardly stand next to the wall and scuff their feet against the floor.” Arthur punched his stomach lightly. “How drunk are you?”

“The importance of written erotica on the Internet is that it allows people of all walks of life to take active control of the kind of porn that they want to read, putting forward their fantasies and desires so they can be mirrored back by like minds.” Merlin lectured him in that careful way people trying to not to sound drunken sounded. “By allowing it to be published online for free means that people, especially people still discovering themselves, can explore their sexuality and interests in a safe, controlled way, understanding how something feels and sounds, and being allowed to imagine it how they want without an image being forced upon them.”

Merlin always talked about porn when drunk. It was just a thing that happened. Arthur shuffled along with his swaying sort of dance, people jumping and swinging their arms up around them and shimmying at each other while laughing at their own ridiculousness.

Merlin was flushed and bright eyed, and Arthur gave it another hour before he sobered up enough for them to walk home and they did whatever it was that Merlin had planned for tonight in the second bedroom. He was warm, and happy, and he sort of distantly wished he could kiss Merlin right now, in public, but mostly he was happy. He was his own happy and Merlin’s happy all jumbled together in his stomach like a pit of puppies with a squeaky football.

He felt the burst of shock hit him a split second before it appeared on Merlin’s face, eyes wide and body still. Arthur frowned and turned to look even as Merlin was scrambling at him in a flurry of rapid-heart-beat excitement.

And so, like there was a cinematographer for their lives, the crowd parted and standing in the doorway (not surrounded like a halo of light, but there might as well have been) was Scarlet O’Hara.

Merlin was attracted to doms fairly indiscriminately. He preferred they be bigger than he was, he liked them taller and didn’t mind the nature of their bigness, having sat cradled in the lap of a rotund dom who had about five stone (or more, given that Merlin did not eat enough) on him as gleefully as he’d been hoisted up against a wall by a thick and interested body builder, but he’d gone home with the short and the svelte provided they engaged his interest enough. Merlin just liked people, provided they were worth liking, and he would come home, bitten to all hell, and still sort of out of it, climbing into Arthur’s lap and describing everything, hands clasped together as Arthur explored the marks and bruises on Merlin skin, shotgunning Merlin’s high, greedily soaking up Merlin’s experience, half feeling it and half hearing it and happy, again, that Merlin had come home to him to come down.

However.

However, while Merlin’s indiscriminate attraction to just about any sufficiently nice person who proved willing to rough him up was like a well oiled machine of data gathering, the one thing, the one thing that would throw a wrench in that was, of course, Scarlet O’Hara. It wasn’t even a conscious choice, it went past gender or personality or sexuality. If a pale, dark haired woman in green walked in, Merlin was thrown up against decades of his brain filling her in for every mystical faerie queen, every venom-toothed sorceress, every helpless princess in a dungeon, every quick-eyed spy, nimble-ankled ballroom dancer, sharp-tongued owner or lost chance from across a room.

Merlin was going to get himself murdered someday by a brunette in emerald.

Arthur was already adjusting his balance so Merlin could use him to support himself. Merlin gawked openly for a few seconds then shoved his face into Arthur’s shoulder. “Arthur, Arthur, I am too drunk for this. Stop me from looking like a moron.”

That I can’t help you with, but I can stop you from going over to some poor...” Arthur looked back and squinted, but he’d lost sight of her, so he shrugged. “Well, some poor someone and being disturbing.”

“She was so pretty.” Merlin punched him in the shoulder and Arthur moved him over to the couch, the people already on it smunching closer to each other without comment. Merlin flopped on top of him and shoved his face into his neck. “I need to not go over there and stare like I’m disturbed. I need to not do that. Was she as pretty as I think she was?”

“Yeah, probably. You’re also demented, so she might have taken on qualities no human has. Did she glow?”

“Lil’ bit.” Merlin flailed at the air. “I could say hi. I could say ‘hi, you’re the most beautiful person I have ever seen and I just wanted you to know that, and now I’m going to go back over there. Now.’”

“Did you even catch her orientation this time?” Arthur had not, but the room was crowded and he hadn’t looked at her very long.

“Wait, is he O’Haraing again?” Freya looked up from her conversation and waved her hand in front of Merlin’s face. He frowned at her and Arthur nodded. Granted, Merlin’s sort of serial killer specific crush was the only reason they even knew Freya, and thus their current group of friends, because, of course, she’d come in with an forest green waistcoat and that was enough for Merlin, really. “Who is it?” She scanned the room.

“Our babies would have such small toes.” Merlin informed them, “they would be the smallest toes and they would kick them. They would kick them toes.”

“He’s going to be gone for a while,” Arthur said.

“Does he do the entire bond pairing from meeting until death, or...” Elyan asked.

“From what I can tell it starts off contemporary and then slowly becomes Gone With The Wind but both of them playing Scarlet.” Arthur moved to sit Merlin on the couch. “I don’t know, if he doesn’t tell me it’s because the world is better off not knowing. I’m going to go get some water, make sure he doesn’t do anything psychotic.”

Freya nodded, toasting her drink to him as he shoved through the crowd of people to try and get some air.

---

Current Standing Of Same-Dynamic Bonds

According to the American-based “Center For Human Sexuality Research And Awareness” (CHSRA, pronounced, normally, “Chess-Ra” [1]) one out of every thousand bonds ended up being between same-dynamic partners [2]. It is “very likely” [3] that the phenomenon is more common than that statistic suggests, since the statistics rely on such couples announcing themselves (see: William/Abdul (1972)[3]), or for their legal guardians doing it for them, often[4] in the form of getting them therapy and medication (see: “John”/”Stacy” (1950 [5]) case study) or, in more extreme examples, forcibly severing the bond (see: Jackson vs. The State of Oklahoma [6]) which has since become illegal in the United States in all cases without the express consent of both parties, or in the case of minors or persons unable to consent, only as a last resort in the case of marked emotional and mental duress that, at minimum, three independent specialists agree is either caused by the bond, or offers a clear and present danger to the second half of the bond, regardless of the dynamic leanings of both parties. (Jackson vs. The Supreme Court)[7].

There are fifteen countries worldwide that allow any form of legal recognition and protection of same-dynamic marriage, which ranges from the freedom of Canada’s Complete Acceptance Policy [8] (full legal rights, provided the advocating couple undergoes standardized independent review) to the weighted-compromise Norway’s Non-Dynamic Partnership Laws [9] (which will not legally recognize the couple as soul-bonded, but will allow them the same benefits and legal rights as any romantic partnership) and finally to the limitations of the United States own policies, which range wildly from state to state, but federally will allow registered same-dynamic partners to file taxes together [10], become each other’s medical and legal proxy [11], not testify in court against one another [12], and both be listed as legal guardians of any child that comes out of the union [13] (whether the couple would be allowed to adopt a child, varies from state to state [14], however, even in states that allow non-dynamic, or same-dynamic partners to adopt, these couples are subject to review far more (in some cases nearly four times as many visits [15]) than their dynamic-normative counterparts [16]).

There are many countries, communities, cultures and religions that do not allow same-dynamic couples to legally register as soulbonded [17], but same-dynamic couples can still find protection within the legal system, with the governments allowing for de facto partnerships of romantic, non-dynamic, asexual, same-dynamic partnerships, or even dynamic couples who, for whatever reason, do not wish to declare [18], of any couple that lists themselves as such on their tax forms, or are rearing a child together. These de facto partnerships do not have the same legal or fiscal responsibility should separation occur, no required child support or division of assets, no alimony, but while the couple is in said partnership, they can apply for medical proxy, retain joint finances, and may both be considered the legal guardian of any child or dependant gained from the union or that either partner brings into the union. [19] Such countries include Spain, Australia, Argentina and France.

And finally, there are governments who will forcibly separate, institutionalize or medicate [20] any couple suspected of same-dynamic partnering [21], often to a greater degree than even their non-dynamic counterparts [22]. There are, in all countries, extremist groups, religions, sub-cultures, and political parties that oppose same-dynamic couples, even with evidence of a viable and otherwise healthy soulbond, calling for blocking, termination, or separation of the couple in question. [23]

---

May, 1999

Merlin found him. As he always did. It was a little cave they’d dug out and stamped down and dragged a binned rug to. It was just about too small for him, and certainly too small for the both of them, save curled up together and ignoring how dirty they got, the roots dangling from the ceiling, the strong smell of earth and clay mingling with the moulding and musky stench of the rotting rug.

“They figured out that octopi have something like soulbonds, except they aren’t pack animals, so they hate other octopi, and if one wanders into their territory they kill it or run away, so they troll the sea for the one octopus that doesn’t make them want to kill it, and then they mate and then the male dies after he ejaculates and the female gives birth to eggs and blows water over them or something, and stops eating and dies of basically post-partum depression shortly after the eggs hatch. And octopi are smart, which makes it that much more tragic, you know? The blanket octopus has an immunity to the Man-of-War jellyfish poison, so he takes them and uses them to whip other animals to get them to go away. And they have this huge billow cape to scare the fuck out of everything else in the sea.”

“Why do you know these things?” Arthur had asked, Merlin elbow digging into his side, his head no doubt digging into Merlin’s collarbone. He’d only had to wait an hour before Merlin had ducked his head under the lip and looked at him, holding out a thermos of drinking chocolate. Arthur had taken it from him silently and Merlin had crawled in.

“I’m pretty sure if your daemon is a blanket octopus it means you’re one badass motherfucker.” Merlin had replied, because they could swear as much as they wanted when no one was around, and Merlin took a singular minded delight in it, because at his school they still washed your mouth out with soap. Unless you could give a good linguistic reasoning behind it, but Merlin’s school was weird. “When is the next one of those due?”

“Next year, they said.” Arthur sipped out the dregs from the thermos lid and Merlin screwed it back over the top. “Will’s world without daemons and Lyra’s world without soulbonds.”

“Give me a daemon any day.” Merlin tossed the thermos out of the tiny cave, where their feet crawled out and they lay on Merlin’s jacket, since the rug seemed...unhygienic. “A voice that can actually talk to you and reason and supports you is better than some...phantom person who you aren’t even sure of meeting. It’s daft, isn’t it? This one person who is supposed to be everything you want out of a partner and society just...hangs their hat on how much better you’ll be if you find them. But they’re just a person. They’re someone who doesn’t even know you, not really.”

“So, what? You wish you’d identified as switch and you could make your own destiny?” Arthur did, sometimes. Switches weren’t exactly the most acceptable in society, but they always seemed...self-confident, on the telly and in novels. Their own closed circuit, not waiting, not looking towards some partner on their arm, not looking inward for the thread of someone else.

“Many cultures view switches as complete persons, who should be looked to for guidance because they are self-contained.” Merlin mused, feet kicking at the loamy dirt outside the cave that they were getting too big for, and just getting bigger.

“And many other cultures kill them because they think they’re either empty and thus can become whatever they want, or an evil spirit is filling in the rest of them. So, you know. There’s that,” Arthur argued.

“Someday we’re going to go to London and find at least one secret or magical world hiding in it.” Merlin said voice echoing oddly up from his chest and into Arthur’s sinuses.

“At least?”

“Well. I figure that most of the magical and secret worlds are real and just all hiding from one another, and also we probably have Borrowers in one of our houses, but they’re really very good at hiding.”

“Well, that’s rather the point of them, isn’t it?” Arthur had replied. “You’re not going to find some just because you want to. They’re trained in these sorts of things.”

“Mmm.” Merlin agreed lazily and then inhaled.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Arthur cut him off and Merlin let out his next sentence as a sigh and Arthur stared at striations of dirt on the wall. “I just -- If everyone just left me alone, I’d be fine. I get angry. Someone tells me that when I get angry I should just leave the situation to cool down. I actually try and do that and they stop me. I can’t leave from class, I can’t leave at the house. So what?”

Merlin didn’t say anything and Arthur poked him in the side. “What? I thought we weren’t talking about it. I’m not saying anything. Ergo, we’re not talking about it.”

Arthur pushed himself out of the space and sat down on the heavy rock they’d moved to mark their space, the long grass and tree roots obscuring the actual entrance. Merlin continued to lie in the glorified overhang and Arthur picked at his nails.

“I’m not mental, though. I’m not.” He chewed off a bit of cuticle and it tore away with a tiny bead of blood. “She compared me to my dad.”

“Your dad has massive brain damage and tried to kill you,” Merlin replied, bluntly. “You throw things and punch tossers in the face. You also come up with really elaborate schemes of how you’re going to get one over on jerks, but everyone does that. And you’re more likely to shut down and fester than act out.”

Arthur chewed at his thumbnail and Merlin slowly backed out of the cave, brushing himself and his jacket off. “Okay, so. You’re not mental. I know you’re not. You know you’re not.”

“My aunt’s going to think I’m dodgy no matter what I do, and my uncle just wants an excuse to get me out of his house.” Arthur spat out a jagged fingernail, “And I don’t really feel up to acting like a good boy now and forever, do I? I tried. I did.” Arthur had tried being good. But he’d always-- There’d always been something. They’d demanded he talk, and then he’d talked too much, or about the wrongs things, or he was too sad, or he was too boisterous or... it was always something. He was always wrong, somehow, and he wasn’t going to kill himself trying to fix it. He wasn’t. “I could just move in with you, yeah?”

Merlin dropped his head onto Arthur’s shoulder and Arthur continued to pick at his nails. “Just poke around the Doctor. Don’t tell him anything important. Just. See what he’s like. Test the waters.”

“That’s how they get you. You start talking about something you think is safe and then all of a sudden you’re just going and they’re grabbing stuff you didn’t even say and you’re gone forever.”

“Then count the words to your response first.” Merlin took Arthur by the wrist and took his abused hand away. “If he gets too personal too quickly you can always stop talking again. But at least you’ll have talked, and she can’t get angry at you if you’re talking.”

“She would.” Arthur dropped his head back and stared up at the sky-speckled foliage. “And then what?”

“You tell me how it went and we form a tactical plan to convince him you’re just high spirited. We’ll con him. We’ll be con men. Maybe he’ll help you learn how to best utilize your high energy. Oh! Maybe we can convince him that what you really and truly need is a dog. It’s brilliant.” Merlin poked his cheek. “Trust me. Do it. Trust me. I’m brilliant. I am the most brilliant con man.”

Arthur looked over and him and he was grinning. “You’re the nutter.”

“Misunderstood genius.” Merlin intoned solemnly and hoisted Arthur up. “Come on, let’s take a walk and then stay at my house for supper.”

---

cont.

She fled, for the first time, from her Protector’s house, and though she did not know how her life had come to be, she was determined to not let it remain so. Surely now that the madman’s pleasure had been gained he would cut their bond and allow her to join her love where their souls could be together.

She ran through the forest, not caring if it was dark, or if the thorns scratched her. She did not care if beasts hungered for her blood, or if she tripped and fell into murky water. She kept on, fleeing, hoping for the false bond to snap and leave her dead.

But a wolf pursued her, charging furiously ever at her heels, but she did not cease. She did not stop even as she tired. Not even as the voice of her fake-love rang in her hollowed-out insides. She clambered up hills, leapt off rocks, dodged past trees, until her body gave out from under her at the edge of the forest and she collapsed. The wolf came to a halt and bent to lick her wounds, tending to her injuries and catching animals for her to eat until she regained her strength. Come back to me my love, for you are you and you are mine.

At that she fled once more, into the frozen wasteland. She did not care that she was cold, that the wind cut through her. She did not care that her feet turned frozen at the ends of her legs that her stomach hollowed out once more for lack of food. She continued to flee, trudging through the deep snow, head bent as she refused to bow to the wind.

And all the while she was pursued by a bear, keeping pace with her, and when she could go no further, at the edge of the snow banks, he wrapped himself around her and warmed her body, licking life slowly back into her feet and finding her fish and plants to eat until she was strong once more. Come back to me my love, for you are you, and you are mine.

At this she dove into the freezing oceans, not caring that the salt stung her eyes, not caring that the water tried to drag her down to join sunken ships and lost cities. She swam on, pushed back by waves, pulled down by undertows, but still she swam on. The water was murky and black, freezing and deadly, singing her sweet lullabies about falling into it and rejoining her lost and only. But a seal pursued her, slipping through the waves, keeping pace as she flailed and shivered and struggled forward.

And at long while she could go no further and she sank down, letting the cold water pull her into zer embrace and she did not struggle, even as her lungs burned and her heart sank and panic, panic, panic beat alongside her ribs.

The seal dove down and saved her, swimming until zer found land, laying her freezing body upon the shore and when she refused to eat and refused to be gentled, he turned back into Loki, staring down upon her. “What form would you have me in?” He asked, “You are mine, and you belong to me. I will care for you, if you will give me your submission.”

“But you are not mine, and if you have no need for me, then I have no purpose.” She loved him still, though and so cupped his face, her soul tied to his rib and she unable to free herself. “If you wish to do me any kindness, you will unbind me and allow my death.”

“I have much need of you.” Loki replied and showed her how his wound wept. “I would not take another’s submission, I will feel this agony, and you will love and tend for me. I have great need of you, for it is my lot in life to cause suffering and to suffer, and there is none who would stay my hand or comfort me. My need is great, and you love me still. You love me as a wife loves her husband, you wish to obey me. If you deny me that, then cut yourself free.” He gave her a knife and held himself as if a sacrifice.

She held the knife and pressed it to his breast, where the wound wept more, an unnatural, ugly knot of flesh around some unseen thing that felt precious and fragile. If she were to do this, she would die and go to the dom whose name was written on her ribs. But if she were to not she would stay with the switch who had chosen her to put into himself. And she thought about this for a very long time, she had not met her beloved, and she had met this man, and he had followed her and tended for her and she felt his love like a scream in a cave, and she could not cut herself free from this.

And it was thus that they were bound, and it was thus that she chose. And while he is bound, deep, deep and a snake put above him, she continues to choose, for she has a bowl, yes, to catch the poison. But she also has a knife, my loves, and she does not use it to kill the snake, no, but she does not use it to cut herself free.

And this is the story of Sigyn, whose son’s entrails tie her false-bondmate down to be tortured, until he slips free and closes this world, but that has not happened yet, my loves. It has not happened yet.

-Christine Boroson, “These Are Our Wrong Turns.”

November, 2011

 

Morgana was used to standing out in a crowd.

She’d been modelling for as long as she’d been taking self-defence classes, stretching on back from before she knew that most little kids didn’t spend long hours sitting demurely in make-up chairs, trying on an endless rotation of outfits and listening to photographers, smiling for a paycheque that was bigger than most people could earn at three times her age. That was simply what little kids did, she thought, seeing the other child models, posing with older doms and subs like she was their child, laughing as a trained dog rolled onto set, eating from buffet tables.

When she went to school she was the most put-together, even with the required skirt-and-jumper uniform, everything primly ironed and set just so, hair in springy sausage curls, or pinned up high on her head, or braided in complicated plaits and dangling down her back, nails manicured and polished, shoes always shined. She’d never gotten a haircut in memory, her dad helping her wash her hair, condition and dry it, brushing it out and dry as they sat in front of the telly for the evening, from the bottom up in slow, careful, gentle tugs and strokes.

By the time she was eight she knew how to disable someone twice her size, was the fastest runner in her class, and got a beautiful, one-of-a-kind frock ruined by shoving a sixth former into the mud and holding her there until she apologized for making fun of Morgana’s friend. She did all the make-up for the school nativity, outlining eyes and lips, patting blush on chubby cheeks and frowning over the costuming and tut-tut-tuting the sad excuse of direction on set.

By the time she was eight she’d been in over sixty-five separate magazines, and had done a total of four hundred shoots, smiling over big bowls of oatmeal and holding her hands out for a ball in the latest trends of kid’s sportswear, bravely jumping off diving boards in swimsuit after swimsuit after swimsuit, holding trucks and dolls, waking up fake-Christmas morning after fake-Christmas morning grinning down at a latest this or a cutting-edge that for just $49.99 this holiday season. By the time she was eight she could do fifty push-ups without a pause, she’d been to France sixteen times and spoke enough French to order for herself when she, her father and their agent went for lunch. She’d been to America four times, and each one had been for a job that she hadn’t gotten, but they’d still seen New York, Chicago, Miami and San Francisco, and she was very good at popping her ears back from the pressure of taking off or landing.
She’d been dozens of flower girls, she’d been the daughter of any number of fake couples, she’d licked hundreds of mashed potato ice cream cones, thrown softballs and baseballs, kicked footballs and been placed by cherry-picker on every single tree in the area, her own pouting or beaming face looked up from the glossy pages of magazines as a make-up tutorial, advertisement for sandals or what deodorant to buy.

When she identified as a switch, her father was just happy that it meant she could take more roles. Even if no one could tell what you were from off a screen or a page, photographers swore they couldn’t shoot a dom as a sub, which it interfered with the something or other. When she identified as a switch and all her classmates started talking about their soulmates, she lifted her head, became a picture of dismissal, and she was just happy that there wasn’t a single soul on all this planet who could sway her away from what she wanted.

When Morgana looked in the mirror, she didn’t see herself. She saw a tool. If she put this shade of lipstick on, with this mascara, and this outfit with those shoes, she was confident, in control. If she applied lip gloss just so and plucked her eyebrows like this, then she became somehow softer, quieter, eyes down and demure. If she tugged on those jeans and that top, lined her eyes just wrong, chipped her nail polish and slumped her shoulders she vanished entirely. Her body was a tool, a presentation, and a show. Designers used her as a walking clothes hanger, she was a production. She could walk in six-inch platform heels, she could move under sixty pounds of draping fabric.

The modelling work had just continued as she grew up. Some kids who had been cute when they were five, turned horrifically gawky or disorganized when they were fifteen. Some gorgeous fifteen years olds had been bland or not right when they were five, but Morgana handled aging just as well she handled learning throws, holds, and couture fashions. She’d had her first kiss for a shoot, leaning forward at the waist, hands primly behind her back as the boy across from her did the same, in an advertisement for shoes. Other models talked about their soulmates, about how this felt, and that, and a few even stumbled across their fiancée, everything coming to a standstill while people celebrated.

Morgana relished the privacy of her own head, the stability of her own solitary, complete existence. She read about the switch-high-priestesses of the Triple Goddess, who were considered more holy because they were a single body with a complete soul. She read about the culling of switch-adolescents, thinking that missing half had been packed in by an evil spirit. She read:

“I spit on the term switch. I am not light bulb to be turned on or off. I am not one thing or another based off what others determine me to be. I am in constant flux. I am not one moment and then another, I am not confused, I am not indecisive, I am not broken. I am complete unto myself. I am not oil and water. I am emulsified. I am singular. I am heels and neckties. I am complex. I am inscrutable. I am me. And no part of me is yours.” She read whenever she had a moment, because millions of books had switch main characters, but as someone who woke up, went to their closet and decided they’d be submissive that day, or as someone who could never choose, or as someone who needed to be shown the way by their main romantic interest, always safely in one role or another by the end of the book.

Morgana knew her mind. She wasn’t an actor. She could present herself in whatever way someone wanted, but it was an illusion that didn’t hold past the picture of it. She could make herself look bigger, smaller, prettier, sexier, she could be imposing, she could be approachable, she could flutter her fake eyelashes and pout her lined lips, stand firm in heels and dare the camera to try something. She didn’t remember lines, she didn’t become anyone, and inside she was only ever herself. She was a presentation. She was a show. She knew how to stand out in a crowd, how to walk down a runaway and be remembered for it. She got her own paycheques, she changed representation two, three, four times. She took down a mugger with a belt across the face and then wrapped firmly around her neck.

She was, it seemed, constantly just a breath away from really, properly, making it big. She’d been to Italy, she’d walked in Spain, she’d gotten three callbacks in New York, her portfolio was heavy, neatly organized, and impressive. “You’re striking. You stand out. You’ve got an old-fashioned sort of quality to you, like a silent movie star.” Her agent had said. “You’re growing up right. You’re going to make it big. You’re going to make it huge. Sexy. Classic. They won’t be able to stop you.”

She’d been on book covers for YA coming-of-age novels. She’d frolicked in lingerie with doms and subs. She’d been in up-and-coming magazines, won a few industry awards that didn’t mean anything except that a sufficient number of people were noticing she existed. Her hair hung long and coiled down her back, stuffed under wigs and pinned, pressed, pulled this way and that for just the right look. At seventeen a photographer tried something and she pinned him to the ground in just her bra, underwear and stilettos. At seventeen she was bare feet and t-shirts doing homework in the wings. At seventeen she had more kisses under her belt than anyone could count, but only one she’d wanted, with a pretty sub that’d melted under her touch like everything beautiful in the world.

At seventeen, just as at seven, she was the main breadwinner. Her father’s career was to further hers. She worked far too much to make any really proper, lasting friendships. Someone wanted to have sex with her and she said no. Someone politely requested to scene with her, she’d turned them down. Someone gripped her by the wrists and commanded her attention and she hadn’t given it. Someone had tried to force the issue and she’d dropped them. Someone had acted the brat to try and get her to put them down, and she’d ignored them. Someone had laughed with her, joked with her, gone to calorie-counting dinners (not so little that you look like you couldn’t take/give a hit, not so much that the clothing didn’t fit) worked out when she did, and she had asked him, and he’d said yes, two weeks of bedsheets and inside jokes before he’d gone to the Canary Islands and she’d gone to be in a music video in Iceland.

At seventeen she wasn’t famous. She was visible, certainly, she got work when she wanted it, she had enough offers to turn things down. She was her agent’s darling. She did a shoot where she was a selkie and liked the thought of it: being two simultaneous things, and never happy forced into a single role. Sometimes she got recognized. Sometimes she gave autographs. At seventeen she was alone. She’d met movie stars and posed half-naked next to them in their own shoots. At seventeen she’d posed as a living mannequin at one of the top boutiques in London. At seventeen she’d been to the kind of parties where people snorted the finest coke in the marble bathrooms and got properly drunk off vintages she had carefully studied. At seventeen she sometimes picked pockets because her father had taught her how to do that while she was still all wide-eyes and perfect baby teeth and they didn’t know how long it’d last. She knew how to stand and not pay attention while looking attentive. She knew how to make herself heard. She knew how to dress for her mother’s funeral, how to put on the right amount of make-up, how to stand and present solemnity.

At seventeen she found out she had a half-sister, sitting across from her at the dinner gathering later, holding a mug of coffee while Morgana sipped water (Morgana was fairly constantly aware of how white her teeth were and should be, and even with photo manipulation, you wanted to be as close to the unattainable perfection they demanded as possible.). Her sister’s arms were corded with muscles, her eyes were heavy with smudged eyeliner, her lips bare, her dress just a bit too fancy for the occasion, her shoes just a little too plain, her hair a simple coiffed affair that was slowly unravelling about her face: the picture of a dishevelled, grieving daughter. Morgana picked her apart by rote and, if she were any less skilled, would believe the artifice. But Morgana knew a presentation when she saw one. Morgause was an art house exhibit, an installation of grief, evocative and abstract. Morgause studied Morgana carefully.

She was a dom, but Morgana couldn’t blame her for that. She was an artist: a musician. She was a highly ranked professional fencing duellist. She had scars. She was five years older. She was blonde and tanned where Morgana was dark-haired and pale. Her muscles had bulk, had mass, where Morgana kept herself as sleek and sharp as a knife. Morgause rode horses, she had calluses on her fingers, her nails had chips, her left hand was bare of a ring and she never mentioned her fiancée. She didn’t look on Morgana with pity, or reverence, for being a switch. Morgause invited her over and her flat was the template of domestic cosiness, and Morgana could see the precise placement of vases and curtains to achieve the effect. It was the precise, cheerful lay out of a home-store shopping guide.

It was breathtakingly contrived.

At eighteen Morgana was living with Morgause. At eighteen Morgana watched Morgause as she took down a stalker with a baton, crushing his face into the pavement and making him repeat, over, and over that he was to forgot Morgana existed, that he was dirt, until she removed her foot and he was still repeating like it’d become a personal mantra. At eighteen Morgana was so close to making it big that they practically lived off the flavour of it. At eighteen Morgana watched Morgause sing in bars and the run down sort of places that she’d never had a chance to climb out of. At eighteen Morgana could be anyone’s terrifying bar trollop, if she wanted. She couldn’t change that she was a switch, but in a tight crowd it was always hard to tell who anyone was unless you looked closely. Morgause could fit in anywhere, could go anywhere and be one of them, or go anywhere and be an unapproachable and cold as the vacuum of space. Morgause could steal a car, or get someone to give her one. Morgause stood at shoots and watched over everything, calm and knowledgeable, perfectly capable of staring down a charging-diva and putting her prim and proper back in line.

Morgana wanted to be her so badly it ached like growing pains.

“How do I make someone like me?” Morgana would ask and Morgause would study the person, watch them for a day, or two, and then tell her. Morgana wasn’t an actor, but people would fill in the blank places with what they wanted, if you gave them the right framework. Morgause would tell her what that framework was and left Morgana to decide if it was worth it. Sometimes it was. At eighteen Morgana had had fifteen separate partners, playing with them until they didn’t have anything more to offer each other. She switched up, she switched down. At eighteen she and her father exchanged emails, and her father joined her agent’s agency, signing on some other young hopeful and her agent kept in contact with her, and wherever there was work to be had, that’s where she and her half-sister went.

At parties, if someone got too fresh with Morgana, Morgause became the image of control and fury, slapping their hands with her baton, standing firm against their bodyguards, against anything. But then, equally, she knew when to step back and let Morgana wrap someone around her fingers. You didn’t get famous in the looks industry if you couldn’t keep the right people looking at you.

At nineteen, Morgana was technically an orphan. Morgause dressed her for the funeral. It was a slow news week so it even got in a few gossip rags. She let him be buried in the suit with two thousand notes sewn into the lining and said nothing.

By the time she was twenty-four Morgana was making enough money that she preferred to go places that didn’t cost anything, just for a change of pace. She’d dated B-listers and had hung on the right arms, smiled at the cameras and made enough of an impression for gossip rags to have something to remember her by. You didn’t get anywhere by being good. She left her fingerprints in all the right, incriminating, ways. By the time she was twenty-four she’d stopped having to be on the arm of someone to get an invitation and started getting her own. By the time she was twenty four, she had been to every major continent other than Antarctica, she’d been on five reality telly shows, she’d been the murder victim in two detective shows, had been the guest host of a game show, had walked more catwalks than she could even begin to count, and the most expensive thing she’d ever worn had sold for several million dollars, one of those unique pieces with precious gems sewn into the gold-woven fabric. It had been about as uncomfortable as one would imagine.

At twenty-four Morgana had been in four runs of cosmetic advertisements, had a Facebook page with 133,000 likes, a Twitter with 45,000 followers and was fully aware that she needed to expand her business, because the shelf life for a pretty face was short, especially with new ones popping up every year. She and Morgause were working on it, considering Morgana had another decade—at maximum—before she was well and truly outdated. She could release a perfume, or a clothing line, or become the pretty little thing of a rich couple, or unbonded someone or other. She’d gotten plenty of offers, considered a few, played with two. Plenty of the girls she’d seen at other shows had already dropped off the map—finding their soulmate, finding someone else to play with, finding a longer lasting career, getting tired of the lines, of the looks, of the work it took to keep afloat.

At twenty-four Morgana had found herself, quite by accident, at a house party. She didn’t know anyone there, but that hardly mattered. There would be enough people, say she was a co-worker of a friend of a friend. Morgana, at twenty-four, is fearless about parties, when she sees all make and model of bicycles chained together, and she can hear the sounds of indie rock swishing down from the windows. She puts her fifteen hundred quid coat in the pile with the others, drops a tenner in the jar by the door and in ten minutes has someone convinced they’re in the same bio chem. lab. There’s charity shop and put-together furniture, department store shoes along the walls and pre-made cookie dough cookies piled high on a table in the corner. It’s someone’s birthday, judging from the cake, and lager is flowing slightly more than freely with the way people are smiling and stumbling into each other, comfortable in their drunkenness.

She texts Morgause to tell her where she is, which is a good several blocks away from where she should be, but if you don’t engage into the occasional bout of spoiled diva behaviour than people won’t ever treat you like you deserve. She picks out a bottle of cider, opens the cap with her ring and delights that it is not champagne or wine. And the wine here comes from a box, or bottles with strange names and colourful labels. She smiles down at one that simply says “Red” on it and pours a someone a glass when their cup comes close enough.

Morgana is used to standing out in a crowd. She’s in an emerald wrap dress, wearing both heels and a necklace (because she can), and she is far outnumbered by flannel shirts and jeans, though there’s a few subs in dresses, necklaces and ballet flats taking pictures of one another. There’s a few doms in suits, heeled boots and fedoras talking about ethnomusicology next to the cookie-table.

“Hey can you get a picture of us?” A dom asks and she takes the digital camera, fiddles with the settings a moment and then directs them towards the best light she can find. They pretend to eat one another and she snaps the photograph, handing the camera back so they can upload it somewhere and forget about it. She doesn’t know any of the five songs that have played since she walked in (“we’re going to shake this town of playing cards, playing card, playing card houses.”) but they have their own spark of familiarity, something she can twirl a stranger to, just with more accordion and glockenspiel accompaniment than she’s used to.

At twenty-four Morgana likes parties. Not the kind of debauched parties that famous play-doms and partysubs throw, or the stiff, awkward charity balls where you smile and smile and smile. But these kinds of parties she likes, where you can just about hear yourself think and you can overhear conversations about modern connotations of fairy tales (“No, but Disney’s Little Mermaid, is equadynamic, Ariel has a previously stated desire to go on land, she does not like what duties she had to perform in the ocean. Eric is just the symbol of that. She trades a skill she does not want (i.e. singing) for one she does (i.e. legs) out of her own agency. She’s not soulbonded, she doesn’t have a soul ergo she’s not under Eric’s spell, he’s under hers and she’s taking power over her own life. I mean, yes, Hans Christian Anderson’s story was bullshit, but she’s not just going along with the status quo and doing as she’s expected. She’s doing what she wants.”) and someone at the sink is displaying how to break a bottle with your palm and inertia. It shatters to the sound of people making impressed noises.

The dancing is silly and frenetic, uncoordinated people jumping and dance students showing off. People spinning one another and laughing, drinking to the beat and sashaying back and forth. There’s a couple playing a complicated looking hand-game to the music on one of the recliners. She thinks about getting involved, it’s easy to clap and jump, you laugh, you make yourself look silly and you’re part of the group, but thus far, it’s the sort of party that respects someone’s choice to stand by the liquor table and watch. She catches people staring at her, but then, she’s a switch. They represent about five percent of the total population at birth. They get stared at. Morgana is used to standing out in a crowd. Often she’s the sole representation of her gender.

She’s in Hugo Boss evening dress, Joan Lyrica heels and a necklace with actual jewels on it, designed by an independent jeweller in Prague and that tended to get stared at too. Stares were good. Stares were how she measured her success. If she did an advertisement that someone stared at just a bit longer, than Lancôme got better business and she got better jobs.

“Um.”

She steps away from the liquor and looks at the sub behind her. He’s dressed for a shag, or, at the least, dressed to call attention to himself. Different context than a club, more like a Halloween costume than anything. Maybe it’s his birthday party. He stares at her another moment, her hair, her eyes, her dress, and then all back up. “Um. Hi. I just wanted to tell you that you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, and I mean that in a way that you’ve kind of, maybe, ruined my life a little bit, but that’s fine, I wasn’t really using it, so now I’m going over there and crying into a pillow. So. Yes. Good job on your everything. Your bone structure makes me want to burn down London. Sorry. Yes. Thank you.”

And then he dives across the dance floor and leaps behind the couch.

Morgana, at twenty-four, is not, exactly, used to that.

Chapter Text

July, 2001

Aunt Rebecca and Uncle Tristan were the kinds of people who tried one way of fixing a problem, and if that didn’t work, then they simply thought they hadn’t tried hard enough. So, two years later, Arthur was still seeing Dr. Whitman on a weekly basis and, two years later, they’d gotten nowhere because Arthur and Merlin had been too busy trying to come up with every conversation but one that actually meant anything.

He hadn’t stopped being angry and he hadn’t stopped running away from home here and there. He wasn’t sure what their end goal was here, what they expected out of all these meetings. They had weekly goal lists, sure, and Dr. Whitman always tried to make sure the goals were specific and manageable, but they were always still open ended. “More communication,” Aunt Rebecca would say. Uncle Tristan never really had goals, he made stuff up, but he was quiet for most of the meetings and never looked directly at Arthur.

The meeting after Merlin had come back from his trip, Arthur sat on the too-squishy couch in Dr. Whitman’s office and looked at his fingers, knotted together on his lap.

“Uncle Tristan thinks I should have been a dom.”

It was probably the first thing he’d ever said on that couch that Merlin hadn’t approved of first. Merlin was good with words, when he wanted to be.

“Your Aunt stated that both she and your Uncle pinned your pre-gender-“

“No.” Arthur interrupted and cleared his throat. “No, I mean. Uncle Tristan still thinks I should be a dom. Or—or it bothers him that I’m a sub and don’t act more like it. ...He takes me to task about my manners a lot.” Arthur cleared his throat and looked out the window to the one lonely little tree in the car park. It wasn’t big enough to climb.

Dr. Whitman paused, interested. Dr. Whitman isn’t stupid, he must have known Arthur had been playing with him. Lying. Dr. Whitman had tried to play games with him, but Arthur had just rolled the dice and moved his piece and not cared a bit, not engaging in conversation. Merlin read the child and adolescent psychology books. He’d read them to Arthur. Arthur knew what was going on. And Dr. Whitman had to have known Arthur didn’t trust him. Why should he? He’s someone his Aunt and Uncle are using against Arthur, and Arthur isn’t going to pretend otherwise.

“That has to be frustrating.” Dr. Whitman said.

“No.” Arthur was used to it, sort of. The lessons had been... frustrating. The sudden change of expectations, how they never went to any of his matches and how suddenly his curfew was enforced. How his Aunt and Uncle watched Arthur’s teammates like they were going to... Arthur didn’t know—shove Arthur’s face into their living room carpet and ride him in front of them. But still, Uncle Tristan never liked Arthur. Uncle Tristan was the kind of disgustingly old guard sub who asked his dom what to wear in the morning, who kept the house clean and orderly as a badge of honour. Uncle Tristan, Arthur supposed, had lived his whole life wanting to be a good sub, had been doing his best to follow all the complicated, unspoken rules of the world, followed all of all the books of protocol and manners he still kept with him. And then he’d suddenly found himself with this messed up kid, born of his now dead sister. A kid that wasn’t an inch like her and refused to be tidied up, refused to fall into line, who still played.

“It’s not frustrating?” Dr. Whitman cocked his head.

“It’s just. That’s his problem, I can’t… I could turn into one of those subs off the telly, with the hair and the shoes and everything and he’d still be angry about it. But. Merlin is my only sub friend, really, all the other people on my team are doms. We used to have a few subs, but they all left this year, and they have to let me play on the dom team, because we don’t have enough subs for a separate one, and so yeah. All my mates at school are doms, and I get that there’s all kinds of ways to show your gender, but.” Arthur clenched his jaw and fisted his hands and remembered to breathe, okay? He knew how to breathe. You inhaled, you counted to four, and you exhaled. Enough people had told him that it’d been drummed into his stupid, thick skull. He didn’t need anymore breathing exercises, thanks.

Dr. Whitman let him just sit there silently for a bit without comment. He’d picked up on the fact that trying to get Arthur to talk when he didn’t want to was a good way to get Arthur to leave the room.

“I sometimes think I just. Came out wrong.” Arthur said, quiet, looking at his hands. If. If Dr. Whitman said something stupid here, Arthur was going to leave. He really was.

It sat there in the air and Dr. Whitman studied him. Arthur looked at the floor.

“Do you think you should have been a dom?” Dr. Whitman asked, quietly.

“Maybe. Maybe I was supposed to be and then it just.” Arthur sighed. “But they gave me all those books about the differences between subs and doms and I knew. I knew I was a sub. I could feel it. You look at me and see it, it’s just true. And then people think of those lists like their rules, and get angry with me more for not being more submissive and that has to be earned, you know? My Uncle has all these rules and they’re all bullshit, and he acts like it’s the end of goddamn civilization when I don’t duck my head and stay pretty and quiet. But people don’t get that, and that just makes me angry. And it happens all the time, so I’m angry all the time and it’s just like. If I had been a dom, then everything would be fine.”

Arthur kept looking at the floor, tense and waiting for what Dr. Whitman was going to do next. Say something stupid. Call Arthur crazy. Something.

“Arthur, I’m going to propose a theory. You can disagree with it, and it may be entirely wrong, but given what I know of you, and what you’ve just said, I think it’s something to think about, but first I’d like to give you my reasoning. You are submissive, you identify with that strongly, that is correct.”

Arthur nodded.

“I think this is a situation where verbal feedback would be beneficial. Can we do that, Arthur?”

“Yeah.” He’d gotten himself into this. He was going to see it through. He wasn’t a coward. The only reason he ever ran away was because that’s what everyone told him to do, when he gets green-monster furious. They shouldn’t get angry with him for doing what they’d told him to do. They shouldn’t follow him out especially. Not unless they were Merlin.

“So. You identify as a submissive, is that correct?”

“Yes.” Arthur did. He knew that was what he was, down deep under all of everything. But. Finding that down deep core part of himself was always hard, hard to rip through everything else. He just wondered if maybe he’d just gotten turned inside out, or something, along the way.

“And you participate in many dominant-centric activities, such as violent contact sports and woodworking and you avoid most common submissive ones, correct?”

“Yes.” Arthur had heard enough jokes coming from other teams about how all he was wanted was to be wrestled down and hurt. About how he was just looking for someone to take him home after the game and get some of the tension out...

The jokes didn’t stop just because he was good-- and he was good. He was one of the best players, but the coach never did anything about it. Coach was just waiting for Arthur to break a nail and leave, for him to start getting off with a dom and quit because playing wasn’t worth it anymore. For him to want a collar more than he wanted a win. He wasn’t a glutton for punishment; he got into scrums because he wanted the ball. He was the fastest runner, he was as aggressive as any of the doms on the team, if not the biggest and, in his opinion, he never got packed full of the muscle-brained moronicness that his teammates did. He could think when he was on the field instead of, as Merlin said, “going all Labrador Retriever on the thing. Bark! Barkbarkbark! I’m big! I’m big! I want the ball! I’m big!”

He was pretty sure that once he was older, the jokes were just going to get worse. Louder. Ruder. Right now they were only not-quite-quiet enough, barely heard, but every snickered comment was said like it was the funniest thing in the goddamn world. Being better than everyone isn’t good enough. He could probably be a superhuman and it still wouldn’t be enough. People would see a sub on the field and there’d be no impressing them. They’d never stop waiting for him to fall on his knees, for him to cry and crawl away. Even his own teammates.

“You also avoid most contact with other submissives, with the exception of Merlin, who you met before either of you identified, and your Aunt says you tend to take control of that relationship. Is that true?”

“He just needs to be guided a little.” Arthur didn’t know where this was going, but he had a feeling he wouldn’t like it. That this was a bad idea. Of course it was. Those are the only kind of ideas he has. Merlin was the one who thought of things. Arthur just chose the one he liked best. This was a bad idea. But he has to know if other people could see. If they. If they could just look at him and know that something was wrong. If he’s going to drag Merlin down with him. They cut the bonds of people who will never be sane again, figuring they could, at least, save one half a soul. He didn’t care if the entire world took to catcalling and insulting him, he could handle that. He could become a hermit or something. They needed to leave Merlin alone though, or he’d pound all of them into the ground.

“But would you say you take the lead in that relationship?” Dr Whitman was staring at him too intently. It was claustrophobic, being stared at like that. “From what your Aunt and Uncle can testify-“

“I don’t take the lead, it isn’t like that. We’re just friends. Uncle Tristan has never liked him, but I don’t take charge. We’re… friends.”

Dr. Whitman stared into that pause and Arthur looked at one of the meaningless nothing-paintings on the walls. He hated that paintings like that existed. At least the paintings in the museum, full of blocks of colour and splotches of paint—the ones everyone looked at and said “Well I could have done that—were made by someone trying to do something. Not... painting flowers in pastels and creams so as to be as inoffensive as possible. It’s a platitude in a picture frame. ‘Have a nice day’ with fucking... lilies or whatever those are.

“Look. Just leave Merlin out of this.” Arthur said, flatly.

“Alright, Arthur. We can do that if it makes you more comfortable, but, as we have established, you struggle with near constant feelings of aggression, frustration and anger, do you agree with that?”

“I. I’m angry and frustrated a lot, but I don’t do anything about it most of the time. I mean, I’m not throwing tantrums in the grocery store. Uncle Tristan thinks I have a bad attitude, but I’m not doing anything. I do the breathing exercises. I leave when I think I’ll do something stupid—”

“Your Aunt stated that you physically threatened her and threw something at her.”

“I was just. I left an argument, like I’m supposed to, and she followed me to my room. I didn’t.” Arthur shoves a breath through his nostrils. “If I leave somewhere because I realize I need to leave and calm down, and then they follow me until i feel trapped, I don’t.” Arthur inhales, counts to four, and exhales. “Did you talk to her about that? Ask her what she was doing? Or was it all I only walked into the room and he threw something at me?”

Dr. Whitman stares at him and Arthur tries not to grind his teeth.

“Maybe next time you should try telling her about how you’re feeling.”

“And maybe next time she should notice that I’m clearly angry and leave me alone.”

“Arthur don’t you think it’s problematic for you to blame the people you hurt?”

“It’s. She. She knows that. I was going to my room and she. I don’t. If I’m that angry I’m not. Thinking.”

“And what we’re working on is trying to find a way to let you know you’re going to have a melt-down” Hulk-out, the Merlin in his head corrected. “So that you can communicate it effectively. If something is upsetting you, you need to say something like ‘Aunt Rebecca, I understand that it’s important we talk about this, but I need to go cool-off.’ and she’ll respect that.”

“Who says that? Who talks like that? Have you ever been angry?” Arthur rolled up onto his feet and Dr. Whitman steeled himself. Arthur felt he should have been offended, but couldn’t be anything except angry. He walked to the window, kept moving. He. He couldn’t sit still when he was like this. That was one of the reasons why school was miserable and he did rugby.

“Arthur. I want you to understand something. There are millions of people with problems controlling their anger. Some people work on it and become functional members of society, and some people decide to blame the people that make them angry because they’ve decided they can’t be fixed. And they do hurt people, Arthur. They hurt people they love, because they decide that it’s the victims-”

“I didn’t hurt her.” Arthur interrupted. Because he hadn’t. He didn’t... he. Merlin.

“But you have done things, Arthur. You could do them again. This is a pre-emptive strike against that eventuality. You don’t want to harm anyone, do you?”

“No.” Arthur stared glumly out the window. “What were you getting at?”

“It is my current theory that the combination of internalizing your guardian’s wish for you to be a dominant, a long-held fear of what your father became after the death of your mothers and your distrust of your Uncle, means that you’ve lacked any positive submissive role-models, which means that you became attracted to dominant behaviour because you saw it as a safer option than the various ways submissive behaviour had been presented to you. However, you’ve resented your learned behaviours because you suspected, and now know, that you are, in fact, submissive. So you are fighting both with society and your natural urges, which causes you no end of frustration, and so you feed that frustration into your activities and feel better for a while. However these activities neglect the urges of your gender and so leave you frustrated once again.”

“So?”

“What I am saying is that you are denying a large part of who you are, Arthur. You’re hiding from yourself, and that is always going to cause feelings of frustration and anger. You cannot be happy and contented with yourself until you accept all of who you are.”

“I’m frustrated and angry because I like what I do but no one will let me do it.” Arthur spat through gritted teeth. He’d daydreamed about throwing a chair through the window and making a break for it, but the problematic “where do I go then?” always cut that particular fantasy short.

“There are plenty of active and competitive activities you could engage in that wouldn’t cause such… discord.” The chair squeaked as Dr. Whitman shifted. Arthur refused to look at him. “It would also give you a chance to talk with other submissives your age, find some common ground and achieve a larger support system.”

“So, what? Give up? Quit doing the things I actually enjoy and am good at like everyone expects me to and talk about doms and paint my nails all day?

“No. You’re an active person, Arthur. There’s nothing wrong with that. But what I might suggest—just for a trial period—is that you engage in more submissive-centric hobbies, just to get a feel for them and see if you find them relaxing.”

Arthur pressed his forehead against the window. “So I would… what? Act the good submissive and feel better about everything? That’s bullshit.”

“That isn’t what I said.” Dr. Whitman corrected, calmly. “I am simply suggesting that you might try connecting with your submissive qualities in order to feel more comfortable with them. I’m not suggesting you give up everything you love, but rather figure out what it is you love about them and attempt to find a more suitable activity that gives you the same things without you having to fight yourself. As you stated, you are submissive, and I can see that simply by looking at you, but you have to give yourself outlets for that instinct.”

Arthur fiddled with his hands, squeezing the base of his ring finger as subtly as possible and wished the tree outside was big enough to climb.

---


Creepycover

[Promotional shot from the independent psychological horror film Glass, featuring starring actor Kelly Stan as, potentially, both of her roles—Cinderella and the Stepsister—highlighting director and writer Howard Isen’s purposeful takedown of understood gender conventions in film.]

Interviewer: So what drew you to film?

Howard Isen: From the point when the first film was shown to people as a carnival trick, it has occupied a... a strange place in the public mind. On one hand, everything depicted is real, the train is rushing towards the screen and people duck, but the people... the people always feel fake because you can’t tell. You don’t know what they are. Like with the painting, you can look upon the human body and have it divorced entirely from sex, because you don’t know what it is. That woman on screen could be a dominant or a switch or non-orientated and you, as an audience member have no idea. And I find that an amazing opportunity. In a live theatre you can’t help but... uh. You have to notice that in this production Faust is a sub. Or that he’s a dom, and what does that mean this time? You go and read reviews and the entire review is talking about Hamlet being a sub in this version and what does that mean.

INT: But films usually let the audience know what each character is.

H.I.: Yes. There’s been this long evolution of visual shorthand for how to depict a submissive versus a dominant and how to make them feel that way to the audience. The lighting, the costuming, the cinematography all works together to manipulate you, the audience, into knowing a character is a sub or a dom. In film school we had entire classes about it. About who owns each scene. Who’s got the power.

INT: And in Glass you use that against the audience.

H.I.: Yeah. I mean, I try.

INT: Glass is a two woman film, where both Rachel Hans and Kelly Stan take their turns portraying Cinderella and her Evil Step-Sister respectively. What made you decide to keep the cast of characters so small?

H.I.: I like how constricted it made everything. They’re both marvellously talented actors, and the important part of the film is that you get to see their relationship. Kelly is a wickedly cruel stepsister, she just eats up the screen, and she’s very tall in real life, much taller than Rachel. Rachel is sort of a more manipulative, ah, sort. You’re always aware of where she is, and there’s this sort of... I guess ‘threat of violence’ that’s always just right out of the shot. She and Rachel play off each other so well, and that was the main thing. During casting we desperately needed two actors who had that real sense of chemistry.

INT: The film has gotten a lot of favourable reviews for how well they play off one another.

H.I: They’re both amazingly talented actors and I cannot stress how much I want them to do well after this. I couldn’t have done it without them. Sometimes it got so intense during shoots that everything would go quiet, and we’d all be staring at them. Like everyone would just be standing there and watching, and I’d be frantically trying to capture it all. Both Kelly and Rachel are subs, but when it was either of their turn to play the stepsister, they gathered this massive, intense aura around themselves. Your brain would normally be saying “she’s a sub, look, she’s a sub”, but you wouldn’t believe it. It was really incredible.

INT: You’ve essentially made a Cinderella story that isn’t a Cinderella story. Not to spoil the end of the movie for any of our readers, but you’ve cut out all the other figures. There’s no Prince, there’s no fairy Godmother, there’s not even an evil stepmother.

H.I.: The term Cinderella story has come to mean a rags-to-riches story characterized by the Cinderella character suffering years of abuse quietly and with good temper. She a sub who's essentially abused mercilessly until she gets to go to the ball and finds her soulmate, who protects her for happily ever after. People gloss over that first part to get to the second, because we care about the reward. We told young subs that it didn’t matter how much they had to work and struggle and fight, one day they’d find their dom and everything would be perfect. But that struggle does matter. It isn’t made better by her soulmate finding her. A happy ending doesn’t justify the tragic back-story.

INT: Some reviews have called Glass overly dark because of that.

H.I.: Perhaps, but the fact of the matter is that there are still submissive adolescents who are raised to suffer quietly, to put up with what amounts up to abuse in order to learn how to be good, or behave in society, and then they’re told stories like this in order to assure them that it’ll all turn out, because somewhere your dom is looking for you, but what we have, even now, is a forty-six percent chance of dying before meeting your soulmate, and, according to most world census data, over sixty percent of soulbonded couples don’t meet until one or both partners are over the age of thirty.

INT: Is that why you made this film?

H.I. In part.

INT: And the rest?

H.I.: I wanted that turning point. I wanted the scene that would shake everyone up. You’ve gotten comfortable with who these women are, you think you’ve got a tap on it, and then there’s the switch, something that can’t happen in real life. Suddenly the poor, abused sub is standing tall and pressing the previously strutting dom against the wall. With these two actors, and the world we put them in, it shakes your foundations. They’ve been calling it a psychological horror film, which it is, but not because a powerless sub is trapped in this dank, dungeon-like featureless room with a mentally unhinged dom. It’s because you, you the audience member, are cut off from this sense you’ve always had, and you’re now realizing that the film can manipulate you, it can change the game, it can lie, and you no longer know who has the power.

INT: I understand that you and Rachel Hans had a working relationship previous to Glass, which was why you chose her for one of the leading parts. However, previous to this film Kelly Stan had never acted in any professional production. What lead you to her?

H.I. Well she came to a casting call, and while she didn’t have anything in the way of a professional career in acting, her entire modelling career is based off of gender ambiguity. It isn’t just that she can switch between presenting as submissive and presenting as dominant, but she can present as something entirely other and you aren’t sure what you’re looking at. At one moment there’s something vulnerable about her positioning, and then you look again and it turns predatory. And that’s naturally unsettling, looking at a person and not knowing what they want from you. During her first reading with Rachel, the two of them just clicked. It was claustrophobic and erotic, dangerous, and we knew right away that we didn’t have any choice. At that time I’d been playing with the idea of possibly having another stepsister to add an unknown element, but once I had those two, I knew they could carry the movie by themselves.

---

January, 2002

The first kiss just sort of happened. Or, well, rather. It was inevitable, obviously. There had been pecks on cheeks and foreheads, holding hands when they were alone, but they hadn’t been brave enough to try anything more than that.

They’d just flopped on Arthur’s couch (his Aunt and Uncle were gone, and his entertainment system was far better than Merlin’s tiny little telly) curled up, Merlin under an afghan. Arthur was generally too warm, and Merlin was generally too cold, so Arthur kept the window open and Merlin stole all the blankets and became one with his burrito heritage. They had a plate of nachos on Arthur’s lap, organic blue corn chips, compromised by roughly enough cheese to kill eight moose, shredded beef, jalapeños, salsa, homemade guacamole, sour cream and tomatoes. They were picking them off, slowly, the chips long since soggy, and neither of them caring.

They’d been being normal for six months. Or as normal as possible. They’d been scared about touching too much. Or not touching enough. Or. Touching just... wrong somehow, giving it all away. Merlin had made an anthropological study of how frequently people at Arthur’s school made contact with one another, and they’d discovered the music teacher was dating one of his cellists and that was problematic information to have.

Arthur’s Aunt and Uncle took everything he did as wrong, and while his Aunt liked Merlin, she also frequently stated that Arthur should branch out and make some contacts. Merlin’s mum just let them be themselves, provided nothing valuable was broken in the process and they cleaned up afterwards, and didn’t care one lick if she came down and found Merlin sinking into Arthur’s side like a “heat seeking koala missile” as Lance had once said.

(“Is it seeking koala heat, or is the missile a koala?” “You’re a weaponized koala.” “I’m really okay with this.”)

Merlin had reached for a nacho and turned to say something snarky about the film they were watching (Arthur’s choice, which meant that it had depth and narrative and characterization, and thus Merlin was bored because there weren’t any characters to be mindlessly killed by some kind of overly intelligent but somehow disenfranchised serial killer, and so he had to make fun of everyone for the rest of the movie.)

Arthur turned to tell him to shut up and then they were there. Facing one another. Then they just… didn’t turn away for a long time, far too long to call it a stare. And since Arthur didn’t make a face and turn it into a contest, and Merlin didn’t do anything at all other than stare it just… went. And went.

Arthur thought one of them should say something. One of them always managed to say something. Except when they were stretched out in some grassy field and staring up at the stars, Arthur handing over a blanket when it started getting chilly. It wasn’t that they went to the field to stare at stars, it was just something that happened. Much like how the staring was just happening now.

Arthur’s head was tipped slightly to his left, eyes dragging over Merlin’s face. Merlin swallowed, his head tilted to the left and it looked like all he could do was swallow again and stare. They hadn’t exactly discussed this, but at night Arthur would go home and lie in his bed and he’d feel Merlin and Merlin would feel him and they’d both. Um. But. That. That wasn’t. Together. That could be. Um. Arthur watched as Merlin licked his lips.

Then Arthur moved, didn’t give the telly time to blare loudly and break them apart, for someone to knock on the door, or for the phone to ring. Arthur just attacked, pressed Merlin into the couch and kissed him, settled between his legs and cupped his face, needing the round bite of Merlin's cheekbones under his palms, to press his fingers into until Merlin’s ears were pressed to his skull.

“Your ears are ridiculous,” Arthur whispered, as he had before, being the only person with the right to. He’d ground plenty a face into the dirt for having said a single bad word about Merlin. Merlin was his to insult, and love, and kiss, apparently. Arthur didn’t know what they were doing. The slide of tongue felt weird and tasted like jalapeños, and maybe there was too much spit, but it still felt thrilling and, Arthur decided, they could get better. They had time. They could be the best kissers ever.

“Arthur,” Merlin began, lips shiny with spit and Arthur wanted to kiss him again.

Merlin looked at Arthur’s mouth and then did it for him, curling his arms over Arthur’s neck and slowly sucking on Arthur’s lip, like it was something he heard of, a hypothesis to test. A new project that wasn’t going to be abandoned halfway through, except Arthur pulled away. Frightened, suddenly, that he was making it real. Of course it was real, but It. He was fifteen. He wasn’t the smartest.

“We can make it work Arthur, I promise, come on. We’ll think of something. Come on. Please.” He smoothed his hands up Arthur’s sides.

Arthur cupped Merlin’s face, and he was witness to what made dominants do what they did, for a moment. Merlin was looking at him with a world of just let me make you happy. I will do anything to make you happy, when Arthur had always expected to see… see control and someone that had clear expectations of what Arthur could do for them. He had thought about seeing assessment, or, as time went on, fondness, but not… not this. Arthur felt his lungs go tight in his chest, the press of expectations and he suddenly didn’t know where to put his hands or where to look, so he pressed Merlin down into the couch, holding him down because that. That made more sense.

Merlin breathed under him, and Arthur kissed his neck. “Shh, we’ll figure out something. Just like you said. We’ll be perfect.”

Arthur kissed him and Merlin kissed back, pressed under Arthur and relaxed under his weight and Merlin grinned up at him and Arthur was helpless to do anything but grin back.

---


Beauty and The Beast

There was once a merchant with three beautiful daughters, and when they were still young, he doted on them extensively, bringing back lovely, expensive gifts from the lands he visited and making them the toast of their entire seaside village. And so it was that as his daughters grew up, the eldest two were submissives who combed their hair and talked of their soulmates, and asked their father to tell them of all his travels, and perhaps take them, so they might meet their future fiancés.

The youngest was the prettiest of the three, her skin soft and free of blemish, and her hair long and thick without snarl or tangle. Body strong with muscle from climbing and playing, running through the streets and exploring all the tiny nooks and crannies of their village. She came of age as a dominant, and the village was not surprised, but she was by far the most handsome, and the submissives in the town spent much time sighing to themselves over her.

Time passed and she did not have a soulbond, the place within herself remained vacant and empty, and soon it was that none of her father’s gifts, none of his presents or stories could cheer her. She took over running the house, quiet and empty as a broken church bell, and the village wondered at her, and so it was that it was eventually decided that she had no soul, and was a blemish upon her father’s house.

It was that same year that almost all of her father’s ships sank into the ocean in a terrible storm. He returned to land in his one battered little ship, with just enough cargo to purchase a horse on which to ride home. As he rode he thought of the great deal of red in his ledger, and how he had managed none of the gifts his daughters asked for, which he could have used to gentle the news of their tragedy.

His eldest had asked for a mirror. His middle has asked for hair combs. His youngest… ah his youngest, sad and still handsome, had smiled, taken his hand and said that she simply wanted some trinket, some tiny, fragile, beautiful thing to remind her that he, at least, loved her still. He had none of these, having sold the mirror and the hair combs along with his cargo, and having not found any trinket that would have, perhaps, brought a smile to his daughter’s face.

He rode through the unfamiliar woods, the trails switching back and forth as if they meant to lose him in their grips forever. Night fell with no place to set up camp, no inn to rest his weary head. Wolves howled, and in their song he found a deep and great fear for his life. Only when he thought he would be torn to bits by their slavering jaws did he find the castle.

With great relief he drew his horse inside the gate. He howled on the steps for sanctuary, and as if in response to his plea, the too-heavy door swung open without a sound. He turned his horse to pasture in the garden and entered the citadel. The hall stood: huge, opulent and empty of a single sound or soul.

He walked, wincing at the heavy beat of his own footsteps, and happened upon a lavish banquet hall, long enough to seat a hundred men at least, and with only a simple meal set before him. When he called out, there was no response. So he said his thank yous and his apologies, sat and ate. When he rose again he followed the hallway and climbed the wide, spiralling staircase up until a door opened before him. Inside he found a wardrobe with fresh, clean clothing. He called again and, once again, was greeted only by silence. So he said his thank yous and his apologies, and changed.

When he turned, as if by magic, he found a freshly turned down bed that smelled of sweet flowers and was piled thick with blankets. He called out once more, with no reply, and—tired beyond all reckoning—removed his new boots to climb onto the warm, soft mattress and he fell promptly asleep.

Upon waking he made the bed as best he was able, put on his boots and found another simple repast waiting for him. He ate with gratitude and did not wander the castle further, stating aloud that he had nothing to give, but if he had, he would do so with joy and thanks for this great kindness. The castle said nothing and the merchant, bolstered somewhat (although still fearing how his daughters would respond) went on his way. His two eldest preened over being so pretty and at having such nice things, and now he had nothing to give them. They would despair to hear of their family’s terrible fortune and his heart would break trying to rebuild it for them, but his youngest…

His poor, tragic youngest, with no hope, with no love at all. He had just wanted some little bit of something to make her smile like she used to: bold and fearless, happy as the sun was bright. He thought that if he could just find her something, then everything would be fine.

And there, like magic, at the end of the path were two beautiful rose bushes, thicker and fuller than any he’d ever seen, with roses so fat and plump with petals that looked as though angels used them for their beds. He bent carefully and inhaled their scent, and he knew that if he gave this rose to his youngest, she would be overcome with happiness, if, only for a moment.

Without thinking, he snipped the rose from the bush.

Only to have his very soul jostled by the aggrieved roar that followed his transgression.

“Who are you, that you think may steal my belongings?” A terrible voice thundered. “I have given you shelter, I have fed you, I have clothed you, and this is the thanks I am given?!”

“I am sorry!” The merchant cried, falling to his knees. “I did not mean to cause offence, I was only thinking of my daughters. I am a merchant and almost all I have in the world has been lost, and I do not know how to tell them of our sorrow. I had only hoped to give them a single moment of joy before they must live in poverty.”

“You say daughters, but you plucked one flower.” The voice seemed to echo up from the very ground, poured like rain did from the sky, like judgement. It was a terrible, seething, wretched wreck of a voice, hoarse and unnatural, as if stones had learned to talk. “Which daughter did you steal my rose for?”

“My youngest. She is my most beautiful child, and when she was young she could have ruled the world with her smile. But she is of age now, and has no soulbond to make her smile. The people in the village say she has no soul, but she is kind, and she is good and I only wished for her happiness. My eldest two have good marriage prospects and will survive, but no one will have her, for all her beauty.”

The voice was silent for many moments and then pelted from the highest tower and sank down into his bones. “You will go home, you will hug your daughters, and you will return here to me as my prisoner. In exchange I will make sure your family is cared for. If you do not return with my rose in a fortnight, wolves will come and rip your daughters apart, I will tear them limb from limb and roast their hearts upon my fire.”

“I will do as you say,” The merchant promised, and now the rose hung from his hand like a chain, for all that it was still lovely. He climbed onto horse and rode home.

When he arrived his eldest two daughters asked for their presents, and he bowed his head and said he had nothing to give them. They sulked and pouted and went to their rooms. His youngest held his wrist, asking what troubled him so. He gave her the rose, and, for a moment, she smiled. She inhaled the scent and brushed her thumb along the damp, plump petals that had not wilted at all during his frantic ride home.

She thanked him, and he brushed her hair from her eyes so he could kiss her forehead as he had done when she was younger. She gripped his wrist and asked again why he was so distraught.

He told her the entire sorry tale, of their financial ruin, the terrifying voice and the mysterious castle. He wept into her shoulder as she soothed him. Her sisters ran down upon hearing the news and wept and mourned for themselves and what would become of their beautiful house and their beautiful things.

His youngest and best child, being clever, asked him to say all he could as to where the castle was. When he and her sisters fell into slumber, she ventured out into the woods on her horse. She knew she would sacrifice herself instead of her father or sisters, because she had no soul. The other people in the village had whispered that she would, one day, bring doom to her father. Now that she had, it was her duty to atone.

---

March, 1999

Uncle Tristan was in his bedroom. Arthur paused at the doorway with his book bag and then slowly lowered it to the floor, because neither his Aunt nor his Uncle were comfortable with him holding things.

“It’s time for us to have a talk.” His Uncle stated, awkwardly. Arthur continued to stare at him because… they… didn’t talk. Aunt Rebecca was the one who talked to Arthur. They probably discussed him behind his back, sure, but he and his Uncle didn’t… talk.

“If you are going to be a sub, then it falls to me to... guide you.” His Uncle cleared his throat. “It is what your mother would have wanted.” He added.

Low blow.

When Arthur was younger he’d used to ask about his mum. She was in photo albums, the pictures had never told him anything of us. His Uncle never shared anything, never had quips or “your mother used to...” or... or anything. He’d told Arthur to leave him be, or to ask when he was older. So Arthur had learned to stop asking. He’d learned to keep his questions to himself.

He knew his mum had been a dom, that there had been a switch that had acted as surrogate mother and his father had tried to kill him, once. He knew that the switch had been mama and mum had been mum. He... he could almost remember them sometimes, if he smelled the right thing and stopped long enough to remember. He remembered them grabbing him by the wrists to swing him from giant step to giant step. He... he thinks he remembers other things, but Merlin had made up plenty of stories about his parents when they were kids, with the kind of details that Merlin thought up, so he didn’t... know.

He knew he took after his mother in colouring. He knew she was dead and that her gravestone had a Bible passage on it. He didn’t know if they’d been religious. where they had been driving. Or what his mum smelled like. Or who his dad was at all, really other than the psychological case study he was today. So he put the pieces he’d had together and tried to make something out of them.

Let Merlin make up stories.

“It is important for you to learn manners and decorum,” his Uncle continued. “As well as safety and health information.” He cleared his throat and gestured to books he’d left on Arthur’s desk. “That is the reading I would like for you to do. We can discuss each book as you’ve finished. These are the books my mother handed to me when I first identified and it is my hope you’ll find them as comforting as I eventually did.”

He stood and, after a pause, he clapped Arthur on the shoulder. “It is your responsibility now to begin to leave aside childish pursuits and conduct yourself in a more seemly manner.”

“What?”

“You’re growing up.” His Uncle cleared his throat again, like talking to Arthur made his throat swell up. “People. Society, that is…well, people are going to start to… expect… certain things from you. When you’re pre-gender, most adults allow children to explore themselves. But you’ve identified now, that is a sign of adulthood. As such you will have more freedoms, but also more expectations.”

“What freedoms?” Arthur sat in his desk chair and looked at the pile of old-looking tomes. A dog-eared and yellowed Lady Protocol’s Guide To Proper Social Interaction was on top, followed by the much thicker Learning To Give by F.G. Stipleton, the cover a stock photograph of a teenager, clearly submissive by the dress, staring down at her feet as someone stood over her.

“That is something that your Aunt and I will discuss.” His Uncle qualified and then looked over Arthur. “We can go… shopping, later for better clothing.” He offered a smile. “It will be nice to look presentable, won’t it?”

“Uh.” Arthur offered and looked down at himself.

His Uncle nodded, smoothing down his shirt. He always dressed like a Stepford house-partner, like there could be an emergency tea at any moment and he’d need to look perfect for it. It’s… Arthur still didn’t know what to do with himself (not that it mattered, as the shopping trip never actually happens).

“You’re growing up.” His Uncle patted his shoulder. “No dating until you’re sixteen.” He shook his finger. “Read those and then talk to me. Both your Aunt and I want you to grow up into a functional young sub to make us proud. Your body and attitude is going to go through a lot of… changes, right now. Most of them will be confusing or-“

“I got a sex talk at school. Please. Please stop.”

His Uncle sniffed. “They don’t cover protocol at school. It that damned Labour party that-- Well. I won’t stand for it in this house. If you’re a submissive, then you’re going to learn how to act like one. But I want you to do the reading first.” He gestured again. “After that we can cover proper manners.”

“Proper… manners?”

His Uncle straightened himself. “It’ll be a long process, growing up is confusing, but with guidance you’ll make your soulmate as proud as I strive to make your Aunt Rebecca.” need to make a few calls. Do your homework.”

Arthur stared at him and then down at the books, unsure of what, exactly, had just happened. Four paragraphs into the first one, he threw it across the room.

---


Introduction

It has, by now, become apparent to any newly identified sub, that there are quite a few new expectations of their behaviour that were not true when they were children. Hopefully your parents correctly raised you according to an accurate pre-gender identity, thus giving you a stable foundation to build off of. But even so, these expectations and manners may seem scary, or frustrating, at first, it is certainly a lot to learn, almost too quickly, and as you get older, the expectations will simply become stricter. However, this is simply a natural fear of change, and once you obtain a better understanding of your place in society and the household, you will feel a greater sense of security and wholeness. There have been generations of submissives before you that have managed to navigate the choppy water of social protocol, and with far less assistance than this little guide hopes to offer.

In this guide you can expect both a thorough overview of behaviours, manners, dress and postures that will be expected of you as you mature, as well as some helpful exercises and liturgies to help you learn and check your progress. This guide also strives to be a helpful pocket resource, available for you to fall back on when in a complicated social situation. It is this guide’s hope, of course it will make itself obsolete, as you mature and develop into a beautiful, well-mannered submissive, comfortable in all sort of occasions, genteel and securely, happily demure in all aspects of your lifestyle.

It may seem to you, right now, that your family and teachers, peers and elders are attempting to control you. And this is, at first, a frightening thing. But you must allow yourself to trust in their wisdom. submissives are, universally, happier in more controlled situations, ones where the social protocol is understood. You must understand that once you understand this social protocol it gives you the power. You will be able to ask and request with far more tact and success than you had when you were younger. It is when both dominants and submissives act in the proper way that society runs best and awkward, embarrassing situations and misunderstandings are avoided. So it falls to you, gentle reader, to trust in this framework until you to feel the comfort and safety society allows your gender. Do not allow yourself the selfish pleasure of frustration, or imbibe in the toxic languor of laziness. Work hard and respect your elders by doing as you have been taught, and the rewards will unfold before you.

The first chapter of this guide will be for physical shows of submission. It is easier to guide the mind where the body is already walking, giving you something physical upon which to focus. Do not worry, at this point, about proper modes of address, or the correct manner in which to broach your opinion. It is at this point of your development you should focus on how best to look. We will cover the proper forms of kneeling, how one should approach a bow, how to stand when at rest, how best to walk in public and the five most important things to remember about how you present your body to others in polite society. Following that we will cover proper modes of dress—with respect to changing fashion—and how a proper young sub goes about the delightful (but dangerous, as all things are, in excess) process of shopping for zerself. How you look is far more important at this stage than what your thoughts are, as you are still young, and a proper, good young sub is spending this vital time in zer life listening, and learning to read people rather than barging into conversations like a bull—

Lady Protocol’s Guide For Proper Social Interaction pg i-iii by Helena, Barbara

---

November, 2011
It was an unyielding truth that, by the end of any given social event, he would end up with Merlin in his lap as he explained— in the very careful enunciation of the quite pissed—everything he had learned his final year of undergraduate degree. Merlin had spent the majority of that year one degree or another of drunk. Being drunk meant that Merlin could settle down and focus on one thing at a time until it was done. When sober he didn’t much recall anything that happened that year with clarity, but the second he was the right level of drunk he could speak French about as well as the average Parisian six year old and talk about media globalization and folkloric constructs of so-called deviant sexuality like it was his job. And, of course, when drunk, Merlin talked about porn. It was just something that happened.

Sometimes he combined all of the aforementioned topics into one long monologue that no one really followed, besides Arthur.

“Look, as long as literature has existed there’s been these two-dom buddy-buddy shows and movies because people always write subs as these whiny, useless idiots who only ever do anything because they’re told and they scream a lot and mostly just get kidnapped and act as the romantic interest. Then we had Sherlock and Watson and they were different because Sherlock was a switch, because he can’t have a soulmate, because then there’d be a sub who could bring down the great Sherlock Holmes, but he’s sort of non-dynamic, really, when you think about it, and he’s certainly asexual, but the point!” Merlin pointed at the person who wasn’t paying any kind of attention anymore. “The point is that because this is a thing that happens one place, and it gets really successful, it’s going to happen in all the places because the media just likes re-doing good things. So. So.” He leans against Arthur’s chest. “What were we talking about?”

“They asked if you’d ever seen White Collar and then you went mental for about fifteen minutes.” Arthur answered, because he knew better than to rope Merlin into a conversation when he was this drunk. Unless it would end in Merlin doing something hilarious, in which case Arthur roped him into all the conversations. Because sometimes there was singing.

“Yes! The point is that we finally have this two-dom buddy-buddy show, except one of the doms is a switch who is shown as being submissive sometimes, but never in a bad way, and the other found his soulmate, but they’ve still got this chemistry and the switch isn’t either this unemotional, Zen brick of a person, or, like, ridiculously promiscuous and flighty. Like... he wants love. He doesn’t have a soulmate, and he wants to be loved for himself, and yeah, he’s a con man so he’s a little flighty, because, you know. Criminals. They flee. But he’s steady when it comes to any actual relationship he’s in, and they’ve had him in both roles and it’s the greatest thing. And there’s a non-dynamic monosexual as a main character who isn’t written like a stereotype and it’s so beautiful I want to die.”

The person Merlin was talking at sensed a chance to escape and did so. Wise soul. Merlin looked up at Arthur. “I just want them to make-out a little bit. There’s historical foundation for a soulmated pair taking on a switch. Your parents did and I’m not talking about that what. What. Look at that your glass is empty and no one is dead and it’s your birthday so continue being happy.”

He took Arthur’s cup and stumbled away with a song in his heart and one of his shoes gone. It had been used to illustrate a point. Arthur would find it later. He sprawled out over the couch. He wasn’t half as drunk as Merlin, but he felt lazy and generally content with the world, comfortable and looking forward to whatever it was that Merlin had planned for this evening.

One of the many nice things about having a soulbond, was that you always sort of knew when your fiancée was doing something dumb. Arthur opened his eyes and scanned the room, finding Merlin next to the drink table, clutching their cups and, oh right. Scarlet O’Hara was still here and Merlin is still a nutter.

Arthur slowly made his way to his feet and crossed the room to save Merlin from himself.

“-want me to quote the whole thing to prove it? I can quote the entire thing to prove it. Or. Well. The really bad bits. Which is all of it. So I can quote all of it because all of it was awful. Arthur. Arthur. Arthur, tell her about that thing that I have totally done.”

“Was that thing ‘get our drinks’? Because you have not done that.” Arthur took the cups from Merlin’s hands and began to mix what remained on the table. Merlin beamed at him as Arthur played bartender.

“Hi, I’m Arthur.” He held out his arm and the…far too fashionable woman carefully wrapped her fingers around his wrist, and he returned the favour. Her wrist was slight under his hand, but he could feel the flex of muscles in her forearm.

“Morgana.” She replied. Her lipstick didn’t smear at all when she took another pull of cider. It just stayed there, perfectly shiny and perfectly dark. Arthur sort of hated her a little bit, because he couldn’t even put on lipstick without it getting everywhere, and no matter what the Internet said, it always felt like the wrong colour.

Merlin had found him once, holding another failed attempt to make himself...pretty...and mentioned something about liners and foundation and whatnot. He’d sat Arthur on the toilet and applied it all himself, cupping his hand under Arthur’s chin and moving his face from side to side. Arthur had looked in the mirror and he... he’d scrubbed his towel over his face and all it had done was move the colour around, so Merlin had sat him down again and cleaned it off until Arthur knew who he was, again.

Merlin’s eyeliner was smeared all to hell, and Arthur’s lip-gloss had long since given up the ghost, but Morgana’s make-up was still as carefully and delicately put-together as if she had always existed so. But it was his birthday, and he refused to care if some ridiculously glamorous switch decided to hit on Merlin, Arthur was going to be the one bringing him home, and no one could stop him.

“No one has read that book.” Morgana continued, without missing a beat. “I highly suspect the author didn’t read that book.”

“I did!”

“He probably did.” Arthur said, drinking his black-and-tan as he leaned against the wall. “He viciously abused the inter-library loaning system. What book?”

Empty by Roger Hammond and it’s sequel Flipped.” Morgana informed him. “Apparently he set out to write a coming-of-age novel about a switch, but was not one himself, nor, do I think, he had ever met one or seen one except on telly.”

“Oh, oh.” Merlin snapped his fingers. “Here we go. I’ve got it.”

Merlin cleared his throat and steadied himself, as if about to make a speech, pressing a hand to his chest and tossing his head in the perfect parody of the drama student stereotype.

And like my dynamic’s namesake, I suddenly felt myself shifting, my shoulders drooping and my insides curling up. I wanted, suddenly, more than anything to be on my knees in front of this jade-green eyed, midnight-haired dom, whose hair was shorn and short, like the bristles of a brush that I could not help but want to be spanked by, whose very presence sent a thrill through my body like I had been pierced, or electrified: his muscles rippled under his shirt and he stood a full head taller than I: I was like a dog who had found zer better, and I wished to roll over and show my belly, even though moments before, I had felt like I could have owned the room.

There was a moment of contemplative silence before: “Where is this author and how many times can I punch them before I am stopped?”

“It gets worse. it gets worse so many times. She’s in a threesome at one point, and describes it like she’s a metal shaving trapped between two magnetic poles. Unable to decide who she should go to. It’s like he thinks switches are werewolves.” Merlin laughed, pleased and drunken and, of course, basking in being the centre of attention like a particularly starved houseplant.

“Why can you quote that off the top of your head?” Morgana asked, because she had never sat down and listened to Merlin reciting all of Stardust like he was an audio book, when they’d forgotten the mp3 player and neither of them had a book to read. Merlin would rest his head on Arthur shoulder and begin: “There was once a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire.” He’d keep reciting, voice rising and falling, acting out the exciting parts, even once they got off the bus, jumping over benches and swinging his arms around as he announced his favourite parts to the world like Gospel.

“I am very good at remembering things that I think should be remembered.” Merlin shrugged and grinned like nothing in the world could be wrong. “Do you want all of Gone With The Wind? I have both the movie and the book down solid. I can do impressions, everything. I will swoon into my own arms.”

Merlin demonstrated. Arthur picked him up off the floor.

Morgana looked at him like she wanted to ask him to prove it, but then thought better of it and cocked her head, studying him. Arthur wasn’t sure, exactly, if Merlin’s desire for Arthur’s birthday to be the greatest time ever would trump his O’Hara-induced-psychotic-break. Maybe Merlin would go home with her, if she wanted him to. Maybe he’d take her number. Or give her his.

Morgana looked ready to add to the conversation before something behind them caught her eye. She smiled and Merlin turned, because he always wanted to know what was going on.

Arthur did not have a “type” the same way that Merlin did. When he did think about a dom he’d actually let take him home, ze was generally smaller than him, and smart, and funny and—well, basically Merlin, but with the right inclination.

Not that he’d ever wished Merlin were different, but. Someone like Merlin. Someone who would use him like a tool in their arsenal. Someone who’d keep Merlin too and understand the two of them. Someone who would use Arthur to make Merlin go a little crazy and not focus on Arthur all too much and…

Basically every dom Merlin had ever designed for them.

The dom that joined them was immediately arresting, certainly. She was muscled, handsome, and Merlin looked a little overwhelmed by the both of them standing there. She didn’t look nearly as fussily glamorous as Morgana did, which Arthur liked. Her eyes fell on Arthur before Merlin, studying a moment and he studied her right back. Or at least stared, he wasn’t sure he was getting as much out of it as she was. At minimum he refused to blush and look at the floor.

“We match.” Merlin said, because he was Merlin and he tended to notice that sort of thing. Morgana looked between the four of them and laughed.

“Morgause, this is Merlin and Arthur,” Morgana paused with a smile and she gestured back to Morgause, “And this is Morgause, my sister.”

Merlin somehow refrained from comment, but Arthur could almost hear him saying something about their parents apparently liking them quite a bit if they wanted more of both of them. “Morgana. Get it? Leatherback turtles have spines lining their throat so they can keep their main prey, sea jellies, from escaping back up when they swallow.” Because Merlin usually followed up bad jokes with animal facts in order to distract predators.

“We match!” Merlin repeated instead, pointing it out. “Is yours a terrifying force of death? Mine is a terrifying force of death.”

“And you are pissed.” Arthur got him around the shoulders. “I would apologize for him, but he’s like this when sober.”

“I’m wonderful and you’d be lost without me.” Merlin assured Arthur and then nuzzled into the hold with a sigh. “I am pretty, oh so pretty, I am so pretty and witty and bri~ght.”

“You wouldn’t think that earlier we were having an engaging discussion of non-dynamic-normative sexualities with cited sources and academic quotes.” Morgana noted, offering Morgause her cider, which Morgause finished off and put to the side. “Merlin here is a folklorist.”

“Do you want me to quote my entire paper on mythical, legendary and contemporary switch/trickster characters and figures? Because I can do that.” Merlin acquiesced when Arthur covered his mouth with a hand and just smiled at them with his eyes. “It includes the Doctor. It is very exciting.”

It was a meandering sort of conversation that traded control between Merlin and Morgana, with Arthur occasionally helping Merlin remember something, or Morgause pointing out something, in a quiet, careful way of a large cat testing if a branch was sturdy enough for her weight. Merlin kept shooting glances between the two of them, and Arthur could feel a tenuous sort of interest blooming in the Merlin section of his mental topography, and, maybe, a little bit of his own. Maybe. He wasn’t going to admit to anything, but-

“-sometimes writes articles for Loose Ends which is pretty neat, but mostly he makes stuff. Like he made this.” Merlin lifted his necklace with his thumbs. “And he made the cuffs, and a lot of our furniture, and he sells it, so that helps, but mostly he teaches at a learning centre in uptown which pays pretty good. I make froofy coffee drinks for people who are mean to me.” Merlin fiddled with his necklace a little more, rubbing his fingers of the beads. “And sometimes people who are nice to me, and then sometimes people who are a little too nice to me.”

“You review clubs?” Morgause asked.

Arthur shrugged. “When they have someplace for me to go. We’re not exactly Las Vegas or New York over here, but we do alright. I also do websites, chatrooms, movies other newsletters.” Arthur shrugged and rubbed the lip of his cup with a thumb. “Whatever the editors think will attract readers.”

Loose Ends has a not insignificant following,” Morgause added, looking at Arthur thoughtfully.

“It’s a subscription for singles. More people turning 18 every day, more people dropping off the market too.” Arthur rubbed his lower lip with his teeth. Bit it a little. Her eyes followed the movement and then tracked back up to his eyes.

“Have you reviewed Vulgate yet, by chance?” Morgause asked, head tilted, like she knew the answer.

Which was, of course, that Arthur had never heard of it. “Is it new?”

“Extremely. And extremely exclusive, of course.” She smiled briefly, “They all are, at first, if you have the connections.”

“Do they?”

“They do,” she agreed. She took out her wallet and slid a business card free. “This is their number. And my number. Might make for a good article,” she offered, and he took it, mostly because she handed it to him instead of sliding it into one of his pockets. “Morgana and I must be going. Have a good night,” she offered and Morgana looked more than slightly amused and they left.

Merlin watched them and then took the business card from Arthur and looked at it. “She was so into you.”

“Is it an actual business card?”

“I’ll Google it later,” Merlin noted. “But for now, we’re going to get home and talk about the fact that she fancied you. She wanted to put you on a shelf because of how fancy you were and then take you down and get you all dirty. With fanciness.”

Merlin snuggled closer and then dragged Arthur out of the room to bid their goodbyes, Arthur getting handshakes and hugs as Merlin hauled him away to the coatroom, strung through with excitement and Arthur couldn’t help but smile at him like an idiot. He let Merlin stuff him into his jacket and tug him out the door, high off the twitch in Merlin’s hips, the skip in his step and the twirling, rushing madness of a night as one of Merlin’s projects.

---

March 2002

Merlin appointed himself head of the Research Department for the Organization of Arthur and Merlin Are So Fucked. Mainly, Merlin was just better at researching than Arthur was, because Merlin’s mum wasn’t the sort of person who wanted to read every single book he read in order to make sure it was a good influence. If not for Merlin, Arthur would have had to beg for the Harry Potter books, because his Uncle thought them too fanciful and full of rubbish thinking. His Aunt would ask him what any old paperback was about, and several she took back to the library because she thought them too trashy.

So. Merlin was head of the Research Department. Not that there was much to read just at the library about…them.

“If we could get into an academic database or a university library we’d be better off,” Merlin said, collating their pitiful research into a file folder. “I mean, there is stuff. I found three books about Group Connectivity Stress Syndrome and some more about Extreme Duress Defensive Bonding, especially the whole Annie Carter and Fisher Mulder thing, but most of those aren’t exactly research.” He held up a paperback pulp fiction thriller and then tossed it on the bed, leaning back in his chair and spinning while staring at the ceiling. “There’s a lot about non-dynamics, and switches and defective soulbonds, but nothing about…like us. Not. I mean. Not in any science books.”

Arthur fell back on the bed and covered his eyes with an arm. “So what, we’re freaks?”

“The Greeks used to have a thing where an older dom would teach a younger dom zer skills by sceneing together.” Merlin offered. “And inter-harem relationships were apparently a thing. And they don’t really understand soulbonds, at all, and, like, there are still loads of people who never meet their soulmate, so, you know, they could be same-dynamic and you’d never know.”

“What did the Internet turn up?”

Merlin rubbed the back of his neck and hunched in on himself. “Mostly the kinds of websites you need to have a credit card for. Um.” Merlin rubbed his face. “I had to clear my browser history like, four times before I felt better. And then I uninstalled it and reinstalled it.”

“You’ve never looked at Internet porn?” Arthur frowns.

“They need money!” Merlin defended, “I don’t have money. And don’t tell me you have because they need money and you don’t even get an allowance, much less have a credit card.”

“You can find it for free. You just have to be careful because if you click on the wrong thing you’re fucked.”

Merlin began going red and Arthur checked the lock on the door. “I could. Show you?” He offered carefully, feeling hot himself and Merlin just turned redder.

“Aren’t those mostly geared towards doms?” Merlin’s eyes flicked toward the computer screen and then back to Arthur. “I mean. You know. Tiny little subs getting abused by the beefiest doms they can find?” He cleared his throat and watched Arthur. Arthur reached forward and moved to connect to the Internet; no one was on the phone to cause problems

“Most of the stuff for money is. The videos and the pictures are. But I found something.” He typed in the URL that he’d quietly memorized from off the library computer.

“What is it?” Merlin asked as Arthur scrolled.

“So you know Phantom of the Opera?”

“The book, the musical, the-“

“All of them from what I can tell. People decided to write stories about it. Like... what happened next, or what if something had gone differently stories, or porn. Most of them include porn.”

“So like romance novels, but for free.” Merlin turned to the screen. “And about Eric and Christine.”

“And less ‘he thrust his manhood into her quivering opening, spreading a hand across the livid, crimson marks he’d left upon her back’ and more complete, straight-faced filth.”

“How much straight-up filth?” Merlin let Arthur dominate his computer and put his feet up on his desk.

“They actually use the word ‘cock’ for a prick. I mean, there’s the occasional ‘member’ and sometimes they work around it, but it’s far less purple prose.”

Merlin was bright red from the top of his head down to the neckline of his shirt, in huge, splotchy patches. Arthur hooked a finger in his shirt collar to see if it kept going, and there it was. Like a blushing giraffe. Arthur snorted and Merlin licked his lips, looking up at him.

“You maybe want to start practicing a little?” Merlin asked, glancing at the bed. That’s what they called it. Practicing. It felt less telling than…than whatever else they could call it. They weren’t getting off with one another, because they were both subs. They were practicing.

“You haven’t even read one yet.”

“Yeah, but…” Merlin gaze felt heavy on Arthur’s face, dripping down past his lips to his neck, Merlin pulling in a heavy breath and biting his lower lip in a long, teasing drag. “I mean. We could. After.” Merlin glanced at the bed again and then reached for Arthur’s hand. Arthur let him take it, and if one of them had been a dom their hands would join up perfectly, a dom’s left arm, to the sub’s right arm, loose and easy, swinging between them. But it was the right hand for both of them, a tiny swollen knot right at the base of the ring finger, their arms crossed awkwardly in front of them. But it still felt good.

Merlin smiled hopefully, rubbing their fingers together and Arthur pulled him up, relishing that he was tugging Merlin up by his hand instead of his wrist. Merlin went and licked his lips again, leading Arthur back to the bed, both of them navigating Merlin’s messy, project-laden floor. Arthur followed and then Merlin sat down on the edge of the bed, crab-walking backwards until he was at the headboard, Arthur crawling in after him.

Merlin hooked their ankles together and fiddled with the hem of Arthur’s shirt for a moment. “Mum and Lance went out for groceries, but it’ll probably take them awhile since. You know.” He snuck a few fingers under the fabric and rested them lightly against Arthur’s skin. “So we could. For a bit, I mean.” He crooked his fingers slightly and Arthur rested his head on his left arm, staring at Merlin.

Merlin watched him right back and then smoothed his fingers out until his entire hand was flush with Arthur’s stomach. “It’s just practicing.” He said again, scratching his fingers slightly and tilting his face up.

“Right,” Arthur agreed, squeezing Merlin’s hand, trapped under Merlin’s body and then between the two of them. “How long do we have?”

“Half an hour, maybe?” Merlin swallowed and Arthur nudged their noses together, loving the way arousal curled in his stomach, not knowing who was feeling what. Like they could blend together if they wanted to. Merlin slid slightly and his lips were pressed against Arthur’s, just a little bit. Nothing like on telly, or anything, where the dom pressed the sub to a wall and the music swelled in the background. Merlin’s lip was still wet from spit and Merlin retreated before pressing another kiss to the corner of Arthur’s mouth.

It tingled, a little, sent a trickle of happiness down the back of his neck. Merlin wiggled in place and Arthur pecked him on the nose, turned his head a little, shoved Merlin down onto the bed slightly. “Is this good?” He paused, pushing himself up on his elbow.

“Yeah.” Merlin pushed up and caught his mouth. “We’re going to be the best kissers in the world.” He wrapped his hand around the back of Arthur’s neck, squeezing tight. Arthur’s breath caught and he pressed Merlin more fully against the mattress, until his pupils were blown and he was sucking Arthur’s lip into his mouth, knowing immediately when something worked and when to try something else. Sucking on each other’s tongues felt weird, lightly scraping their teeth against each other’s lips was a good idea, bumping teeth made Merlin make a face.

“That is the same face you make when someone scratches their nails against rough fabric.” Arthur noted.

“It makes me feel weird.” Merlin continued to make his face and Arthur poked him in the cheek until he stopped and grinned up at him.

The door opened downstairs and Arthur almost injured himself getting out of the bed and Merlin snatched up a book from the covers and opened it up to a random page, quickly turning it right side up, because that was a rookie mistake. Arthur sat at the computer and shut off the Internet, opening up one of the Word documents Merlin had left on the desktop and scrolling down. They needn’t have hurried, it was a full five minutes before Hunith knocked on the door (and then actually waited until Merlin said she could come in) and poked her head in. “I bought crisps, don’t each them all in one sitting. How are you boys doing?”

Merlin shrugged. “Homework. Can I eat half of them in one sitting, get up and then eat the rest?”

“No.” Hunith pointed at him. “I bought vegetables. Eat some that aren’t deep-fried. It’ll be exciting.”

Lance poked in his head too and waved after she left. “I bought a second, secret package of crisps that you can totally eat in one sitting.” He tossed them inside and Merlin caught them. “This is not a bribe to get you to like me. Unless it works. Then it is.” Lance was, thank god, not, exactly, trying to be Merlin’s father. Nor was he trying to be Merlin’s friend. He offered support, drove them places, and let Hunith make all the major parenting decisions, because Hunith had raised Merlin without help for fourteen years and that wasn’t about to change now. But he was there, and he listened, and he was genuinely just nice. And, of course, Merlin could get along with a rotting log if he wanted to, so the house stayed as pleasant as it ever had been.

“I can be bribed.” Merlin opened the crisps.

“He really can.” Arthur spun in the computer chair and didn’t look at anyone.

---

Group Connectivity Stress Syndrome
“…times of war there are recorded cases of entire troops putting on the appearance of soulbonding with one another, reporting to be able to feel where the other members are, and what they are feeling, even if members were already soulbonded [39], non-dynamic, or even related to one another [40]. This is popularly referred to as “Soldier Ant Syndrome” by the popular culture. Diaries and letters from the time period mockingly pointed to GSCS as “The Lieutenant’s Harem” when it was first recorded in Napoleonic Wars [41] and it became a staple of printed pornography until the Great War where, as most historical account will attest, entire battles would cease due to instances of GSCS that stretched through foxholes and even across enemy lines, without which—many historians theorise—the Great War would have proven to be even more protracted than it was. However, it wasn’t until 1971 when Dr. Bernd H. Maier—later of the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research [42]—and his groundbreaking research gave GSCS its current clinical name.

A study done by Dr. Rogers, Lee et al at Columbia University shows that given enough time in a safe and welcoming environment [43], these “intense and uncontrollable feelings of unfettered kinship” can diminish [44] and even disappear [45]. Separation, however, according to the study of Casey, Holmes & et al, is not a feasible method of therapy given that is causes the participants “to retreat, mentally, into the comfort of their network rather than accept and deal with the rigors of everyday life on their own” [46]. While these group-connections do not cancel out already-present soulbonds, 80% of non-solider partners reported feeling “blocked out” [47] or “distanced” [48] from their partner while 20% reported they felt no such interference [49]. There are, as of this writing, no reported cases where the non-soldier soul-bonded partner was pulled into the group hive mind as well.

Contrary to the belief most popularized in the televised serial War Bonds (1977) there is not a single “lynchpin” mind that gathers the others to it [49]. Casey Holmes et al. reports that the bond is shared equally, and different from the traditional soulbond in that it does not respond to bond suppression drugs, nor does it come attached with any feelings of a need to dominate or a need to submit. In most reported cases these bonds are non-dynamic, even in the case of both submissive and dominants being in the bond. In all reported cases, the members have a good sense “for the presence and location of the other members of their unit, often to the point where they don’t need any sort of communication device to perform complicated assignments.”[50]

The bond, much like a more conventional soul bond, helps reduce the effects of depression, post-traumatic stress, and shock, along with improving physical [51] and emotional [52] well being of the entire unit. It is Unclear why one platoon would bond over another, as the phenomenon is equal through all branches of the military, across all sexes and genders, but current research shows that the length a unit has been together with no outside interference has some correlation with likelihood to bond.[50]

– Introduction to Psychology 7th Edition. Edited by Dr. Sandra Moreno, Dr. Joseph Fredrickson, Paul Quincy.

---

March-May, 1999

Arthur doesn’t want to talk about it.

He doesn’t. It’s over now. It’s been over for years. But he’s not going to talk about it. He won’t. He won’t talk about it. Doesn’t talk about it to Merlin. Merlin knows, of course. Arthur knows he knows. But they don’t talk about those months at all. Not once. Arthur barely gets to see Merlin for any of it.

It’s all about posture. Posture perfected to the marks of a ruler. This is the first formal kneel: Presenting. This is the second: Attentive. This is the third: At Rest. This is the fourth: Prostration. This is the fifth: Apologetic. Sixth: Worship, Seventh: The Martyr. Seventh: Forgiven.

Arthur learns all of them, because his Uncle won’t stand for anything else. His dom won’t want him, if he doesn’t and Arthur ... Arthur doesn’t argue. He learns how to kneel properly, when to press his head to the ground, when to present his hands, how to spread his knees for this one.

“Many young submissives think they can get away without learning manners.” His Uncle says, correcting the tilt of Arthur’s head. “It’s shameful, your generation. Even your Aunt learned to be lax, but it isn’t acceptable. It’s rude. You must honour your soulmate by knowing these things. Anything else is just wilful ignorance. I won’t have you wandering out there, loose and ignorant of the proper way to behave.”

This is how you stand at attention. This is how you stand at rest. This is how you follow in public. This is how you catch your dom’s attention and no one else’s. All the things he’d seen his Uncle do but had thought himself exempt from because Aunt Rebecca didn’t seem to care. But she didn’t care and Uncle Tristan did and Aunt Rebecca had, apparently, decided that since they were both subs, they were each other’s territory.

He didn’t learn how to dress (“You’re not dating until you’re older and are better mannered. Then we can worry more about clothing and make-up.”), and if he spoke at dinner his Uncle snapped out, his voice slapping down Arthur’s and Arthur would fist his hands and stare down at his plate and…

And feel that static around his head and. And swallowed it down. He wasn’t pretty, he knew that. He wasn’t smart, either, not really. He got through school with just-passing-enough marks. He didn’t have Merlin’s creativity. He was strong, though, he was strong, and he could learn how to behave, at least.

Hopefully they wouldn’t care. Merlin’s mum let Merlin run amok, and Uncle Tristan had a fair bit to say about that. But if he didn’t do a position right, then his Uncle would point out exactly how many failings Arthur had. About how he needed to get practice in, or he’d disappoint his dom. And who knew when he’d meet them, really. It could be decades, and they would have waited all that time for a idiotic fuck-up? How would he feel if his dom was spending all zer time playing video games and didn’t know how to control him.

Arthur didn’t want to talk about it. Doesn’t ever want to talk about it. The few doms he’s scened with have assumed… assumed he’s been… trained. By someone. Someone strict and.

But he can do the proper kneels. He knows how. He knows each implement and what they do. He knows how to formally request a favour, how to stay and wait for permission to…do…anything.

“Look at him.” His Uncle scoffed as Arthur practiced formal kneel Attentive, because his Uncle thinks it will help his marks, maybe. Wasting his life running in fields like an animal certainly hasn’t. What would his mum think, seeing Arthur grown half wild? He’s looking out at Merlin. “He’s an embarrassment. You really should choose better companionship, Arthur.”

Arthur tries not to clench his fists. It’s only been a few months. He’ll have to get used to this for the rest of his life. doms are going to want him to know how to this. He needs to be good at something.

“And you won’t meet them at your rugby team. It’s uncouth. I told your coach you’d dropped out.”

“What?”

“Quiet. A good sub listens. He absorbs, he learns. You are learning. You need better influences. So I took you off the rugby team. A dom wants to know all of the marks on zer sub belong to zer.” He looks out the window, planning.

But Arthur is still stuck on his Uncle taking him off the team. He. He can’t just.

“You can’t just do that.”

“A good sub is quiet. He obeys. He listens. Rugby is a terrible thing for you to be playing. But I talked to some of your teachers and-“

Arthur is on his feet.

“Arthur, don’t start this again. You need to grow up, these shows of temper are-“

“You can’t just... decide what I do with my life.” Arthur isn’t articulate. He isn’t. He never has been. When he gets angry he doesn’t have any cutting words to say. He wants to throw things at them. To punch them. To make them just…stop and he can’t.

“Yes I can. You are a young sub. You need direction.”

“I need direction, not someone driving for me.” Arthur works his teeth. “I. You aren’t my dom. You aren’t my father.”

“I am going to be your Protector-”

No.

Oh fuck no.

Arthur is not going to live here until his Uncle finds either a suitable replacement Protector or Arthur’s goddamn fiancée. He isn’t. He can’t. He’ll learn the stupid poses and the stupid rules because he can decide if he. If they help or not. But he isn’t. He isn’t staying here and learning needlepoint.

His Uncle sighs. “We let you have too much freedom and now you’re bucking against it. It’s for the best, and if I need to enforce-“

Arthur punches through the plaster right next to Uncle Tristan’s head.

---

cont.

She found the castle and climbed off her horse, sending it back home with a slap and standing at the gate, holding the rose and announcing herself for who she was. The gate swung open and a voice more terrible than even nightmares could mention echoes from all directions. “How is it that your father convinced you to come instead of him?”

“My father did nothing. I am here to save him and my family. You will honour your side of the bargain, and I will be your prisoner.”

And as she stood a carriage, pulled by four huge dogs, rolled passed her. As she glanced inside she gasped, staring at wonderful riches and exotic goods that would surely take care of her family for many years. She placed the rose in the cart and the dogs hauled their load out of the gate, which swung closed behind them. She stood and watched until they were out of sight and turned to the castle. “If I am to be kept here, I demand to see my jailer.”

“No. Not yet.” The voice scraped and grated, “Enter your new home and make what you will of it. I will come to you when you are more comfortable.”

“I demand to see you now. I would know my jailer. I would know the saviour of my family. I will not run. I am not afraid.”

“I am cursed. I will not have you see me while the sun is high. Go, you may have any of the rooms you can enter, and may do anything with them that you wish. I will come see you when the sun has sunk.”

“I am to live with you the rest of my days,” she argued. “We are to get to know each other well. If you are cursed, I will know about it now.”

“No.” The voice said and did not argue, and she entered the castle and explored all of the rooms that opened for her, and there were many wonders in the castle, far more luxuries than she had ever heard of or dreamt of before. She bathed and changed, picked a bedroom she liked best which looked out onto the rose garden, and for a moment she felt as light as child, exploring places she had never been or seen before, with no one’s eyes upon her, relishing in the beauty of the place and how it seemed to need her touch to come alive.

So it was that she passed her first day, but as night fell she wrapped herself up in a robe and stared at the fire, lonely as lonely could be, but used to the feeling, having grown up empty as an unused jar, her sisters talking to each other about their futures and frivolous things, and her father away much of the time.

“What troubles you?” The voice asked and she did not jump in fear, refusing to live the rest of her life terrified of her jailer.

“I am empty and broken. There is no one in the world for me at all, and I do not think I have a soul. So if you are cursed, then I am as well.”

“Your father spoke of this.” And the voice had a source, she turned to look and there, crouching the flickering shadows was a beast. Not any proper beast, not something natural, but a deformed chimera of demonic proportions, huge and hulking, moving as if doing so pained zer. She quelled her fear and gestured to the carpet next to her, as she did not believe such a huge and malformed beast could ever manage anything so simple as sitting in a chair.

“You are not frightened?” The beast asked, its voice a limping and ruined thing.

“I am not frightened.” She said and the Beast sat next to her, and they spoke the rest of the evening, though not about how the Beast came to be in such a way, nor about her lack of soul, and it was, in the end, one of the most pleasant evenings either of them had shared.

When morning came, after they had both retired, the beast continued to hide zerself. For all that ze had shown last night, ze had to still be drenched in shadow. She did not press, instead eating the food that was provided and spending her days fixing up the castle, which had fallen into a state of mournful disrepair in spirit, if not physical disorder. At night the Beast would come to her in the study, the two of them speaking of whatever they wished, and, eventually sitting in companionable silence, or perhaps her reading of his large library and giving them something greater to discuss.

“Do you have a family?” She asked on one such night and the beast did not answer for a long moment—as was his custom—before finally saying no. In turn ze asked if she missed hers.

“Yes.” She looked down at her hands. “They are all I have in the world. I have no fiancée, I have no hope of a future, and so they are whom I dedicated my life to. I worry about them so very much.”

The Beast did not reply that night, and they spoke of nothing else until they retired.

Though she had made herself a happy routine, the conversation reminded her of her family and how she hadn’t heard or seen them in months, when she had spent every day with, at least, her sisters. She knew the riches would provide for them, but they hadn’t ever done their own accounts, nor cared for the household. Maybe her sisters had been married and she would never see their children. She would never live off their happiness and she mourned for this, sitting out in the garden of roses and wanting to see them so badly all of her emptiness rang with it.

The beast watched this and stared helpless from zer tower where ze stared down and saw all that happened in zer castle. She was sad and ze ached to fix it, but ze was a beast and did not know how to approach her or fix it. Ze simply wished to keep her nearby because she filled some of the clanging emptiness of zer exile. Ze was a beast because ze had done beastly things, and ze’d been punished for it, but ze wished for hands to offer comfort and a soul which to give her so she would not mourn the lack of her own.

That night she was not in the study, nor the next or the next, and when she returned ze bent zer head and asked if there was not anything ze could do to lift her spirits.

“If I could just see my family once more, if I could see their happiness, I know I could find contentment.”

The Beast, not wishing to lose zer only friend, bowed zer head and told her that ze wished to show her something. When they reached zer tower ze showed her zer mirror. “It will look upon anything you wish most dearly to see.”

She sat and placed her hands to the frame and there was her father, curled up and ill in his bed, looking next to death and her sisters crying at his bedside. She gasped in horror and fell to put her arms around the beast’s neck. “Oh, my father is dying and I cannot venture to see him.” She cried and then gripped the beast by the ears, staring into zer eyes. “I must go see my father. I will not let him die without me.”

“But you will never return.” The beast mourned and she pulled and stood firm, repeating herself and the beast growled to try and cow her. But she was herself and would not back down, and repeated herself once more. The beast, at this, bent zer head. “If you will promise to come back in a fortnight.”

“I will.” She promised and the beast stood aside and did nothing to stop her from leaving, staring into zer mirror as she prepared and left for her journey, watching her travel and reach her father’s house, zer heart chipping away for every moment that she was away and ze could not feel her presence or know her mind.

November, 2011

They were beautiful boys.

She didn’t know their names. They were paying in cash and the tiny, brunette one with big blue eyes organized it all. Said to call him “Merlin” and to call his friend “Arthur,” had asked if she’d ever scened with two subs before. Asked. Asked with those big, sad, blue eyes for her to not ask any questions about it.

She doesn’t tend to. She doesn’t need to, not when two subs come in, looking at each other like that. When “Arthur”, in all his buff, blonde, blue-eyed (and oh, if she didn’t already have a soft spot for good, blue-eyed boys, she would have by the end of that), arms curled around “Merlin” like he could protect him from everything, looking at her like he doesn’t know…

She hadn’t needed to ask questions about that. That was clear as anything. She wondered how people didn’t just know, just sense it by looking at them. But then, that’s what she was here for, she was here to know things that, to her, were obvious and a cipher to everyone else.

“Merlin-“ The blonde said: swallowing, looking at her. “What-“

“Shh, it’s your birthday present.” ‘Merlin’ promised, leading ‘Arthur’ over to a easy chair. “It’ll be okay. She’s a professional. She won’t. Shhh.” ‘Merlin’ sat in ‘Arthur’s’ lap, stroked through his hair and soothed him. “

We can have this. I promise. Trust me?” ‘Merlin’ cupped his hands around his…friend, she’d say, his friend’s neck and hushed him again before he could open his mouth to say anything. “Both of us.” He promised, quietly, and she continued to wait, pretended not to listen to them and waited, sitting in her chair and drinking her ice water, waiting.

‘Merlin’ had given them all their likes, don’t likes, and don’t evers, had given her most of the scene, even told her that his friend might need a little settling, that he was hard up for it, that it’d take him a while to go down, but once he did he’d go down like he was free-falling. “If you can, I mean.” He’d said, apologetically. “Not that I doubt your skill. He’s just. He’s got a lot of.”

“I understand.” She’d said.

“I mean it,” ‘Merlin’ had said when they were talking it over, “He is like sub on expert mode. He doesn’t. It’ll help that I’m there, but he doesn’t.” He rubbed his mouth and looked away, frightened and unsettled and she couldn’t help but want to protect him from whatever monster was in his closet. “He doesn’t like letting go. But he needs to, and it hurts because he fights it and then hates that he’s fighting it, so fights harder and he’s. He’s.”

She’d taken note of all the things he hadn’t been saying. She hadn’t gone for full traditional dom gear, choosing instead to be a little more relaxed, a little less threatening and overwhelming. She was just here to facilitate them, and of that she was very aware. She won’t even be a centrepiece, just…a tool. And she was fine with that, that was her job. She was here to get the sub off, to let them have what it was that they really, actually, properly wanted and didn’t want to have to negotiate for or explain. If these two boys wanted her to put them down together, she would. Happily.

The fantasy itself was…simple, in a way. It was detailed, with more back story and universe details than she was used to outside of the sort of clients who wanted a very specific fantasy.

‘Merlin’s’ background information had the taste of a well-loved scenario, with the kind of world-building and character creation one would expect out of a pet-project mystery novel some house partner had been stewing over for the last few decades, every aspect planned and plotted and shaped. But the idea behind it was simple. They wanted to be cosseted, loved, controlled and cared for. And that she knew how to do. The rest was decoration that she was happy enough to apply until they were comfortable enough with the situation to let go a little.

‘Merlin’ gave her a back-story, character information, details upon details and she had read them. She wasn’t an actor, but it helped understand them. She was not an actor but she knew her job. This was a fantasy they’ve worn in; this was their old, comfortable robe. She doubted she really even needed to be there, but she would be. She would do the best that she could, because, of, well. One. Professional pride, she did her job and she did it well. Another was that they were…beautiful, beautiful boys and they looked. The way ‘Merlin’ held ‘Arthur’s’ face, the way ‘Arthur’ looked back was. Was not her business, and she wasn’t going to ask. She was expensive and they were not rich. Sometimes subs shared the fee.

Even if the way ‘Arthur’ looked at ‘Merlin’ was like a tortured man looking at his only possible saviour.

She’d read a lot of trashy, trashy books. She regretted nothing.

‘Arthur’ swallowed and looked at her and then away. “What. What are we doing here?”

“Shhh. Sophia. She’s going to be our Sophia for the night. Doesn’t she just look it?” ‘Merlin’ said rubbing his thumbs around the shell of ‘Arthur’s ears. “You remember Sophia. You don’t have to think, okay. So shut off your brain.”

They bared themselves for each other. They were beautiful, beautiful boys. Matched in that perfect level of opposites attract, that telly shows and trashy novels loved some much. One blonde haired Adonis for every dark haired willowy beauty.

She’d read a book once. A trashy terrible book, of course, of a dom and her two vicious, terrifying subs: one as bright as a gold coin, the second as smoothly shadowed as a pond at midnight. They had been her boys, her hounds, trained and vicious and broken in that way that was always so fascinatingly arousing in literature and so horrifically tragic in life. If life were different, she wouldn’t mind that.

‘Arthur’ looks body-shy, crossing his arms over his chest, but ‘Merlin’ stroked his friend’s collarbone, unashamed and kissing his throat. “Come on now, it’ll be okay.” ‘Merlin’ stood, nude but not naked. He dug into his handbag and retrieved two matching collars, both muscle car red and ‘Arthur’s’ breath hitched, his Adam’s apple bobbing forcefully as ‘Merlin’ buckled it around his neck. As he kissed the buckle.

“Put mine on?” He asked and his friend’s hands shook as he closed it around ‘Merlin’s’ slim throat, eyes fixated on those points of contact and it felt like she was there for something more than what she signed up for. They stood there a moment, breathing and then ‘Merlin’ looked at her, considering. “If you could go out and come back in for us to start the scene, that might delineate the scene better?”

She nodded and left. Some people liked a clear divide between collar on and collar off, and she could provide that. And a few moments to themselves.

She did like beautiful things.

~~~

Sophia did a stretch before opening the door to her house. It’d been one of those indefinably long days. One that stretched and stretched and stretched like it was a goddamn yogi—so unlike those beautiful once-in-a-while, solid-through-and-through days off that slipped by like they’d been greased, looking at the clock right after she woke up only to realize ten hours had passed in a breath.

And that, at least, was due in part to the only truly, brilliant, shining, good part of her day. The unrepentantly enjoyable bit was waiting inside the door and she just needed a moment to shed the day and go in with none of that bad energy.

The room was quiet as she walked in, but once her heels clicked on the tiles of the entry way and she’d puts her keys in the bowl, she could hear the scampering of feet and then there they were, Merlin sliding into the room, and stopping and grinning like it was the greatest thing ever, a magnificent magic trick, because she’d managed to come home again. Arthur followed more slowly, carefully, peering around, unsure and hesitant as he had been the day she’d folded him into her home like egg whites into waffle batter.

“You’re back!” Merlin exclaimed, jumping over the couch and sliding to his knees, pressing his face to her stomach. “I thought you were going to be gone forever.”

Arthur moved around the couch, and got to his knees more gingerly, kissing her knuckles formally, before looking down at his knees and Merlin looked up at her, packed full of excitement.

“What did you do with your day?” she asked, cupping Merlin’s face and rubbing along one cheekbone, grabbing Arthur by the hair until he was leaning more fully against her legs. He needed to be coaxed into affection, and he was tense for a long moment, before forcibly relaxing himself against her hip and she lets him keep the artifice, as if it were a real thing.

“We went back to bed and then we had breakfast and then we cleaned and then we played video games and then.” Merlin bounced and nuzzled her stomach. “We kissed a lot. And then it was lunch-“

Arthur’s ears turned red and Sophia pulled his head back by his hair and looked down at him. “Kissing, huh?”

Arthur looked everywhere but her eyes, settling on the floor.

Merlin grinned, unabashed and licked his lips and knelt up for a kiss, which she pressed onto his forehead, and then Arthur was carefully helping her get her shoes off, moving so she can put a hand on his shoulder and step out of the heels.

“Just kissing?”

Merlin turned red and then played with his fingers. “Ye~es.”

She grabbed him by the hair and lifted his head up to look him in the eye. “Merlin.”

“We may have done a little more.” Merlin hedged, looking up at her and then down. “But only a little bit, I promise. You were gone such a long time.” Merlin cupped a hand over her foot and pressed his forehead to her hipbones and nuzzled.

“Arthur?” She turned and Arthur was flushed, poking his fingers in the carpet then looked up at her and took Merlin’s arm, holding up his wrist where Arthur had left a rather impressive love bite. Merlin looked pleased as punch by it and smiled up at her, showing it off like a child with a drawing he’d done in class. She pressed her thumb into it and Merlin’s eyes went heavy and lidded, perfectly content.

“Arthur, you know you aren’t allowed to leave marks.” She scolded and Merlin’s face fell, trying to pull away, but she kept her grip firm. “I got you so Merlin would have someone to play with, but I made rules for you to follow.”

Arthur scuffed at the floor and hung his head. “But he wanted it.”

“Of course he did. Merlin is greedy.” She stroked through Merlin’s hair. “That’s why I made rules. Because he wants everything and you can’t give it to him, or you might hurt him.”

Arthur tucked in on himself more and made a low whining noise. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not a matter of sorry, Arthur. It’s a matter of rules. You follow them and when I come home, we have an enjoyable evening, we have fun. But if you don’t follow them, then I have to remind you of those rules. And I was very much looking forward to a nice, relaxing evening, Arthur.”

Arthur pressed his head to the floor and dug his fingers into the carpet. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“And Merlin. You shouldn’t have let this happen.”

Merlin looked wide-eyed and panic-y and then crawled over to Arthur and flopped over him like that would do something. “It’s my fault. It’s all my fault. I begged and begged because I wanted it and I missed you and we were kissing and I’m sorry.”

She sighed, they were good boys, mostly. Clean and well-kept and beautiful, but they couldn’t keep it in their heads for more than a week about the limitations she’d put down about how much they could touch while she was gone. Kissing was fine, of course. She liked coming home to two flushed, dark eyed boys with plump wet lips and a near desperation for somewhere to put their energy. They could cuddle and snuggle to their heart’s content. They could touch above the waist and below the knees as much as they desired. But no marks, and no orgasms, no matter how they tried to work around the particulars.

“No matter how long I’m gone, you have to follow the rules, boys. I have to be able to trust you to be good when I’m gone.” She cupped their faces. “You two want to be good for me, don’t you?”

Arthur nodded sedately, carefully, backing up into himself, shoulders hunched over, head dropping. Merlin nodded frantically, stepping forward. “Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.” Merlin shoved his face against her foot. Merlin had been with her longer, had come straight from the academy, bright as a new coin, shiny with happiness and eager to please. She’d gotten Arthur because she’d been promoted and had to leave Merlin alone for longer in the day. He could take care of himself, of course, but he needed companionship.

Arthur… was refurbished. Or rescued, maybe. Second hand, and he was…shy. Damaged? Reserved, in any case, beautiful. Strikingly beautiful, strong and deeply lovely and he’d been quiet, stared up at her in a way that couldn’t be ignored or forgotten. He’d seemed steady, calm, someone to balance out Merlin’s rambunctiousness, someone to reel him back when he got too excited and, say, tried to catch the pigeons off the balcony so he’d have friends. Except, of course, she’d introduced them, Arthur sitting down on the floor and warily looking around, careful and quiet. But Merlin had taken only a moment to circle the room, before tackling Arthur and nuzzling him until Arthur had responded in kind. He’d latched onto Merlin with a protective streak, guarding him when they went to the park from everyone else, but, equally, going along more often than not with Merlin’s schemes, provided it didn’t get him hurt.

“Arthur, you know I have the rules for a reason, don’t you?”

He nodded. “Don’t get angry at Merlin. I should have said no. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Arthur looked at Merlin and then back at the floor. “But he was so happy,” Arthur added and looked up at her and then down again, inhaling deeply. “I accept whatever punishment you determine for me.” He changed his bow into something more formal, a full prostration. Merlin stared up at her, eyes wide and bright and desperate.

“I have to, baby.” She cupped the side of his face and stroked his cheekbone. “Then we can get over this and have a good night. You want to be forgiven, don’t you?”

Merlin nodded and reached up to paw at her hip slightly. “But. But Arthur just did it because I wanted him to. You should teach me to know better. I want to kn0own better.”

She sat down and kissed his forehead. “Remember the time you two decided to eat all the cookies and Arthur got sick? You didn’t do that again, did you?” Merlin shook his head. “You didn’t want to see him get hurt, so you knew not to break that rule. Now you know. Now we just need to do that again. Shhh.” She stroked his hair. “Come on.”

Merlin’s lip quivered and he looked at his hands. “I don’t want him to get hurt. I don’t. I don’t want it. I want us to go to bed and have fun. Can we.” She put a finger over his mouth and he quieted.

It was always Arthur who took physical punishment. She had tried to cane Merlin and Arthur had nearly lost his mind over it, struggling so hard at his bonds (and she had needed to tie him back) that he’d made himself bleed, and once he was free, he’d covered Merlin with himself and refused to be moved. Arthur took punishment quietly, and while Merlin was overtly distressed by Arthur’s pain, he didn’t injure himself to stop it, instead comforting him once it was over, bringing them closer together and stopping Merlin from leading Arthur into that particular set of bad habits again.

And, of course, there was no such thing as an incident just involving one of them. If one of them was in trouble, the other had something to do with it.

Arthur followed her into the bedroom and then silently went to the end of the bed, putting his wrists down on the bedspread, kneeling on the carpet, staring down at the pattern. Merlin scampered behind him and shoved his face against Arthur’s hip. “Please don’t. Please?”

Arthur hushed him and Sophia pulled him away, gently put him in the manacles, and he whined, staring up at her. “Please don’t.”

“You need to learn.” She insisted, stroking through his hair. “You like being bitten, but Arthur won’t know when to stop. He could hurt you very badly. And how do you think Arthur would feel then?”

Merlin shook his head and stared at the manacles.

“And then all will be forgiven, okay?” She kissed his forehead. “Arthur will be forgiven and you can take care of him. You like taking care of him, don’t you?”

Merlin bowed his head and nodded.

She kissed him again and then got up. Arthur hadn’t moved an inch, back straight and body tense, wrists on the bedspread, hands clenched, head bowed. She stood behind him and cradled his head. He didn’t like to be coddled before a punishment, and she didn’t intend to prolong it. Whoever had first owned Arthur, they’d trained him to take a punishment without a sound, without compliant or movement. He just knelt at the end of the bed and waited, trying to look accepting of what was the come, and mostly failing, too tense and too nervous. But he had the position down and she rubbed the cords of his neck briefly. “Shh, darling. Now, we’re going to go with the switch. Nothing too drastic, but you’ll feel it for a few days. Stop you from trying anything else.”

Merlin’s eyes were on the switch, watching it as she gave it a few flicks in the air, testing the weight. Arthur shivered at the noise, but remained still, staring down at the bed, offering his entire back for her to work on, kneeling up and legs wide so she had access to his thighs, arse out and feet upwards. Only his chest was protected, shoulders curved in and pressed up against the footboard.

Sophia didn’t know what had happened, but Arthur’s chest was scattered in scars, all silvered and thin with age. They were old, but they’d been deep when he’d contracted them, left some of his skin puckered, trailed down to his belly. He must have had more, back when they’d been red and vivid and new, but it’d been years. His body had grown around them, stretched them out, and faded them down into his flesh.

He was shy about them, didn’t like them touched. He went quiet and nervous and looked away if she got close, if she paid them too much attention. But then, Arthur didn’t like attention. He liked for Merlin to get it, he liked helping Merlin get it, but he preferred to be a tool she utilized.

But his back was free and clear and when she laid a line down he only twitched, a small not-noise ribboning out of him. Merlin made a pained noise and she stroked down the thin, red mark.

She put down another stroke, measuring it carefully and Arthur stayed silent, body stiff and tense against strike three and four, the thin, sharp sound of the switch whistling through the air, the –thwack- of it hitting flesh and the way it took him a second to react to it. But Merlin. Merlin made noise right away, a pained little sound that made Arthur flinch, but he didn’t turn, just let the marks fall, mouth open, now, breathing heavily.

She knelt down and pressed her thumb against the thin red welt, following the sweet-sweat-slick skin and Arthur let out a breath that might, could be, may be a sob and Merlin is whining in tiny little bursts, as close to Arthur as possible, eyes wide and beautiful with need, Arthur’s body tight was as a coil and she knew she could figure out how to make him spring open, to fall like St. Sebastian into his martyrdom, every statue carved with ecstasy.

She’d learned long ago not to count. If she said fifteen lashes, if she said six, if she said eight hundred, he would hold onto the number. If it just went, with no definitive end that he could tell, he’d sink into it eventually. His pose would loosen at the joints, his back would curve up and he’d breathe into the strikes, eyelashes fluttering. Arthur was, at his heart, an algomist, yes, obviously. But he didn’t want to be, he didn’t think he should be, and he avoided pain more than any algomist she’d ever heard of. He didn’t seek out punishment, he didn’t ask to be spanked, and he didn’t wrestle for the bruises. So she punished him and he hated it and loved it and hated loving it and it was far more effective than just hating pain would have been.

Arthur began to break with small, low, whimpering noises, his back a flurry of red strikes and she could have eaten the noises right out of him, watching his body flush and it had to be complicated in his head. Merlin was simple, he was straining to save Arthur, wanting to comfort and hold and nuzzle, and Arthur had to hear the noises, but he didn’t respond. Just knelt and let her mark up his legs, the sharp nips of pain causing him to jerk forward into the bed.

He was always beautiful, but never quite so much as when his pose fell away and he just slumped forward, panting for air and flushed, hard, of course, dripping with it, but crying and clawing at the bed, Merlin straining to get closer. Once Arthur was sobbing into the bedspread she let Merlin go, opening the manacles and letting him scramble over to Arthur, pressing close to him—which just had to make the marks hurt worse, but Arthur made a noise of utter relief, twisting around and tucking Merlin against him, wrapping him up as Merlin kissed his face all over.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I won’t. I won’t make you. I won’t make you again. I’m sorry.” Merlin shuddered and kissed Arthur’s neck.

“Do you understand what you did wrong?” She asked, sitting down next to them, carding her fingers through Arthur’s hair.

“I should follow the rules.” Arthur curled around Merlin. ‘The rules are there to protect Merlin. I need to protect Merlin.” Arthur’s body began shaking and Merlin looked up at her.

“On the bed, come on. You’re forgiven, you won’t do it again. Let’s get you on the bed.” She and Merlin helped him up and he flopped down, Merlin snuggling up next to him and kissing his cheek repeatedly. “You suffered very well. It’s over now. Shhh.” She put his head in her lap and looked at Merlin, who had his hands on Arthur’s stomach, rubbing and making shushing noises. Arthur’s eyes were blown and his hands clumsy when he reached to touch Merlin.

“Merlin, I’m going to let you take care of him.” Sophia said. “I’ve had a long day, and I’d rather been hoping for something nice to look at.”

Merlin pressed his face to her knee. “I’m sorry we were trouble. I’m sorry.”

“Shh, you’re forgiven, it’s over now.”

Arthur stared at her like he didn’t believe her, and, of course, he never did. Even if she had never once held something over their heads once the punishment was over, he still didn’t trust her. Didn’t believe her, and that was fine. She would teach him. She would keep him and he would learn to relax. She put her hand over his eyes and snapped her fingers to get Merlin’s attention.

“Kiss him.” She ordered and Merlin did so immediately, ducking down and pressing their lips together with the ache of long practice, and this is what they did all day. They did their chores and then kissed, lying on top of one another, aching for more and knowing better than to try for anything. And she likes the thought, of them wanting and needing and knowing they need her to have it.

“Roll on top of him, make sure he knows you’re there.”

Merlin whines, but does as he’s told, his knees on the mattress, his hands on Arthur’s chest, kissing still, Arthur’s mouth sloppy and wet, wanting more and uncoordinated.

“He feels good.” Merlin looked up at her. “He’s gone all…fuzzy.” Merlin smiled down at Arthur, stroking his face. “He’s unhappy, sometimes.”

Sophia pulled Merlin closer by the collar and gave him a kiss, rubbing her thumb over the leather, and then bent to give Arthur the same treatment. His mouth was soft and hot, accepting of her casual invasion, and she removed her hand to look at him. He was still tracking, watching her, wary, but more relaxed for having Merlin wrapped up in his limbs and settled on top of him. She wondered if he was ever fully relaxed.

 

Arthur nodded and kept staring at her, his hands cupped around Merlin’s shoulders, thumbs stroking over the drop of his arm, inhaling his scent and practically purring with it.

“Merlin get up. Sit over there.” She directed and he moved slowly, peeling himself away from Arthur and kneeling next to him. “Don’t touch him. Put your hands behind your head.” Merlin whined but did as he was told, looking at her for further direction.

She slid of the bed and went to her tool chest, plucking out a short length of hemp rope—she tried to stick to natural things for Arthur, it felt like they matched— and tied one of Arthur’s hands to the headboard, stretching his body out, showing off the tight cords of muscle under his skin, shifting uncomfortably as the sheets rubbed against his marks, but he always liked to feel this sort of thing, liked to lie on his back, for Merlin to lie on top of him and press him down.

She cupped Merlin’s face and forced his attention to her. “You aren’t to touch. The longer you can resist, the more I’ll let you do. If you can wait until I say, I’ll let you have a treat.”

“How long?” His eyes wandered over Arthur’s body, his breath hitching, fingers digging into the back of his head.

“Fifteen minutes.” She held up her mobile and set up a timer. “Arthur, in that time, you’re to make yourself as pretty as possible.” She took his free hand and used it to stroke his chest, to grab his cock and he bit his lips and looked away. “Get yourself good and ready, touch yourself the way you want him to touch you. Do not take your hand off your body.”

“Yes ma’am.” Arthur stroked his prick in a slow, careful stutter, looking at Merlin.

Sophia nodded and then settled in behind Merlin, putting her hands on his hips, her legs bent alongside his. “That’s good, Arthur. Keep his attention.”

Merlin’s breath was laboured, his eyes trained on Arthur and Sophia rubbed her thumbs along Merlin’s undefended ribs. “Look at how red and wet his lips are.” She noted, “He keeps biting them. Do you bite them?”

Merlin whined and nodded, fingers spasming. “He. He liked it. But only a little bit of teeth, because of the rules. Never.” He swallows as Arthur squeezes his prick and rides up into it. Never as hard as they want to, she knows, or as the other wants them to.

She huffs a laugh and rubs a hand down between Merlin’s legs, petting the inside of his thighs, gathering up a good finger full of flesh and pinching.” Merlin’s hands fluttered and then re-gripped his hair, a gust of air punching out of him. She reached up and flicked his ear. “Keep them there. Good boy. Arthur get your cock wet. You’re hardly making a good showing.”

“Sorry, ma’am.” Arthur stroked his hands back up his torso and got his palm wet with spit, still staring at Merlin. Merlin whined.

“I want. I could.” Merlin cock was fully erect, pressed hard against his abdomen and she moved up his thigh and got enough good grip of skin to pinch and twist, a thin jet of pre-come dribbling down Merlin’s cock. Arthur’s dick spasmed in sympathy, both of them breathing in great, exhausted pants, and Arthur pinched a nipple, staring at where Sophia was making a pretty pebbled path of bruises along Merlin’s pale inner thigh.

“How many times have I come home and I couldn’t even breathe on his nipples without them hurting him?” She stroked the span of her nails over Merlin’s legs as Arthur cupped his sack, bound hand pulling at the rope. “You must spend hours on his lap, scraping your teeth over them, sucking and sucking and sucking, trying not to bite down.” She pinched hard there and Arthur cried out, Merlin struggling up and arching, noises trapped behind his clenched teeth. Arthur looked so hungry, starving for… something.

“I go out and the two of you just kiss each other until it hurts, and you keep doing it anyway. Staying hard, even though you know that if you do anything then I’ll keep your pretty little pricks locked up. Let you come once a week, maybe. Maybe stretch it out longer. Get you all full and desperate, but you’d still kiss each other.”

Merlin nodded and Arthur squeezed his prick a bit too hard, fisting it purple and rubbing his back against the sheets, eyes lidded but trained on Merlin.

“Ten more minutes, little darling. Your arms have to be getting sore. Fingers itching. If you just keep waiting I’ll let you do more than just kiss. Look at how hard he is for us.” She tickled up his abdomen and nuzzled his neck. “It would be cruel of you to make him have to sit there, aching and wrecked for it, with no chance at all to get off.”

Merlin nodded, his arms shivering and she cupped his elbows, squeezing briefly. “If I didn’t set limits, you wouldn’t do anything else. I’d come home and you’d be rubbing against one another constantly, until getting off hurt. But you need direction, little darling. Need to be hurt and know it’s for a reason. And that’s why I make the rules. But you two are so very lovely together. Especially when I let you suck one another off.”

“Yeah,” Merlin agreed, voice hoarse and his scalp had to hurt from how hard he was yanking his own hair. “We. When you go we try and wait.” He admits, scraping his teeth over his lip. “We do all the chores and eat lunch and we try to wait. We try, and. It’s hard,” he whispers, head bowing slightly. “I want to touch him. Please let me. Please just a little.”

Arthur rolled his hips up and kicked his feet against the sheets. “Merlin.” He gasped and Merlin’s hands jerked, shoving his head down.

“Seven more. What if I put one of you in mitts and a spreader, so the other would have to do everything for him?” She mused, settling her nails into Merlin’s skin enough to leave marks. “When I’m home for a day, I can just watch you go about your chores, helping one another, getting more excuses to touch and help and comfort. Do you like it when I’m mean, darling?” She reached forward and wrenched a hard twist at Arthur’s navel, Arthur cried out and Merlin nearly toppled himself over. “You like getting to comfort him after I’m so very cruel. But you like seeing me hurt him.”

Merlin sobbed and shifted from one knee to the other. “I want to make him better.”

“You want to save him with your bandages, after I make him bleed?”

“No. I.” Merlin scrambled a little, words lost to him and he ended up staring helplessly.

“Merlin. I like it. You.” Arthur swallowed. “It feels warm.” Arthur didn’t tend to talk much and he practically arched up for a kiss before remembering himself. “It makes everything good.”

“You’re so warm.” Merlin suddenly sounds drugged, shifting from side to side and his hands trailed down to his neck. “Please let me. I need to. He’s so warm and I’m. Please.”

“Shh. You can do it. It’ll be so good when you do. It’ll feel amazing. Like coming in from the cold and sinking into a pile of blankets. Let yourself shiver a little first. Feel the bite of it.”

Merlin did shiver and Arthur teased him, touched over his body as Merlin’s eyes followed, breath catching. His cock had to feel odd to him, given how little she allowed them to touch. She’d know if they came, she’d know, because they could never hide anything from her. They’re obvious, and beautiful and when the rest of the timer goes down, Merlin falls onto Arthur like he’ll just…vanish, otherwise, stroking and nuzzling and kissing because he needs to, Arthur continuing to rub his palm against his prick because she hasn’t told him to stop.

Merlin stops and looks up at her. “What do I do? Tell me what to do. I need to. I want.”

“Shhh. Shift up on your knees. There’s a good boy. Now just stay still, kiss him properly and let me work.”

Merlin nodded frantically and bent down, sucking Arthur’s tongue into his mouth, making desperately pleased and needy noises like they could just vibrate right out of him and fix the world.

She tugged on a glove and coated her fingers in lube, sliding two in with no warning, letting Merlin buck and whine, Arthur struggling to see what was happening. Merlin rolled his hips and Arthur was still stroking himself, leaking steadily and she removed his hand, put it in Merlin’s hair and neither of them cared what kinds of fluids they were getting all over one another.

“I think what I want most tonight is to direct how the two of you are going to fuck. How fast, how slow… it’ll be the loveliest thing in all the world. And of course you’d like to keep each other close, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes, yes, please.” Merlin’s hole clenched around her fingers and he looked at Arthur’s thick cock and whined. “Please. I don’t. I could go now. I could. Please, it looks good.”

“When I say.” She commands—

~~~

She might as well not be there once ‘Merlin’ climbs on top of his bound and desperate, ah, friend. She guides them, yes, keeps giving commands, keeps them under a sort of fuzzy-minded thrall, but she might as well not be there, the way they’re looking at each other.

She’s played with couples before, of course. Two-dom fantasies are fairly common among subs, wanting to be completely taken over and owned and loved, to crawl between two sets of boots, to kiss and lick and worship and be taken as far down as possible. She’s even worked with soul-bonded couples, and she’s not asking any questions here, she isn’t, but once ‘Merlin’ settles down, working his hips and she guides ‘Arthur’s’ cock in, she’s completely lost to them. She binds his hands back, tells ‘Arthur’ to keep it on the headboard, but they’re staring at one another like this is some kind of miracle.

She guides ‘Merlin’s’ hips, and he makes lovely, beautiful noises, staring down at ‘Arthur’, body shivering from the neck down, and ‘Arthur’ looks. Well, he’s a man in love. She gets off the bed and they don’t notice, caught up in their own story and she sits down, watches them move, comments, keeps them all low and loved and moving, a cycle of motion that she wants to continue as long as possible. ‘Merlin’, at least, is deep enough to not even think of coming, and someone has trained ‘Arthur’ to hold back pretty damn well, even if she wouldn’t trust his mindset, fully.

She lets them get good and drenched with sweat. Let’s ‘Merlin’s’ thighs give out, waits for him to flop on top of ‘Arthur’ gasping, ‘Arthur’ is pressing his cock closer with these tiny, precious little thrusts, comforting with his mouth and then, then they remember her.

“Please.” ‘Merlin’ begs again, “Please let him, please, please.”

They’re a lovely little tragedy, she thinks; watching them, listening to them beg for the other, work for each other. ‘Arthur’s’ abdomen has to hurt, but he keeps thrusting, keeps making delightful little consoling noises. On one hand their fantasy is a good one, for her, the idea of owning two delightful little pets. But it falls hard in one aspect. A dom wants two pets who are all about her, two lovely boys who just want to see her happy. Two boys who are beautiful together, yes, but not in love. Not this much in love. Not this self-consumed and she is re-arranging them, getting a little more out of them both. She doesn’t ask questions.

She ties the scene up in a tidy little bow, unties them both and lets them snuggle up on the bed, cleans them up because they’re exhausted, poor little darlings, and ‘Merlin’ is still shivering, curled up in ‘Arthur’ and refusing to budge, practically sobbing into his neck. They’re all up in knots and she puts bottles of water down, sits on the edge of the bed and isn’t sure she’s at all needed. ‘Merlin’, she suspects, drops hard, is already dropping hard.

“I’ve got him.” ‘Arthur’ says, not looking at her, massages ‘Merlin’s’ scalp and hums quietly. “Thank you.”

“Of course.” She kisses both of their temples, packs up, and leaves her business card, even if she knows she’ll never see hide or tail of them again. It’s fine if she suspects something. But they don’t want to be known, and she can see that as clearly as the marks still left on their skin.

---

Extreme Duress Defensive Bonding
In the second instance, known as Extreme Duress Defensive Bonding [EDDB] [51], hostages and their captors can feel a sudden, strong bond with one another (not to be confused with Stockholm syndrome when the hostage identifies with zer captor without any sort of mental or emotional bond [52]). As the name suggests, this bond is formed to protect the captive and force empathy from the captor. Though it is Unclear on how these bonds are formed, the conditions in which they normally occur include: the captor and captive being of opposite dynamic, the captive being young and unbonded, the threat of physical violence being fully and clearly present. [53] However, there are currently six reported and documented cases of same-dynamic EDDB, but all of them involve two-submissive bonding, and in all six cases, the captive bonded with a captor who was not immediately in charge of zer being taken hostage. [54]

 

Annie Carter and Fisher Mulder

While popular culture finds the topic fascinating [55], the condition is rare. It is difficult to study, as once the captive returns to a position of safety the bond diminishes, the bond only understood through the self-report of the two participants [56]. In the infamous case of Annie Carter and Fisher Mulder, the bond lasted past the point of separation, due to what is hypothesized the length and extent of their interaction. Mulder (32) kidnapped Carter (15) from her family home, in the fourth of similar, previously unsolved, kidnappings he had performed on submissives in the same age range [57], whose bodies Carter later helped locate [58]). Believing the EDDB to be a soulbond Mulder kept Carter captive for six years (1993-1999) and Carter reports to have believed Mulder “I knew that he’d kidnapped me, and I was scared of him, but I could feel him in my head and he was lonely and I thought he loved me, so I stayed.” [58] Carter has since published a book on Mulder, himself a submissive, entitled The Fisher, in 2000 which has been the source of several blockbuster Hollywood thrillers (Killer Eyes (2001), Looking For Annie (2002), Six Years (2002)) as well as the 2001 Oscar-winning, dramatic, eponymous biopic Mulder. [59]. It has also been a popular topic of countless spin-off novels, televised dramas, and horror movies since the book was released [60], and the source of -- according to soul bond specialist Dr. Spencer Overby --“endless misconceptions, fears and stereotypes about same-dynamic relationships. That it comes from fear, or mental illness. What happened to [Carter] was tragic, but entirely a product of Extreme Duress Defensive Bonding, which is a syndrome that is far more common among opposite-dynamic partners.” [70]

Carter lived with Mulder with no other kidnappings [71], until she went to the hospital, pregnant with their child in May 1999. “Suddenly I thought. ‘I have to get out of here. I have to protect my baby’ The thought consumed me. If it hadn’t been for that, I don’t think I would have ever managed to escape.” [72]. She went to the police, who contacted her family, and she returned home. Scientists had the opportunity to study her, up until Mulder killed himself in August of the same year, when Annie was prescribed bond suppression drugs, as the bond proved “uncharacteristically secure.” [73]

“And then he was gone. Just like that. It was like I could breathe again.” [74]. Annie Carter was monitored by leading deviant bond specialist Dr. Finnick Rosenberg and several independent physiologists: Dr. Abdi of the University of Michigan, Dr. Henry Smith of St. Catherine’s Mental Hospital and Laura Whiss, now of the Carter Project, then of the Foundation of submissive Health. And while she never reformed her natural soulbond (something she had reported to feeling previous to her capture), she also showed no signs of similar mental unwellness as Mulder. [75]

-Wikipedia “Same Dynamic Bonds”

---

November, 2011

Merlin waggled Morgause’s business card between his fingers and stared at the ceiling. “It’s a real place.”

Arthur looked up from inlaying wire into a wooden curving maple leaf that he intended to be a centrepiece of a new necklace and earring set. Merlin turned in his chair and stared at Arthur.

“Vulgate. The grand opening to the public is in December. Right in time for Christmas, right?” Merlin looked at the business card, ran his finger along the edge. “I bet Loose Ends would pay pretty well for a review of a place on its public opening.”

Arthur carefully bent the wire he was working with and slotted it into the indentation. “So you want to see them again?”

Merlin fiddled with the card. “Maybe.”

“Is it because of Gwaine?” Arthur asked, carefully, securing the wire and working the next tendril of wire into the leaf. Merlin kept spinning in his chair, not looking at Arthur. This isn’t something they talked about. Arthur had. He’d heard everything, held the phone tight to his ear and listened, barely daring to breathe because he didn’t want to miss anything. Up until last night he’d…he’d never gotten to be there for when. He’d get the start of it and the end of it but he’d never gotten to. See. Merlin would tell it to him when he got back, as he collapsed into Arthur’s lap, mouthing his neck and telling him everything, every single solitary detail.

But to actually hear it was an entirely different thing. He knew all of the sounds Merlin made when he was getting sucked down, the way he whined and gasped, and begged. But there had been someone there to hold down his hips and make him beg. Someone who would tease him, know how to make him work for it. Who made him hold it and…and to tie it all together, who said that he was sending Merlin home to Arthur. But…

But.

“He got.” Merlin rubbed the back of his neck. “He knew something was. Between us. And he hadn’t met you, and maybe he forgot you were submissive or. I don’t know.” Merlin dragged his hands through his hair and spun around a few times.

Arthur looked back down at his work. “Do you think he would have?”

“It one thing to have a two-sub fantasy but. He would have. I mean uh… Sophia was just there to direct us. We.” Merlin rubbed his mouth and looked at his computer. “We’re too focused on each other, and not in a playful, sexy kind of way. I mean. We’re.” Merlin made his hands into blinders and focused on Arthur. “They’d know. Sophia probably knew, but it isn’t her business to care, you know? ”

“Yeah,” Arthur said, licking his lips. “So, you’re looking for new sport?”

Merlin got up and sat next to Arthur, putting his head on Arthur’s shoulder and sighing. “Do you want me not to? We can try something else if this isn’t working for you.” He nuzzled at Arthur’s jaw and then dropped his head. “Did. We could keep hiring people?”

“We can’t afford that.” Arthur cupped the back of Merlin’s head. “I don’t mind. You know I don’t mind.” Arthur didn’t. Except sometimes he did mind, he minded that they needed someone else to do what they should be able to…no. No. That wasn’t it. He wasn’t jealous. It was impossible to be jealous when he was saturated with Merlin’s love, and pleasure, his submission and arousal. It was impossible. Merlin called them Research Missions, sometimes, so he could cannibalize each experience and make them again, make them better, for Arthur. Take the way this dom looked, and how this one sounded, and the nails off that one and the boots from the other and make Arthur a story. Or. Make both of them a story.

And it had to be Merlin. Not because Merlin was… not because he was the more obvious one, not because he could flirt better. But because he was better at getting Arthur all wrapped up in him than the other way around, Merlin could tell stories better, Merlin could get Arthur in the moment. Arthur had scened with doms. He'd had gone with Merlin’s love and pleasure ringing in his chest and he couldn’t. He hadn’t... They had all been fairly awful. He’d come home and felt oddly distant from his own body and he’d curled up around Merlin and hadn’t been able to make anything out of any of it. It had to be Merlin, because Arthur didn’t so much not go down without a fight, as the idea of going down, really and properly, the way Merlin described it, made him fight to stay in control like he was going to die.

But if he was in control, then Merlin could go down and share it a little, could open up every single iota of himself and just let Arthur… just give himself over to Arthur like it was the most natural thing in the world.

“Stop it.” Merlin squeezed his knee.

“I’m not doing anything.”

“I don’t know why, but I think you keep forgetting that I live right here.” Merlin knuckled him at the temple. “I don’t block you out.”

Arthur glanced at him from the corner of his eye and then down at his work. “I have a hard time believing that.”

“Because you’re dumb. I know you shove me away sometimes, because you need to just…be whatever you are for awhile.” Merlin sighed. “I get that. You know I do. But you’re always there for me.” Merlin crawled into Arthur’s lap and held on. “I never. I’m always listening, and not because I think you’re going to do something stupid but just... I like you there.”

Arthur wrapped his arms around Merlin, and shifted until he was leaning against the bed, trying to get Merlin’s ridiculously long limbs under some kind of control, tugging down a pillow so none of Merlin’s many, many bones dug into him.

“You never try and keep me out, either.” Merlin threw an arm over Arthur’s shoulders, rubbing his pectoral. “You didn’t notice?”

“No one does that.” Arthur looked at the floor. “Every single couple in the world blocks the other out sometimes. It’s…healthy…apparently.”

Merlin shrugged. “I like you there, even if you aren’t looking at me. I like knowing how you are. I always have. Arthur we’re... I didn’t have friends. In school, you know that. Like, you had your teammates, and yeah that was awkward sometimes, but you still went out for hamburgers after games and took the piss out of each other. I didn’t.” Merlin wrapped a hand around Arthur’s throat. “You know this.”

“Yeah.” Arthur said, because he’d known Merlin since he was five. He knew everything. Except apparently, that Merlin never blocked him out, but even that wasn’t really surprising. But he would have thought... During class, or homework, or…Arthur wanted to block himself out most of the time, frankly.

“But we were friends. And not just geographical convenience friends. And so I... I liked knowing how you were basically all the time because the idea of not being friends just sort of made me want to burn down your house like a crazy person.”

“You are a crazy person. You’re one tragic back story away from being Fisher Mulder.”

“I resent that.” Merlin rubbed his thumb along Arthur’s jugular. “I love you. I get that we don’t say it out loud very often because it’s right there, all the time. But.” Merlin squeezed lightly and Arthur arched his neck back, resting against the mattress and Merlin stroked down his throat with the backs of his knuckles. “This isn’t a thing. I promise this isn’t a thing. But I just. I like knowing how you are even if I can’t do anything about it. Even if you aren’t fine, even if you’re in. In one of those moods where you just fucking hate yourself, and you don’t let me do anything about it, I still want to be there. And sometimes I think that just. Years of obsessing about it, about being in your head and always being near you was why. I was a kid, it was innocent, but I just wanted to keep you so badly.”

“It wasn’t your fault.” Arthur started and Merlin put pressure on his throat and Arthur went quiet.

“It isn’t a fault. This isn’t. Arthur, don’t you get that I’m happy? You are in my head, at least most of the time. I am happy, and I’m not making the best of it. You are mine and if anyone tried to take you from me I would make your Hulk-Outs look like Bruce Banner kicking a chair, I swear to God.”

“I know.” Arthur said and Merlin straddled his lap, cupping his hands around Arthur’s face and staring at him.

“Then why do we keep having to have discussions like these?” Merlin rubbed his thumbs under Arthur’s jaw, tilting his face up. “Do I need to drown you in how much I love you every single morning? Like just…shove you in there until you stink of it? Because I can do that. I can’t. I can’t hold you down and bite you the right way and I can’t. Make you think this is okay.” Merlin rolled their foreheads together and Arthur laid his hands on Merlin’s hips, rubbing the side of his pointer fingers against Merlin’s stomach. “You know I love you. You have to. I basically shove your face in it constantly. I know you love me because you just.” Merlin ran his palms over Arthur’s shoulders. “But you would still love me even if I found someone else.”

Arthur stared up at him and didn’t say anything, because there wasn’t anything he really could say. It was the same as when they were kids, desperate and hard and confused as shit.

Merlin licks his lips and tugs Arthur’s head back by the hair and then bent and placed a single, careful bite on Arthur’s neck, digging his teeth in until Arthur jerked up against him. Merlin let go and he isn’t aroused, but he is pleased by the mark, hard and deep enough to bruise. “I. I can’t do the things you deserve in bed. I try. I do. But I just. You’d let me do anything to you and that doesn’t turn me on. That terrifies me. I want to see someone else tie you up and hit you because that’s what you want. But I’d. I can’t. I want someone to do the same thing to me. To hold me down and pinch and press and correct me when I do it wrong.”

“I want you to have that.”

And Merlin just tugs his hair, sharp, again, so Arthur closes his mouth, tucks his lips over his teeth and looks away. “But I want you here, more. I want to grow old and wrinkly and infirm with you. And you know that. You know that, so stop being dumb about it, and having these…sulks where you think I want anyone else like that. I want them so I can make you happy, so I can make something for you that gets us both off.”

He kissed Arthur, prying his mouth open with his tongue, wet and forceful, Arthur dragging him closer. Arthur nipped at Merlin’s lips, sliding his teeth over the plump, wet slip of his tongue, kneading at Merlin’s hips. If nothing else, they’d gotten very good at kissing. Long afternoons with no one home, the two of them practicing and keeping a pillow between their groins so nothing…nothing more permanent could happen, curling up on beds or couches, on floors or in trees, finding all those secret, quiet, nowhere places and pressing each other against walls, kissing until every part of them ached, then breathing, lips wet and bruised, finger shaped bruises on their hips and wrists, fingers aching from how hard they held each other’s hands.

Merlin snapped away with a gasp, a string of saliva connecting them until he wiped it away. “I would leave everyone in the world and become a crazy hermit in the woods with you without a problem, except then we’d need to figure out how to make food from animals and plants and shelter and whatever. I know you know that, but do you get that? I’d follow you into every single battle and I’d make sure you got out even if I had to do something terrible and…” Merlin finished with a sigh stroking his fingers everywhere they wanted. “I just want you to be happy.”

“I am happy.”

“With yourself.” Merlin corrected and Arthur dropped his head, resting it against Merlin’s sternum. “Every time I feel how much you love me I can’t help but see all those good things in myself. But when I do it for you, you just.” Merlin sighed and kissed the top of his head. “Do you want me to see Morgana?”

Arthur nodded, stroking with his fingers. “I like when you come back to me.” And he doesn’t just mean hard. He doesn’t just mean under. He means at all. But that doesn’t change the fact that he likes it, no matter how good the dom is, no matter how many of Merlin’s buttons they press, Merlin always wants to come home to Arthur, and no one can take that from him.

“What should I do? What do you want to hear about?” Just like he always asks.

Arthur licks his lips and tells him.

---

December, 2011

Arthur had written, to date, forty-six articles for Loose Ends. Not all of them were printed, but the paper did pay a holding fee for keeping an article for later. If they did use it, they’d pay the rest of the fee, or, if six months had passed without publishing, they’d return the rights back to you and you could try to publish it elsewhere. He’d had twenty-nine articles published, most of them well received and it’s better than what, he imagines, a lot of people manage. He hasn’t ever talked to any other freelancers, nor as he tried to get anything else published elsewhere, because it feels…dishonest? And he’s not a writer. He just has opinions about things and Merlin helps make those opinions sound authoritative.

Vulgate was a far fancier looking establishment than ever they’ve been to. It was in a much nicer part of town, the sort of street that had restaurants that didn’t even bother to list their prices, and the waitstaff was dressed better than he would ever be. The line outside sprawled, even this early in the night, and Merlin worked his lip between his teeth, staring at it.

“Should we try and get past the bouncer?” Merlin asked, looking at the long weave of people, standing and waiting to get inside, while others just walked up to the door and were allowed in.

Arthur had no idea. “Do they know our names? I don’t think we can be on the list if they don’t have our names. And no one ever believes us when we say our names are Arthur and Merlin, even though we are.” Merlin pulled out his ID. “It says it. It says it in words.”

“Stop being nervous.”

“It is six billion times fancier than we are.” Merlin pointed. “That is more fanciness than we are ever going to accomplish. That dress? That sequined monstrosity right there? Cost more than our rent.” Merlin pointed to a sub longing near the door with her friends, laughing and rubbing the toe of her sandal against the back of her calf. Arthur looked down at his pair of good jeans, looked at Merlin who’d gotten himself done and proper tarted up and sighed.

Merlin rubbed his shoulder. “Your arse looks better in those jeans than all of the yoga-trained arses in all the designer tight pants in all the world.”

“We can see if we’re on the list. And if not, we can just go to the Hangman again. They like us there.” Arthur sighed. “I need to write a review of something. Sophia sort of…wiped us out.”

“I told you, I’d take care of it.” Merlin fussed at Arthur with the appearance of fixing his hair. “I picked up some more shifts since people are out sick, we’ll cover rent. No problem.” Merlin paused. “I mean. You thought it was worth it, right? I.” Merlin fixed his necklace and smoothed his shirt collar. “I didn’t want to get someone super cheap, and I pulled a whole bunch of shifts, but it wasn’t enough before…but we’ll be fine. I promise we’ll be fine.”

Arthur flapped his hands away and caught him around the wrists. “Yes, and then you work too much and you’re exhausted and miserable. An extra article in the magazine wouldn’t hurt. It won’t make or break us, but I don’t like when we’re down to shuffling through the laundry to see if we’ve got a few quid hiding somewhere to at least split a bagel, somewhere.” And that’s happened before, desperately scavenging for loose coin since they finished all the pasta, rice and beans in a big starch-y pot. But that hadn’t happened so recently, Arthur tried to make sure they always had, at least, a hundred pound padding between them and scrambling under the couch for some pence.

So they tried the door, Arthur talking because he was the official part-of-the-press-sort-of-fellow, and the bouncer looked at his ID and then called it in while checking the list, which, really, was better than he’d thought he’d get to begin with.

“The owner wants to see the both of you.” The bouncer said, letting them in and Merlin smiles and bounces in, Arthur following not…sure how that worked.

“Are we trapped in your brain?”

“Maybe?” Merlin offered, giving their coats over to the nice looking coat-check man and going over to the bracelet counter which had the usual assortment of coded-coded and labelled charms for a bracelet, which Arthur took three and Merlin took five, because Merlin might actually do something with himself tonight. They were well organized, which was nice, and didn’t try and instil a fancier, confusing system. There was a bracelet for whether you wanted to play or not, there were charms to say what you were into, so people could know at a glance what you wanted out of a back-room encounter. "This seems like something my brain would do.”

Arthur nodded.

“And here you go.” The attended held out another cuff for each of them. “Return those at the end of the night to get your deposit back, put them on whatever wrist you like, with the buckle side facing downward. And sign these.” She pushed two clipboards over. “Safety waiver and club rules. There’s a room to read those over there, but they’re pretty standardized except for the damper.”

Arthur had already signed his, Merlin followed and then they looked at the new bracelets and Merlin shrugged and put it on. It felt…weird. Oddly heavy and Arthur looked back at Merlin, who shrugged and felt unconcerned, so Arthur went along and they went upstairs.

There was a raised bar area, of course, with close, secreted little booths, the dance floor in a spiral pit in the middle, like a gladiator arena with pressing bodies so tight that gender was completely lost, much less distinguishing features. The music was aimed at the dance floor, so outside of it wasn’t ear-splittingly loud. At the bar it was reasonable, something heard, but not the dominating force.

“Good acoustics.” Arthur noted. “Wonder what they specialize in.”

Every single nightclub opened in the last five years had to have some kind of specific focus. You couldn’t just have a place for young, attractive, generally rich people to dance and fuck one another, you had to have a place where young, attractive, generally rich, harem-fetish role players to dance and fuck one another, or for young, attractive, not at all rich people to dance and fuck. Or just for people who were not young, attractive or rich to dance and fuck. This one wasn’t readily apparent by the décor, like country western, faux-Asian or Daddy/baby-kink places were.

Spiral staircases ran up over the dance floor like DNA helixes, the walls pelting down with waterfall fountains, heavy bolts of cloth sweeping from the ceiling. Merlin tugged him up one, the stairs steep and sharp, but as they got up to the next floor he saw less dangerous and exposed flights hidden in the shadows.

There was only about a quarter of the downstairs floor space present in the current area, all in couches and pillows, chairs and blankets, heavy bolts of cloth draping from the ceiling people lounging about in various states of dress, kissing lazily mindless and indolent.

“Can I help the both of you?” A uniformed woman asked. Arthur blinked and frowned. She was a woman. She…was wearing flats, yes, but also a belt, a necklace and wide cut trousers. He looked to Merlin who cocked his head and rubbed his head.

“Um.” Merlin began and then looked at his bracelet. “Dampening, she said.”

“You hadn’t heard.” She cocked out one hip, studying them, before leading them “Vulgate is a gender neutral establishment.”

“How?” Merlin asked and she pulled a pamphlet out of her belt and handed it to him with a smile. “Your ability to tell gender will only be impaired temporarily after you leave. It’s disorientating but a lot of people find it…freeing.”

Arthur looked around the room. He couldn’t tell who anyone was, he could guess from outfits, but.... but if he took off his necklace and his…people might think. And then he and Merlin could.

“Thanks.” Merlin smiled and she nodded, checking to make sure that was all, and moving through the room, checking up on people and fading into the crowd. Arthur looked at Merlin and his breath caught.

“You can’t. I mean. I can’t.” Merlin took him by the wrists and led him down into an overstuffed chair, somehow twisting so he ended up sprawled all over Arthur. Arthur looked Merlin all over, and, well. He looked like a sub, of course. He was like a picture of one, with his earrings and lipstick, but he didn’t know. He was like a kid playing dress up or…or something. He didn’t know.

“This is so weird.” Merlin wrinkled his nose, but kept petting Arthur’s hair. “I know who you are, I know, but you don’t…you don’t feel like a dom either, but…” Merlin rubbed Arthur’s chest. “Fuck, I forget how hard you dress dom when I am taking all of you in as a whole.” Merlin unhooked Arthur’s necklace and slug it around his own throat. It didn’t match, but he didn’t stop Merlin from taking the cuffs too. Merlin laughed, rubbing his hands over Arthur’s arms. “Look at you. It hasn’t been like this since we were kids.”

“Interesting isn’t it?” Morgana asked from over Arthur’s shoulder and Merlin looked up and lost the plot a little bit. Arthur turned and sighed, shoving Merlin’s face into the back of the chair.

“He’s going to be like this every time he sees you in green. You could wear an exact replica of any other Scarlet O’Hara dress and he’d be fine. It’s just the green.”

“Here’s to the shiniest girl I ever knew:
who abandoned me like a favourite
toy in some suddenly rain-stormed pit
stop. Forgotten until too-many-napped-away miles
leaving me to sink deep
into the topography of a lost bit of nothing
on Highway 64.” Merlin quoted, like it helped at all.

“Does having a lot of Cynthia Lawrence memorized help much in life?” Morgana asked, the long spill of her hair trailing down her shoulder like an oil slick. Arthur put his hand over Merlin’s eyes so he could focus like a normal human being. “Win you a lot of arguments?”

Morgana smiled and moved to sit across from them, the picture of straddling gender barriers, long, black, buckled boots encasing her thighs with pin-point vicious heels, augmented by liquid purple eyeliner nails long and painted, hair curled—

She smiled, adjusting her waistcoat with a smug little tug a and gestured to their bracelets. “They’ve been working on it for a few years. It’s not perfect, obviously. Not transportable, for one. But it’s been approved of as safe in temporary doses.” She pointed to the smoky air, the subtle scent of vanilla and burning books. “Artificial chemical trails confuse the subconscious ability to detect pheromones, combined with mechanics in those little darlings,” She tapped the bracelets and the sheer amount of people means…” She gestured to the room with an expression of victory. “Anyone could be anything.”

“But you still have the bracelets.” Arthur pointed out and she look at the bands of coloured rubber dangling off her wrist. She smiled and fiddled with a donalgist charm. “Won’t that give it away?”

“Some doms are algomists. Some subs are donalgists. Some doms want to be tied up for awhile, some subs want to put them there. Sexuality is complicated, and by forcing people to enact one certain aspect of who they are because of their gender, you limit the beauty of it all. This.” She spread her hands to encompass the room, “this frees people from those expectations.”

“But what happens when people leave the club and realize they’ve…” Arthur swallowed. “I mean, they didn’t know they slept…same-dynamic, or…something.”

She looked into the mass of people. “People like the thrill. The taboo nature of it all. You could be lying with someone completely non-dynamic and you wouldn’t know. You find someone who wants to do what you want done to you, you find someone you find attractive, interesting or mysterious and you talk. Whatever happens, happens. You don’t know who they were, just that you had a good night.” Morgana fiddled with her necklace. “The chemicals make it all feel unreal doesn’t it? Like a dream,” she mused, watching a man and woman who could have been anything, dancing to the music, half-naked and gleeful.

Merlin looks ready to hurt himself he’s so excited. “How long do the effects last?”

“Anywhere from fifteen minutes to three hours leaving but no longer than a day except in isolated cases.” She picked up Merlin’s wrist and fiddled with the charms on his bracelet. “You got the pamphlet, it explains the science, and we’re not the first club to do this. But we are the first one which is semi open to the public.” She smiled and looked between the two of them. “It was Morgause’s idea, and I’m just the face for it.”

“So it’s entirely focused on mutual interests.” Merlin’s eyes were trained on how her fingers cradled his palm. “But mostly it’s for rich kids who want to shock their parents, but not enough to lose their trust funds, or people whose whole shtick is the transgressive.” Merlin looked back up at her. “Gotten a lot of bad press for it?”

“We will.” She stroked her thumb along the edge of one of his nails. “I don’t pretend it will help people understand what it’s like for me, or for same-dynamic, or non-dynamic partners, but it gets the conversation going, which is better than it’s been in the past.”

“So you’re an activist?” Arthur wanted to slide his hand around the back of Merlin’s neck. Make a claim, in some small way, but that would be more than entirely foolish, what with the current line of conversation, and the way Morgana was looking at them both, like they could be conquered, if she wanted.

Arthur wasn’t the sort to be conquered.

“No.” Morgana allowed her eyes to slide away, look off elsewhere. “I am in the business of making money, not ideological changes. But I’m also fond of multi-tasking.” She could have made it an innuendo with a glance, but didn’t. “I open a club where no one can immediately assume anything about you because of your gender, because people don’t know. They’ll still guess. You’re looking around right now, trying to pick people apart by the way they stand and what they’re wearing. But without knowing it becomes like a film. Anyone could be anything. It’s not perfect, of course. Gender is hardwired into our social contracts, and it’s a hard habit to break. But for an evening. For a night.” She gestured. “Well, you can tell me that you’ve never wanted to see what it’s like on the other side of the whip—literal or metaphorical—but I don’t think I’d believe you.”

Morgause came up behind her half sister and spoke something into her ear. Morgana listened and nodded. “Business to attend to.” She plucked two charms from her pocket and handed them in turn. “VIP passes, it’ll let you in wherever you want. Give you a proper idea of the place.” She stood and then took Merlin hand again, pressing her lips to his knuckles. “Enjoy yourselves.”

Merlin grinned and flicked her nose and she smiled before the two sisters walked off, leaving them alone on the couch, Merlin watching them go and Arthur watching him.

---

Title I Was In The Coal Mine Picking Up Diamonds
Summary “When dealing with switches, it’s important to remember that while it’s modern convention’s preference to refer to them as ‘complete unto themselves’, just so was it previous modern convention to refer to them as empty.” –Marcus Halvsie.
Rating PG
Author Kettle_Panda
Relationship Peter/Neal/El
Warnings None.
BETA Wrappedscallion
Notes Title from Diane Cluck’s Easy To Be Around, written for ’s prompt challenge of the same song.

***

“Neal,” Peter said when he found Neal sitting at the edge of his bed (you needed to be direct with Peter, sometimes. El had, apparently, just grabbed his hand in public, kissed him on the mouth and said “Don’t keep me waiting so long next time, okay sweetie?”) “What are you doing?”

Neal had made a study of switches for most of his life. He loved art because it could be many things. It could mean many things. He’d pressed his hands to priceless marble figures because they too could be any gender at all, and he’d fallen in love with figure painting after figure painting, because whoever they were, he would be able to love them somehow.

Neal didn’t strike a provocative pose. Peter had, mostly, proved to be mostly immune to most of Neal’s best and greatest submissive wiles, only ever showing his attraction (albeit subconsciously) when Neal proved… objectively intelligent, morally good, consciously brave. Not when he shown bright and cold as a diamond, studied and manipulative. Instead he smiled, hands between his knees and looked up at Peter, throat bare and wrists showing. “Hi, Peter.”

Peter put his briefcase down and moved to take off his coat, but Neal was already there, easily sliding it down his arms, swinging it around and slipping it onto a waiting hanger.

“Neal, what is this?”

Neal hung the jacket up in its usual space and then looked at Peter. “What do you think it is?”

“I think it’s you about to make a very poor choice, Neal.” Peter eyes Neal’s tie, his closed-cuff shirt, the cut of his trousers. Peter doesn’t know suits, but he knows Neal, and that’s close enough for kissing. “This can’t happen.”

“Of course it can.” Neal sinks to his knees and begins to unlace Peter’s barely-heeled shoes. Just enough there to give a full break to his pants, enough to follow social convention. Peter doesn’t like heels, they make his feet hurt and he can’t run in them. But he also doesn’t like his suit, really, so. “I’d say it was inevitable.”

Peter grips him by the shoulder and carefully pushed him away, sitting down to remove his own shoes. “I don’t need a butler.”

“But I make such a good one.” Neal stayed on his knees, watching Peter. “I make a good anything.”

“I don’t know what your goal is, here, but this—” Peter gestured between the two of them, “This cannot happen.”

“No, of course not.” Neal agreed, still on his knees, not in any particular formal kneel, but closet to Presentation and Peter can’t help but notice. Sometimes Neal subscribes to formal submissive protocol, especially when he’s trying to convince someone else at the Bureau that Peter has him under control. The worst is when people fall for it. Anyone who knew Neal, even a little knew better than to pay particular attention when he landed on either side of the dynamic fence, but strangers…strangers found it comforting and thus fell for the lie.

(“If I act more submissive around a dom who wants to control me, ze think ze’s already succeeded.” Neal had said once, after a particular case. “People don’t like switches, really. People like to think they fixed me. Put me in my place.”)

“The two of us. Never going to happen.”

Neal nodded, and he had nothing. Like he’d come up out of mineshaft, holding nothing, dirty and no diamonds worth having, and he was smiling like he’d won something.

“The three of us, however.” El comes in from the bathroom, hair up in a knot and the nice, silk bathrobe tied around her waist. “That is going to happen.”

“No, no-” Peter looks between the two of them and Neal smiles wider. He sighs. “What is this about?”

El doesn’t kneel, but she does sit next to Neal and rests her head on his shoulder. “It’s about me knowing you, Peter.”

And she does. She does, of course she does.

About how sometimes Peter thinks that maybe, maybe if he let this happen then he could well and truly…ah, not fix Neal. Not reform him. Neal is never going to see the law as anything but something to be slipped around and under. He’s not a bad person, he just…falls in love. No soulbond, nothing to guide him except his own variable nature and that. That is where he’s dangerous. When he falls in love with some piece, when he falls in love with a con, when he falls in love with submissives who want to be the Clyde to his Bonnie, when he… and sometimes, Peter thinks if he just let Neal be in love with them, he could curb most of the worst of his problems.

(“He wants a soulbond.” Peter had confided in El one night. “It’s. He isn’t happy by himself. Maybe he should be, but he isn’t. He needs people. He needs someone to love.”)

“El.” he tries and she clicks her tongue, rubbing Neal’s hair and Neal nuzzles down next to her. “If the Bureau found out, my objectivity would be questioned.”

“It already is.” Neal replies, staring at him. “They trust you to keep me under control—to an extent—they trust that you won’t let me step out of line of the law. But if push came to shove, you’d back me. And they know that.”

Peter pinches the bridge of his nose. “And so the two of you thought to gang up on me.”

“Well it wouldn’t have worked otherwise.” El sighs. “I love you, Peter. But sometimes you want to control a little too much.”

“If you for one second think I’m going to let you use sex to…distract me when you need me distracted-“ Peter points at Neal and Neal looks cowed, head down and smile gone. “Just. If you ever do that to me. To us. If you use sex to help you in a lie, or because you think it’ll help you do something you know I won’t like. Then that’s it.”

Neal looks up. “I’ll try.”

“Neal-“

“I don’t always.” Neal considers himself a moment. “I mean, I wouldn’t do it on purpose, but I know that I wouldn’t want you…angry with me. And it’d make perfect sense. At the time.” Neal looks conflicted a moment, before it smoothes out and goes away.

Neal can convince himself of a lot of things, Peter thinks. Neal…it is so tempting. Between the two of them, between Peter and El, they could get Neal well and truly trapped. They could make him lock himself up, to bow for Peter, to push for El, to get all the parts of him that are real. All those truths he makes for himself. About how he’s never really submissive and he’s never really dominant, he’s just both, at once, all the time.

El gets up and presses herself against Peter. “You need this.”

“I-”

“You need this.” She repeats, knitting their fingers together. “You’ve needed it for a long time, and you’ve just begun to want it too. I am here to make sure you get what you need.”

“I thought it was my job.”

She pouts a little and kisses his cheek. “Oh, honey.”

Neal is still on his knees, head down and looking at his hands.

“And imagine how hard it was for him to come to me instead of just trying to seduce you.” El rubs their ring fingers together and Peter feels his inside just…give.

Neal…needs. Neal needs more than anyone Peter had ever met, and Peter…loves him for it. Loves how he thinks he can fill him up, and what spaces don’t fit him, El can take care of. They can overwhelm him. They can sew him into their marriage and keep him there until he’s well and truly grafted.

“And you want this.” Peter looks to El and she quirks an eyebrow at him until he pays attention and can feel her wanting it. Not necessarily wanting a triad, but wanting to uncover all those bright and sparkling parts of Neal that he never seems to know how to best utilize.

“Of course I do.” She curls her arms around his waist. “And not just for the shallow, sexy reasons of being able to have two doms completely doting over me, or getting to double team you sometime, though I will admit it helps.” She shoots Neal a teasing look and he just smiles at her like she’s the best thing that could never be forged. “I want it because you two need each other, and I’m not the kind of person who steps between that. The truth of the matter is, Peter, that choosing someone to love is terrifying, but that you chose to love Neal a long time ago, and that isn’t going to change now.”

“How did I get someone so smart for my wife?”

“You were very, very good.” She kissed his cheek again and pressed her hand there to follow. She moved over and went on her knees in front of Neal, cupping his face and kissing him like the best sort of bond-com ending and Peter wants to watch them forever.

“Neal?”

“Yeah?” He says, hand on El’s hip and head on her shoulder, staring up at Peter.

“You are 100% sure about this?”

“You already have me.” Neal nuzzles El’s neck. “You caught me. All I want is for you to keep me.”

Peter looks at Neal. At all the things he’s not ever going to say or confess to. At how he’s the shiniest boy Peter ever knew, and he wraps himself up in lies so no one can ever see it. About how he’ll forge them priceless artwork to not hang on their walls, drink wine with El and lie with his head in Peter’s lap during baseball.

About how Neal just wants to love until he falls apart from it, and if Peter gives him the chance to, he’ll be all theirs, without flinching.

“We can do that.” Peter agrees.

A/N
Apparently I’m trying to single handedly fill out every song prompt ever for the meme. Not that I really do them well. But. Eh.

---

April, 2010

Apples-To-Apples (“And dust-to-dust” Gwen tended to intone solemnly) was one of three games in all of existence that Freya was not read as the automatic winner. The other two were Yahtzee (she tended to win, yes, but sometimes you just got shit dice rolls and no matter how terrifying you looked, you couldn’t change that.) and Monopoly, because they’d yet to finish a game, ever.

“I have accepted he gets Arthur’s cards. I have accepted this. But I am ashamed of the rest of you.” Freya grumped over her five cards (Cheap, Luxurious, Goopy, Friendly, Charming) as Merlin got “Filthy” because he’d put down “Your Mom.” And it was true. Merlin systemically always made Arthur laugh, ergo, he always got Arthur’s green card. Which meant that he automatically got one sixth of the green cards and from that basis, could build his adjective empire.

Freya looked at Elyan accusingly and Elyan held up his hands defensively. “He played meat-and-potatoes, you know how I feel about meat-and-potatoes.” Elyan had one green card (Strong) from Freya, because he’d played coffee and she’d said “It’d better be, damn it.”

“Leon?”

“He played the A-bomb for Effulgent. What was I supposed to do? That’s terrible.” Leon had three green cards (fast, hot, needy, all of them from Merlin because Leon had Merlin’s number, apparently.)

“Gwen is the only person I like right now.” Freya patted Gwen’s arm. Gwen had no cards. Freya was a gracious winner, once her win was secured over you.

Merlin shrugged. Merlin had sixteen cards. Joyous, Effulgent, Deadly, Delicious, Shaky, Filthy, Rude, Hospitable, Soft, Quiet, Glossy, and Petulant. “I can’t help that I’m hilarious. When the hilarious card comes up, I’m going to put myself down. I can do that. There is card with my name on it. And Arthur’s.”

Arthur’s card was much coveted, and was played with any number of charming adjectives and then he could expect a good thirty minutes of teasing to follow. (“It’s only because it’s precious when you go all stuffy and posh about it.” Freya had consoled him once. “Merlin rolls in compliments like a pig in mud, so he’s no fun.”)

“I demand satisfaction. I will duel you.” She pointed.

“Fine, the field of battle is Apples-To-Apples and oh look, I am the most winner.” Merlin fanned out his cards. “Gwen, it’s your turn.”

She sighed and picked up Boring. “Don’t anyone put down Gone With The Wind again. I can’t.”

Gone With The Wind is perfection except for all the parts that glorify racism and the White Man’s Burden and the confederacy, which shouldn’t be romanticized, but if everyone just outright stopped liking problematic things, than there would be nothing else to like, so as long as you acknowledge it as problematic it’s fine. Also it is perfection.” Merlin grumbled.

“Oh, Merlin, think of it this way. The more green cards I have, the more like Scarlet O’Hara I am.” Freya tried and Merlin considered this a moment.

“Scarlet would get her own cards.” Merlin stroked his cards.

“Also he wants to be Scarlet, so that doesn’t really work.” Arthur took a drink of his lager and defended it from Merlin, who didn’t even like lager and thus shouldn’t steal Arthur’s.

“Elyan, why do they know each other better than us?” Freya asked, and Elyan kissed her cheek. “Are they just actually the same person with a time turner and an incredible ability to disguise themselves? Are you? No! You’re actually telepathic. Like, full on.”

Merlin looked smug as he stole Gwen’s flavoured malt drink and Gwen, in turn, stole a few bites of Merlin’s Pad Si Ew because Merlin was always the last to finish food because he spent more time talking than putting it in his face. Arthur looked down at his cards and slid Calculus over because he couldn’t think of anything cleverer. Arthur was not terrifically good at board or card games. Or drinking games. But they weren’t allowed to do drinking games, because Merlin could, and had, gotten drunk off a single wine cooler, and that was just silly. You couldn’t play a drinking game with that, if for no other reason than Merlin would start trying to have an anthropological conversation about fan-culture and reclaiming sub sexuality as a force, rather than a response, and how they’re very liberal with dynamic-changes, but would have wank over who was changed into what, and they didn’t get along at all with the people who just left two doms as two doms, and then murmuring to himself about how hard he’d shag Captain America all over the place. (“I’m fairly sure that’s treason.” “I will be his Peggy. Oh God, my favourite is that he’s this tiny little dom. He’s like a pocket dom. He is the wee-est of all the doms, oh, oh, oh, I cannot. I cannot. I want to keep tiny Steve Rogers in my pocket and he can bumble his way through trying to dom me and then getting nervous and needing a lie down until I broke him in. And also big Steve Rogers. I would break them both in and it would be the most beautiful.” “Breathe.”)

“If we’d been friends since we were five, we would be as disgustingly precious as they are.” Elyan promised, patting her arm. “But not, as we would have soulbonded when we were kids and no one would have let us hang out.”

“Unless you hid it.” Merlin replied as Gwen looked over the choices, biting her thumbnail and considering.

“How do you hide that?” Freya asked. “Like. You go crazy for at least…two months?”

“Minimum.” Elyan agreed and Gwen was debating between Calculus and Granola.

“But once you identified it’d been hell to try and get any time alone anyways.” Leon pointed out, “Before dating was allowed, I remember, not a single dom or sub talked to each other, because every adult near us would shove us away again, so it just became a thing. And then you just came up with excuses why you didn’t even want to talk with them anyways, until it became okay to start dating. Soulbonding that young would have been terrible. Great, in a way, but frustrating.”

“Not knowing what to do.” Freya agreed.

“Not knowing what you liked, and not being able to do anything about it. Always having a chaperone around in case you just went batshit right there. And kids would treat you differently, you know? Or it’d just…be different. Knowing who your soulmate was while everyone else was making shit up. Saying it’s any old single celebrity they can come up with.” Elyan put his head in his hand. “Gwen, sometime today, maybe?”

“I’m thinking.” She tapped her lip. “Granola can have fruit in it, which is exciting. But some people really like Calculus, so my own opinion shouldn’t be the only thing taken into account. And I guess long car rides are also sort of boring.” She hesitated over that card and hummed to herself. Gwen routinely took forever to make a choice and nothing would rush her.

“And I guess finding your fiancée early would be better than late, or, you know, never.” Leon shuffled his hand absently. “I mean, it’d be nice to really know you were loved.”

“Unless it was one of your teachers.” Freya tapped her fingers against the table. “That’s happened. Some poor little thirteen year old, newly identified dom finds his thirty-year-old soulmate in his art classroom? People panic about that sort of thing. On one hand they’re soulmates, on the other hand thirteen. What the fuck do you have in common at that point?”

“That’s the thing isn’t it?” Gwen asked, holding the two green cards to the light. “People are different at different points in their lives. When is your soulmate supposed to be all you need or want in a person?”

The table goes quiet and she looks up. “Oh stop it. I’m just saying. It’s. People are complicated. You don’t just meet your soulmate and feel complete. It’s. You’ve got to be all you are before you can deal with adding them on. I guess.”

“But if you’re young enough you build around each other.” Leon adds, thinks, considers. “You guys have gone disturbingly quiet.”

“I want granola now.” Merlin said, staring at the cards. “She said fruit and granola and now that is the only food that I want to eat in all the universe.”

They did build around each other though. Or grow around each other. Into each other, maybe. Arthur isn’t a poet. He’s a man who can chop a banana, put it on a bowl of granola and cover it in the last of Freya and Elyan’s two percent milk and carefully rinses the bottle out before putting it into the bin.

And yet they are still waiting. Not…for a soulmate. They have each other, and it’s. He can’t imagine having not had Merlin there, sitting tandem to his life. He can’t imagine how that would have even been feasible with some stranger. Some somebody that he didn’t know who just got all his anger and his need and his greed and resented him for it. Blocked him out.

The cereal would get soggy. Spoon. He needed a spoon.

Someone who thought shoving him out of his head was the only solution to his problems. Arthur can’t… the thing with soulmates, he thinks, is that yes: it takes work. It isn’t a perfect little ending to some trite little story. It’s. Hard. And weird. And a series of compromises, like when Merlin gets sick and they have actual fights about how much of that misery Arthur is allowed to carry for him. Or about how Arthur will shut himself down whenever he gets a bad cut, or bruise or bump or whatever because Merlin shouldn’t have any of that. But. The trick is that you know how they feel about you that entire time. No guesswork. No feeling unloved or under-appreciated because they are right there, and that is what makes it work. Maybe.

Napkin. Merlin is terrible with spoons.

But mostly he can’t imagine needing anyone but Merlin.

“Pick an obvious landmark and if they are past that landmark, you hold the door open, if they are not, you just go in. Like if they’re on a certain step, or have cleared the stairs, you hold the door open, if they’re at the bottom of the stairs, just go in.” Leon was explaining.

“Unless they’re carrying an armload of things.” Elyan interjected.

“Or if you can see that there’s someone in that awkward do-I-don’t-I distance in the reflection of the door, you can slow down.” Merlin was shuffling his green cards. He’d won the last round, apparently, with “Taxes”, though Gwen had dismissed it originally because she said it was more frustrating than boring. “But what I hate is the people who hold it open from a ridiculously far point away and then are like ‘Oh don’t hurry’ and you’re like ‘It will take me over a minute to get there otherwise

“Or if you hold the door open for someone and they aren’t even going in that door, but they don’t say anything.” Gwen added.

Freya was glaring at Gwen, because she had committed the unforgivable sin of giving Merlin another card.

“I don’t hold open the door unless they are right behind me and holding a live jaguar.” Arthur sat down and looked at the new green card on the table. “Even then I mostly bump it open after me.”

“That’s because manners scare you, since your Uncle was the absolute worst.” Merlin rubbed his arm, because Freya had punched him for committing the unforgivable sin of getting another card.

“People have the ability to open doors. Or if they don’t, they have the ability to ask me to hold the door open, which I will do. I hate when someone opens the door and insists you go first, even if you don’t want to. Be polite, yes, don’t be an asshole about it, though.”

Freya snorted as Merlin crunched his cereal and then looked down at it mournfully. “I don’t like granola, do I?”

“You don’t.”

“But I really wanted it.”

“Yes, you did.”

Merlin makes an unhappy noise and stares into his bowl helplessly before Arthur takes it from him and starts eating. It’s too sweet, some sort of banana-nut granola, but Arthur kept going, while Merlin stole nut clusters from the bowl and then making faces once they were in his mouth.

Stop eating things you don’t like.” Arthur tugged the bowl away and swallowed as much down as possible. “This is like the goat cheese again.”

“That was unbearable.” Leon rubs his face and plays a red card down for Freya’s “Fragrant” card. “That was completely unbearable.”

“It was the worst thing I ever put in my mouth.” Merlin looked at his hand mournfully.

“But you kept putting it in your mouth.” Leon continued, “And making really distressed noises.”

“They were kind of hot.” Freya put her head in her hand and Elyan patted her shoulder. “What? In an abstract way. Not in a ‘I want to tie Merlin down and feed him goat cheese until he cries for mercy’ kind of way.”

““Not the oddest thing I’ve ever done.” Merlin rounded out the routine with a gesture and there was laughter and then back to the game until Merlin eventually won his most glorious victory, “I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with a glorious purpose to win all the apples. How do you like them, Freya? How do you like them apples? Are they sour and delicious in pie? I suspect so.”

“If I tackle him and hold him down for a while will you get angry at me?” Freya turned to Elyan. Elyan made a permissive gesture and Merlin scrambled behind Arthur.

“My champion, defend me!” Merlin scrambled onto his back like a spider monkey and clung. “Oh, Oh, Arthur is totally Thor. He’s so Thor it hurts me. Like. When he’s being an arsehole, you just have to tell him and he immediately stops and makes you a hot English breakfast.”

“But I’m adopted.” Arthur wrapped his arms under Merlin’s thighs so he could perch more comfortably. “Also I’m not an arrogant sod.”

“You are a little.” Merlin nuzzled his shoulder in apology. “But in an endearing, Warrior Of Asgard kind of way. Oh. Oh. Lady Sif and Freya are the same person. They are one.”

“She was a brunette in green.” Freya lead them all to the living room so they could flop on the couch and Elyan could turn the game console on. “You did go a little batshit over her.”

“Her wave to Thor in the window was so dorky I wanted to worship her knees forever.” Merlin smashed his face to Arthur shoulder and Arthur dumped him in a chair and then sat on the floor, given that there was limited seating, and rested his head against Merlin’s knee.

“Remember when we talked about things besides Marvel characters?” Arthur asked.

“Yes. We talked about Harry Potter. It was beautiful.” Merlin moved to start giving him a neck rub, his affection felt warm in Arthur’s gut, suffusing him and he relaxed against the chair, ducking his head forward so Merlin’s hand could work on the knots. Work them exactly right because Merlin could tell how his touches felt, could fell the knots in his own back and what his own ministrations were doing to release them. It was…weird to get touched by anyone else, when they didn’t just know how to do it.

“And part of me wants to write six billion papers about Voldemort soul’s bit making a Harry a switch until he killed it good and killed, because that’s a little too close to the whole ‘switches are good souls who had a demon possess them, we must save them. We must burn them to save them’ thing. That happens.”
“Also, are you seriously telling me that no other parent, in all the parents that Voldemort killed, didn’t try and die for their kid? Not one?” Leon asked.

“I’m going with they were out fighting him and not hiding in their homes so the baby wasn’t…present? Or Voldemort’s Death Eaters killed them and they aren’t all Horocrux-y?”

Merlin moved rolled his forearms over Arthur’s shoulders in a near-continuous slide of pressure and friction to try and get his neck to calm down.

“Is there a queue we can get in for that, or…?” Freya asks, head in her hands. “I have this crick right under my skull that won’t quit.”

“I got this cramp from reading over Merlin’s Ode To Comma Abuse.”

“My paper on the complexities of human sexuality in storytelling as perceived as deviant by popular culture as presented by the White Collar fan community is brilliant and you can suck on your semi-colons. You can suck on them until they rot right off.” Merlin dug his thumb in hard and didn’t let up the pressure for anything. “Ask Elyan to do it.”

“Nooooo.” Both Freya and Gwen reply and Elyan makes faces at them both, before running Luigi right off a rainbow bridge and thus making a face at the telly.

“Why not?” Merlin rolled his thumb up the tight cords along Arthur’s spine and Arthur keeps his groan of pleasure trapped in his stomach where it belongs. “He’s your soulmate. He should know how to do that shit.”

“Yeah, we’re not so great at physical sensation.” Freya rubbed her upper lip. “We think it’s because we’re both such physical people that we have a hard time…detaching enough to share the information, but.” She picked up Elyan’s dropped controller, and then leaned back so her head was in his lap. “It sort of freaks us out when we feel things we don’t remember doing?”

Merlin hummed and leaned Arthur’s head back so he could work under and around his jaw, letting Arthur rest his skull full weight in his hands so his neck could have a break. “Focus on one part at a time. The whole body is complicated and too much information, but if you just think this is how my little finger feels right now, then it gets communicated better.”

Elyan and Freya looked at him.

“I don’t know why I have to keep saying this, but I do a lot of reading.” Merlin cradled Arthur’s head with one hand and kneaded at the base of his neck with the other. “Do I need to quote things again? I can quote things again. Do you want me to quote things?” Merlin’s fingers trailed subtly against Arthur’s back before he settled into giving his head scratches. Arthur hummed in satisfaction and settled in with Merlin’s fingers worked quietly and carefully over his scalp, scratching where it itched and lingering where it felt especially good.

“You’re going to blow your dom’s head off.” Freya stretched her fingers and settled in for a good race.

Merlin hummed and continued working on Arthur’s head until he was warm and collected, too tupped to bother taking up his turn, and Merlin felt all warm and pleased next to him, so he wasn’t about to stop either, the two of them drowsing in each other’s presence under the pretence of a long day and good food, and all four of the others used to them flopping over each other utterly, as comfortable with each other as themselves, and since they’d always been this way, there was nothing odd about it.

People were very willing to put a lot down to one’s idiosyncrasies and long acquaintance. Merlin would give just about anyone a hand massage if they sat next to him long enough, and he’d crawl into any of his friends’ laps without a second thought. Clearly Arthur was just used to him.

Arthur closed his eyes and if they were home Merlin would kiss him about now, when they were both as soft and soaked with contentment as if it were something you could bathe in. He’d just lean down and press his soft lips against Arthur’s—upside down, of course—moving slow and easy, fingers brushing down Arthur’s throat neither of them moving for more…

They used to kiss a lot. Every spare moment, once they start practicing… well. Merlin had always had an endless list of isolated places that no one but them would care to explore, places perfect for spreading out an old, stained blanket and…practicing, laying side by side and trying not to touch too much because it didn’t count if they didn’t actually touch except for kissing.

He opens his eyes and Merlin is staring down at him, smiling, and Arthur smiles back. Freya throws a pillow at them.

---

cont.

When she returned to her family they rejoiced to see her, and told her of the good fortune they’d had while she was away. Her sisters had helped their father rebuild his empire, for two of his ships thought lost at sea had returned, and with them both of her sister’s soulmates, and they were now happily married. But seeing his two daughters share such joy, while his final beloved daughter was denied it had sent her dear father into a decline and he’d gone to bed and not gotten up for many weeks.

She took his wrists in her hands and kissed his forehead. “Dear father, I am well, and it hurts me so to see you like this. I am allowed a fortnight, and we should spend it in joy.”

And so it was that she nursed him back to health, and she visited her sister’s households, and there was a very merry time had. But as the deadline approached her family mourned and pleaded, asking her to stay just a bit longer, and while her heart was softened to their cries, she said she had made a promise and promises must be kept.

“But we miss you so, and ze is a terrible beast. Surely you miss us, dear sister!” Her sisters cried. “Stay with us for just a few days more, to see our households and partners. They would like so to see you.”

“I have made a promise, and I intend to keep it. If I keep this one, then the beast will trust me to visit again.” She kissed their foreheads and bid them farewell.

“My darling daughter, it breaks me so to have you away. I am well now, but how I will suffer for you leaving.”

“Trust that I am well, and I am watching you. I am happy and I have responsibilities to attend to. It would bring my happiness to see your happiness. I have made a promise and I intend to keep it. I will not break that trust.”

And so she left, hardened herself to her family’s tears, because she was not the kind to break her word, no matter what the cost. She returned to the beast’s castle and when ze did not greet her, she searched the castle and could not find zer. Finally she went out into the rose garden and found the beast, in full daylight, that much more hideous and monstrous than she could have even imagined. Zer body looked tortured out of shape, the joints mismatched, skin and fur and scales and feather fighting for space, too many legs and not enough fingers and worst…worst of all, was that mixed in with any number of strange creatures, she could see human eyes staring up at her, desperate and deranged.

And still she sat beside the beast and put zer head in her lap and stroked zer head. “I came as I promised, why do you mourn?”

“I could not bear for you to leave.” The beast’s voice thrummed out in a piteous whine, zer claws and talons scraping at the ground, zer breathing laboured and harsh. “But I wanted your happiness, and decided my suffering was worth it. If you had not come back when you promised, I would have died here.”

She soothed zer as best she could. “I will always keep my promises, but you must tell me when you will suffer so.” She pressed her lips to his flaking and ruined forehead. “If you will not take care of yourself, it falls to me to do it for you.”

The beast then looked up at her and then bowed zer head. “I accept.”

It was by this token that the beast’s body began to roll like the ocean, and thus freed the animals that had been sewn to the beast’s soul were freed, snakes and rabbits fleeing, a bear loping back into the woods, fish flopping on the ground, birds flocking to the air, dogs romping through the rose garden, and leaving only the submissive princess of the castle to lie, panting and desperate.

The merchant’s daughter gasped, at once feeling all the empty, aching spaces inside her filling with love and fear, so thick and fierce it caught her breath and she pressed her hands to her soulmate’s face and kissed her. “My darling, how I have waited for you. What happened that we should have been parted?”

“You have broken the curse, my dearest.” The princess said. “For I behaved as a beast, and a witch said I should be one with them if I was to act so, until someone came to teach me how to love properly, and you have. You have saved me, and to you I give my submission.”

And so it was that they lived in joy together, surrounded by family and friends, and neither of them were lonely for the rest of their days.

Chapter Text

January 2012

The padded, automatic handcuffs broke suddenly on one of those almost-too-perfect days that just begged for something terrible to happen.

They were careful. They were careful with everything in Master’s room. Arthur could dare someone to find a set of sex toys that was as well maintained and tended as what they had in the lockbox, except then people would know they had their own dungeon—albeit an unconventional one—just to themselves, and... They always made sure the timer and the remote had batteries, they checked that both were working before using them. Both timers worked. The button, when pressed, caused all four bracelets to click open. They’d stripped naked, Merlin just leaving his clothing on the floor where they fell, Arthur folding his and putting them on the chair, and then picking up Merlin’s too. Tripping hazard.

There hadn’t been a hitch, not like the toy they’d gotten when they were teenagers, and found a decent looking sex shop. They’d been too poor to afford anything, really, and they’d wanted something small, something easily hidden, and something quiet. So they’d gotten this tiny little two-speed battery powered, bullet vibrator with a waterproof battery casing attached by a cord to the thing itself. It had tickled against Merlin’s nose when he’d tried it, but it looked like something you might get a hardware store, black and grey and shiny steel, not the brightly coloured dildos or the rabbit and giraffe shaped vibrators, or the other, limited selection of fuzzy handcuffs and tiny rubber whips, dice sex games, and row after row of pornographic videos and DVDs. They’d bought it and played with it, figuring out where to put the rounded tip to the greatest effect (right up against the slit of Merlin’s prick, up against his arse, all around the base of his dick. Arthur liked it under his scrotum, and maybe pressed to the head of his prick, but never for long), which of the two speeds they liked (Arthur liked the faster one, Merlin liked the slow thrum of the slower one when it was running out of battery) for how long (Arthur in short, tactical strikes, Merlin for a long teasing glide, until Arthur’s fingers were numb from holding it and Merlin had leaked everywhere). It had spent a good two months dying, starting up and winding down all at once, speeding up when twisted this way and falling silent when twisted another. They’d made do, Merlin had even enjoyed the spontaneity, because it would stop just as he was right there and he’d cool off while Arthur fiddled with it to get it to work again, until, one day, it just wouldn’t turn on at all.

Which was a shame, given they’d sort of imprinted on it—it being their only toy—and just seeing the shiny metal of the bullet would get one or both of them hard. Arthur had gotten used to the quiet whirling buzz of it, and holding it just so to get Merlin to arch right off the bed. It didn’t count if it was a toy. It didn’t count if it was something you could do to yourself.

The handcuffs just stopped working. They’d set them for thirty minutes, Arthur had the panic button and Merlin was next to the phone. Merlin had looked at him, sleepy and dark and Arthur had wanted to just…keep all of him. Merlin had been working on his thesis and so Arthur had offered to think of a story for the night, so Merlin could relax. Merlin was terrible at relaxing.

A simple little night, nothing fancy, nothing special, just the two of them and being just far apart enough to make it difficult.

“So?” Merlin asked, sliding his leg along Arthur’s, nuzzling his head into the pillow. Arthur stretched to kiss him and Merlin tilted his head and let him, mouth sloppy-soft and hot, not really participating, but still making hushed noises of enjoyment, humming against Arthur’s lips.

“Right.” Arthur looked at him, but Arthur never had to think of stories except when Merlin was exhausted and just needed a little bit to relax, so fell back on one of the old favourites. “I could be a Prince, and you could be…be my whipping boy.” Arthur caught Merlin’s ankle between his legs, dragging him closer.

“Do we get on, or do you like seeing your tutors hurt me?” Merlin asked and Arthur thought about it a moment. “I wouldn’t have liked you at first.”

Merlin pouted and Arthur kicked him, lightly. “My story, my rules. It isn’t suitable to whip a Prince, but I was a terrible brat, so they gave you to me. And I didn’t like you at all, until I did something horrible and they actually whipped you.”

Merlin bit his lip and his toes trailed up Arthur’s calf. “Did it leave welts?”

“Of course it did. Bright red welts and your trousers around your ankles, and you’d have cried, I think, getting that beating for something you didn’t even do. And eventually we’d be friends, and I’d want to see them. I’d put cool cloths on your poor, abused backside.”

Merlin hummed, eyelashes fluttering and stretching himself out so his arms pulled behind him, long and narrow. “And eventually you stopped being such a terrible brat?”

“Eventually.” Arthur agreed and shifted so Merlin could tug them closer, with a long, pale leg wrapped over Arthur’s hip.

“So I would have done something terrible, but I didn’t mean to. I’d know if I did something, anything, wrong then my tutor would hurt you, and even if I sort of liked the noises you made when the cane fell, or the way you just let me take care of you when you were in pain...well. Even if I kind of wanted to know how it felt like. I’d press the welts, when she was done.” Arthur slid his cock along Merlin’s thigh.

Merlin shuddered and licked his lips. “You liked them? All those long, red lines over me? Wanted some for yourself. Did you scratch yourself, trying to figure out what it’d be like?”

“Yeah.” Arthur agreed, their pricks nudging one another as they set a slow, easy pace. “But that was my business. I’d grown to like you. Your attitude, your ears, the way you’d warm my up on a cold night. Castles didn’t have heating, you know. Bed warming was a very necessary job.”

“Mmm,” Merlin agreed. “Especially during those long winter nights. Me in your bed, your hand down my trousers, everyone just bunked down, sleeping through half the day.”

“Note that down for later.” Arthur said, wanted to put his hands all over Merlin’s sweaty-chilled body, hiding under the covers like the rest of the world was toxic.

“So I would have done something wretched, and it would be you who’d have to get punished. And you, who would be sitting right next to me, head in my lap as I did my lessons, because you’d keep me calm. You, poor little wretch, would be dragged to your feet. And she would tell you to drop your trousers and I’d plead for you not to have to. I would, I’d demand and ask and beg.” He lipped Merlin’s ear, “But she’d do it anyways. She toss you down on the table, and spank you, strap you maybe. Cane you?”

“Strap.” Merlin said, pressing down against the thigh Arthur had worked between his legs, “She’d use a…a strap she’d keep on her belt just for…just for me.” Merlin gasped, his chest thrown forward, and Arthur stretched until he could sink his teeth against Merlin’s neck. Merlin, thrust up against his thigh, neck arched for him. Arthur rotated his wrists in the cuffs, liking how they bit through the padding, held strong and held him back, let him relax into their grip.

“And she would hit you, and I wouldn’t be able to do anything to stop her. Your arse would be full of these red stripes and I would notice you were hard. You would be hard, wouldn’t you? You’d love it. Too many years being my whipping boy, and me trying to make it all better afterwards. Got into your head as we grew up, if you suffer just right, I’d take good care of you.”

Merlin just panted and Arthur wanted to touch him. He wanted so badly to scoop him up, but he didn’t have permission. He wasn’t allowed; for all that Merlin’s body was begging to be touched. “And I would make it better. She’d put all those marks on you, marks you’d suffer for me, so the second she was gone I’d lick each and every one of those stripes, rub them with salve until it cooled them down, and half wanting them for myself, a little. Partly so you wouldn’t suffer, partly because you moan just right when the strap falls, I’d put you on your side and suck you off.”

“Would you touch them?” Merlin asked, cock smearing pre-come all over Arthur’s leg and Arthur. “Press down on them? Ask how it felt?”

“I don’t want to hurt you.” Arthur rested his head against the pillow, bucking against the restraints. “But I would. I’d want to feel how hot they are, how sensitive. Would you complain?”

Merlin shook his head. “I’d like them. I would. I’d be suffering for you. And you’d be so good to me afterwards.” Merlin gasped into the pillow, nipples high and tight on his chest, skin coming up goose-pimples in the cool air, stripped of all his jumpers and blankets that he’d bundle himself into at the first sign of cold weather. Arthur could probably spin this out. He could get Merlin caught up in that little world, but they were both tired, and it was late, and he wanted to tuck Merlin into his arms and keep him there for a good eight hours. Merlin had an early shift the next day.

“I’d trail my fingers over them, let you fuck my mouth all loose and sloppy. Choke me a little bit to try and make up for it.” Arthur promised, nudging at Merlin’s cock with his knee. “Come on, fuck up against my leg.”

“Oh, you’d feel so guilty.” Merlin grinned, thrusting in earnest, eyes trailing over Arthur. “You’d know it was your fault and you’d want me to hurt you a little, to feel better about yourself.”

Arthur’s cock jerked a little, where it stayed: hot and hard. Merlin adjusted them, so he could jerk up against Arthur’s thigh, while Arthur rode his calf. “You’d want me to shove in, but I wouldn’t. I’d just let you go.” Merlin panted a moment and wiggled his thin hips forward. ‘I’d just let you go at your own pace. Suck on it as slow and careful. Never shove your head down. Never make you choke on it a little. Never tell you what to do.” Merlin gave it up easily-- splattering over Arthur’s leg and stomach with a groan.

Arthur pressed the button. He didn’t particularly want to get off on Merlin’s leg while Merlin was half-asleep. The main point had been for Merlin to relax, and humping his leg wouldn’t, exactly, assist in that endeavour.

The handcuffs didn’t budge.

“Merlin, can you get out?” Arthur asked and Merlin tugged on his arms and shook his head, nuzzling down into the bed, in the full assurance, for whatever reason, that Arthur would take complete care of it. Arthur pressed the button harder and neither set moved. He banged the thing a few times before he lost his grip and it was on the carpet. He looked at the timer. Another five minutes, they could wait. He rolled his hips and Merlin blinked his eyes open and watched him, muggily confused.

“The button isn’t working, so we’ll just run down the timer.”

“It was working before.” Merlin grumbled. “We got a lifetime warranty on those suckers, didn’t we? We’ll take it in. If nothing else we’ve got my keys.” Merlin looks down and then frowns. “Where are they?”

Arthur really should have noticed the lack of keys earlier, but Merlin was tired and needed relaxing, and Arthur was thus tired and in need of relaxing.

“I left them in my pocket.” Merlin turned to try and get off the bed and retrieve his trousers, but, of course, Arthur had put them on the chair, clear across the room, thinking about getting Merlin back to their room in one piece. Arthur sighed. “The timer should open it.”

It was a tense next couple of minutes. Merlin rolled his wrists and rubbed his nose against the pillow. The come on Arthur went cold against his belly, ran down in large, gooey drops onto the sheets and he sighed. The handcuffs beeped that they were done, but the rings didn’t open. He pulled. Still locked tight.

Merlin tugged. “How. How did they both break?” He tugged harder and then relaxed, took a deep breath and sort of...shoved his calm onto Arthur. “Okay. We’ll just get the lead off the tie points and then go get the keys. We have safety scissors around here.”

The tie points were under the bed and Merlin can quite get to his except to fumble at it ineffectually. The scissors were supposed to be in reach, but far enough away to avoid one of them getting stabbed, except Arthur could quite get them, even stretching forward with his leg. They must have knocked them off the table or. Or something else equally stupid. He tried his tie point, and he could get to the knot, but he couldn’t move it anywhere or get it free. Certainly couldn’t untie it, seeing as they’d been knotted under there so long. Stupid. Stupid.

“Is this something we’re going to laugh about later?” Merlin asked from his side of the bed. Arthur looked at the screw end of the tie-hook and tries to get his thumb in it enough to crank it free.

It was another indefinite length of eternity before Merlin was frustratedly trying to hook his arms under his legs while Arthur was shoving the mattress and boxspring up with his shoulder to get to the tie point from there.

He couldn’t quite get enough leverage, can’t get them to move high enough before he gets his hands under. “Merlin, get on the other side and lift. If we can get this off I’ll get the leads off, we’ll get the keys and I will yell at somebody about this.”

“Sure, just give me a--fuck.”

There was a sharp wrench of pain in Arthur’s shoulder, followed by a fresh stab of panic. No, no, no not.

“Merlin?” Arthur called out. “Merlin are you okay?”

Distress rang in his gut. Arthur scrambled over the bed to look down, stuck from going any farther and Merlin, breathless, tried to get out a: “I’m fine.” Except he wasn’t, and Arthur knew he wants.

And it was like any other time that Merlin had been hurt, or worried, or scared. Arthur stopped being sensible and just... not lost it. He lost it when he’d bashed a dom’s head into the bar, and he’d lost it when he’d chased down a thief, and he’d lost it...

But he did panic.

In another situation, they would have reached the scissors by using something else, cut themselves free and gotten very angry at the shop they’d gotten the handcuffs from. Or they would have both managed the mattress and the boxspring, unhooking the knot and then getting very angry at the shop they’d gotten handcuffs from. But Merlin was in pain and Arthur scrambled for the mobile with his foot, got it up and before he knew it, he had it ringing.

Oh God.

---

From: AEigyrson@loose.threads.com
To: WTunnsdottier@loose.threads.com
Subject: Glass Review

Wanda,

I’m almost finished with my review of the Vulgate grand opening and should be sending it Tuesday, but I know you’re still looking to replace Film Freddie, so I thought I’d try my hand at more film reviews, since Yesteryear was received favourably. Given our large non-dynamic or dynamic-queer readership, and given the nature of Vulgate’s niche, I thought this film might tie in well. Let me know.

Arthur Eigyrson

Attached File (glassreview.doc)
Glass comes from Norwegian-born director and writer Howard Isen, and it’s his first film to grab anything resembling mainstream acclaim and critical mention. While he has over thirty films in his filmography, none of them are over thirty minutes long, and while many of them have a weird, aching kind of memorability to them, Glass is his only film so far to gain attention outside of film festivals.

Glass is a short film coming in at a little over an hour. However, Howard Isen is a strong believer that films shouldn’t be any longer than they need to be. There are no extraneous scenes, every single shot set up to convey as much mood and information as possible without completely overloading the audience member.

It’s labelled as a psychological horror movie, and it focuses on that first part far more than any others in its genre have in a long time. It’s not just trying to scare you, it isn’t relying on blood and jump cuts and monsters. The tension of not knowing what is safe and who to trust carries a lot of the feeling of being unsettled.

The moment the film opens it begins setting up expectations. It’s a horror movie that has seen other horror movies, and not in a snarky sideways Scream kind of way. Isen is a man who knows his genre conventions, knows what you’re expecting and he plays very carefully about when to give you what you think should be there, and when to take it away. It’s a horror movie fan’s horror movie. Rachel Hans opens as Cinderella, a perfect horror movie, fairy-tale heroine. She’s almost painfully sweet, an open book of the good virtuous daughter without a lick of sarcasm. She’s the picture of every Cinderella we’ve ever grown up to hate. Innocent and sweet, hard-working to the point of psychotic, with that oh-so-charming bone deep need to just be loved, and Kelly Stan takes her turn as the evil step-sister, cruel and capricious for no real reason, and…

If this sounds like the same old story, you’re right. For the first fifteen minutes of the movie it’s so predictable it hurts. It’s beautifully shot, the dialogue is carefully scripted and never sounds clunky or forced, and both actresses are brilliant in their parts, but you sit there, smug in the theatre thinking I know these people. I know how this goes., and even after that, when Cinderella and her stepsister get some depth, you’re still not sure what the movie is about.

And then the turn happens. And it doesn’t just happen. It isn’t as if one half of the movie is one way and the other half is another. They bounce off each other, and the chaos and confusion in the middle is what makes this movie worth the ticket price. It is unsettling, because for a good twenty minutes, you don’t know who is what. You don’t know who has the power and who is the victim, and, after a bit, you start to feel like you are the one locked in that basement. And you get why this tiny little independent film is getting so much traction. There are no monsters, there are no murders, but it is terrifying. It’s terrifying, in part, because you realize you are being lied to. That films have always lied to you, they’ve manipulated you into believing the world is one way, when it could not be. It could be anything. And this is the first time someone wants to say something about it.

The entire movie is claustrophobic, it feels trapped and frenetic and monstrous. The entire movie was shot on a single set in a basement that looks like the entire building could collapse at any moment. There are two actors, and if either of them were even slightly less talented the entire film would fall apart (and they are both marvellous, at points they’re both playing each role and in those moments the entire theatre goes quiet and you cannot even fathom who will break first.) By the end of the movie you just want them to get out of that basement, to feel any breeze of fresh air, to get out of that room and run away. And by the end they do. And in that scene, which I will not ruin for you (and you should watch this movie before someone else does) you aren’t sure you wanted them out after all.

You aren’t really sure of anything.

---
July, 2001

Arthur’s uncle signed him up for a scrapbooking class. He had silently surveyed Dr. Whitman’s list of suggested activities, crossing several off with long, grim lines for being too expensive (musical instruments, gardening, painting), or too dangerous (cooking, knitting (?), clothing design), not practical (singing, drama, dancing). He’d almost crossed off scrapbooking, except then he got to thinking about all those boxes of photographs, letters and bits and bobs that they had stored away in the loft, and how it might be nice to have someone be the family archivist. He’d also kept “typist.”

Merlin signed up for it shortly thereafter, thus Tuesday finding the both of them surrounded by cardstock and vellum, looking through magazines for “inspiration” and mostly just making fun of the ads (“Mulberry paper in a cardstock weight? Watch the kids honey, I’m going to go crop!”) and aimlessly cut out paper in long spirals and glued them to the scrapbooking page.

“Let it be a book, not only to remember events, but how you felt about them. Capture the entire moment.” The teacher said. “Find things besides photographs and movie stubs to keep with you. It’s scraps of your life, the bits that you’re free to cut away and make a quilt out of.” She didn’t really look at any of their pages and Arthur imagined you’d have to be pretty bored, or pretty boring, to teach scrapbooking. There were stamps and stickers, glitter and sequins, thread and fabric samples, strange-edged scissors, four different sorts of tape, glues, markers, crayons, pencils and rulers. Merlin started them on making a scrapbook for the survivors of some terrible, unnamed world-ending event, carefully cropping magazine ads and putting various headlines together like a jigsaw ransom note for the world.

Arthur was helping.

“Does this look balanced to you?” Merlin asked, holding up the two pages. “It’s a nice showcase of death, I think.”

Someone to the left was doing a page to their dog, someone else held up a page to a birthday party. Arthur hunched closer to Merlin and away from the pre-teens and the house-partners, not a single soul his age, and no one who looked even slightly interesting, at all. Merlin had worn a sundress to better fit in with the crowd, and also because it was hot and he’d just gotten a proper sunhat from the charity shop. One with a, as Merlin put it, “proper amount of ribbons. Which is all of them.” Arthur stayed firmly in his shapeless trousers and baggy t-shirt, because he didn’t want to be here. Some of the activities had sounded…fine… but none of the ones his uncle had approved of, and this. This was agonizing.

Scrapbooking wasn’t even a real art. It was just... it was like being a magpie of memories.

(“Memories are our most cherished possession,” the teacher had said, “they make us who we are. They create us. And scrapbooking is one of the best ways to hold on to and share those memories. We can’t ever let someone live our lives through us, but through this we can hopefully make it a little more clear what these things meant to us. It is representative and interpretative art combined together. It is the life lived and the life we wished we’d lived.”

“Or,” Merlin had said on the end of a breath, “we could put that effort into making a time machine.”

Someone had shushed them.)

“Can you cut me some black ribbon to border our cheerful memorial to untold amount of death?” Merlin asked, hunched over the paper with some glue and a snippet of something. Merlin would be deeply invested in this for one or two days, but then lose interest and the two of them would spend the rest of the three-week course poking each other and shuffling through class until this experiment was over with.

Arthur measured the length of ribbon and handed to Merlin, before putting his head in his hand and watching Merlin carefully smear a line of glue along the length of the ribbon before placing it down gently next to a carefully cropped and coloured picture of what had been a fashion model, probably, sure, maybe. He pressed his once-perfectly glossed lips together and considered the layout. “This side looks unbalanced, compared to the bloodstain over here. What do you think?”

Arthur stared at him and Merlin tugged at his ear. The teacher finally found her way to their corner, smiling at Merlin’s hat and he beamed up at her, all sunshine and…like…fucking poppies, or something. Good poppies, not Wizard of Oz poppies. She barely glanced at Arthur. “Now what do you have here, pumpkin?”

“Oh just a little speculative memory. Since I didn’t have any of my own photos or scraps I decided to make up something, so I—“

The teacher was scowling at them and put their layout down. “What is this?”

“Scrapbooking the apocalypse. I’m thinking a world plague, maybe. Or—“

“This isn’t a joke. Scrapbooking is something personal. It’s a way to collect what makes you the person you are.” She took their pages away and handed them new ones. “Don’t be afraid of yourselves. Don’t hide behind jokes. This is a chance to really get to know yourselves.”

She looked over Arthur again. “I want you to make separate pages, now. Show me something real, here. It doesn’t have to be personal, but something real. Okay? Can you do that for me?”

“I don’t have any scraps.” Merlin gestured.

“Then make the page and put the memorabilia on when you get home.” She said, raising an eyebrow. “You get out what you put in, if you put in nonsense, that’ll all you’ll go home with, okay?”

Arthur stared at her, and when she turned, he pasted some perfectly cut squares of cardstock over other coloured squares of cardstock, like he was making a poster for school. Merlin was scowling over his blank pages, because Merlin was really, actually, rubbish at being half-hearted. He was either all chips in, or folded out entirely. Arthur made the background a terrible looking rugby field, cut out some awful-lopsided rugby balls, and put the title “My First Game” on the top in ugly block letters. Merlin continued to scowl at his blank pages.

“Just make up something.”

Merlin looked at him from the corner of his eye and continued tapping the pattern-scissors. “It isn’t memory, it’s sterilization.” Merlin had his legs crossed at the ankle, he was sitting straight. Merlin slumped sometimes, when he wanted to appear smaller, or weaker, for whatever reason. Merlin had an appropriate amount of make-up on, and his hair might have been short, yes, but the one time he’d tried to grow it out, the being known as 2 AM Merlin (who was responsible for many terrible, terrible life choices) had shaved it all off and then Merlin had climbed in Arthur’s window to cry about it.

2 AM Merlin tended to make rash decisions, but equally had no ability to deal with them.

Merlin looked like a proper sub, he looked like he could fit in here, and most of the time that made Arthur feel. Well. The point was Merlin looked like he could fit in, but he did that because he liked to. He liked wearing sundresses, and he liked eyeliner, and he liked sun hats with ribbons. The problem was when people took in Merlin’s appearance and assumed his insides matched. And the inner workings of Merlin were not sunhats and rainbow stickers.

“Memory is hazy and messy and brutalized and we change it to adapt our environment. We make up stories to make memory make sense, and the stories are lies, but they’re real.” Merlin gestured disgustedly at someone painstakingly cutting out little flowers for the border of her page. “I can get how this could be a good thing. Like. Reminders to yourself to tell a good narrative, but it’s just…piecemeal. The good bits and none of the weird, strange parts that give it context.”

Merlin looked at his blank pages and when the time came—after Arthur had just gotten an absent nod and empty praise for his work— Merlin lifted his chin and showed them to the teacher, who stared him down.

“It’s okay if you need time to access yourself. Look through your memorabilia box, see what inspires you. I look forward to your contribution next time. Access yourself. Tap into what you really want.”

Merlin’s anger had a very different flavour to it than Arthur’s own did. There was a control to it, a sense of purpose, like a fire in a forge, rather than just…gone mad. Taking the whole house down. Merlin didn’t get angry often (or…at least Arthur didn’t think so, but he couldn’t really properly gauge that sort of thing.) but it was never…impotent. It wasn’t for long, ever. It was quickly submitted into what Arthur…it was…well. Plotting. Hard to explain how it felt on the inside, but it looked like a particular kind of calculation follow by Merlin going to his desk, fiddling with something or other and thinking.

Thinking of whether the anger was worth his time or not.

Thinking of what to do if it was.

Arthur’s anger flared up made him… shove over shelves and punch walls and scream and go quiet and…nothing ever was solved by it. Merlin’s anger was quickly taken up as a new Project. Arthur broke coloured pencils and shoved people’s faces into mud. Merlin would lay in wait, passing a ball from hand to hand, clicking through Internet pages, until had a typed out plan with an itemized list of supplies, diagrams, reconnaissance photographs and fuck knew what else. And then he’d think if it was worth putting into action. Thus far he had six folders in his file cabinet and none of them had been put into action.

He smiled at the teacher, sweet as pudding, and nodded, he and Arthur left, grabbing their bikes and Merlin fiddled with the lock for a bit too long, considering, before he took a deep breath and the anger just…slid out of him. Gone.

“How do you do that?” Arthur asked, holding onto his own bike. Merlin looked up and then back at his lock.

“I had it right there.” Merlin put the lock in his bag, sitting in that particular way he’d mastered just for biking in a dress. “One sentence. Just. One little sentence. She’s older, she is unbonded, she’s still teaching at a place like that, she’s up for several other classes. The page she showed us for an example was from six years ago.” Merlin tapped the bicycle handlebars and stared at nothing. “She’s passionate about this. It isn’t rote. When she talks about it, she cares. She has a memorabilia box. She thinks other people should care like she does.”

“And?”

Merlin kicked the pedal so it spun. “I can stop being angry when I know how I can hurt them. I don’t. I don’t need to do it. She isn’t a bad person. She just…cares, and we don’t. Nothing wrong with that. So I let it go.”

“And?”

Merlin looked at him and sighed. “I would have just said something. It’s nothing. Come on, we have time until we need to get back and I need something I can condense into a scrapbook page.”

“Said?”

Merlin made a face, looking up at Arthur, then down at his own feet. “You wouldn’t have such a fetish for making your life look interesting if you’d done anything worth actually remembering.”

Arthur sucked a breath through his teeth and Merlin shrugged and pushed off. “It’s easy, for me, to stop being angry once you know you could hurt them. The important part is to not do it.”

Arthur caught up with him with a few hard pushes and then glided forward. “Trying to tell me something?”

“Your anger is different. It isn’t.” Merlin thought for a bit as they turned a hard corner and veered around a man tying his shoe. “When I get angry it makes me think about how to get even, you know? I want to hurt them, and once I know I can, I’m fine. Your anger just kind…turns you into a grunting caveman?” Merlin smiled and shoved a bubble of affection at him so Arthur wouldn’t take it personally. “They’re Hulk-outs, like we’ve always said. You go from mild mannered Arthur Eigyrson to a great big giant red rage monster.”

“Red?”

“If you can name a single day in the last, like, five years when you haven’t worn something red, I will buy you an ice cream with flake.”

Arthur looked down at himself. He did own a lot of red.

“Anyways, Hulk doesn’t stop being angry. He smashes stuff until he tires himself out, or, like, Betty shows up and Bruce Banner comes back. It’s this big, huge, gamma-irradiated monster that just wants to destroy all the things, and it doesn’t stop until all the things are gone and he gets tired and goes down for a nap.”

They waited at the crossroad.

Merlin punched Arthur’s shoulder. “Betty could calm down Bruce, but she wasn’t his soulmate.” He said and Arthur looked over. Merlin smiled, crooked, lovely and perfectly familiar. Arthur punched his arm back and they raced home.

---
“The thematic similarities between The Girl Who Could Not Laugh and La Belle et La Bete is of course the fact that their modus operandi, their central conflict, centers around humankind’s essential nature—zer being which elevates zer above the Beasts is broken. This theme—corresponding with Arne-Thompson motif 46B—Transformation (physical or metaphysical) into the beastial.

With the Bete in La Belle et La Bete this transformation is both physical and metaphysical, the Bete is made to take on the beastial outer form to match zer inner nature. The fairy—here clearly an allegory for society—condemns the submissive the Beast once was for her transgressive sexuality. In many such stories, the beastial is a stand in for non-dynamic-normative relations. The rose motif in many adaptations of this story is in fact a representation of Belle herself—a stand in for zer soul mate. The Bete guards zer roses jealousy, but has no use for them zerself, an example of what the Bete needs, but is too animalistic to properly receive. Belle is similarly unbalanced—since the Beast is effectively ‘blocking’ their bond by being inhuman, a symbol, of course, of his non-dynamic tendencies, and thus it is up to her to act as a guiding force for what is right and correct in terms of their, eventually shared, sexuality. La Belle et La Bete is thus about Belle’s struggle to conquer her own transgressive nature (that is of a person with no soulmate, and thus being an abject persona from society) and the Bete’s inhuman wildness and implicit degradation of proper and safe sexuality and—in demanding the Bete’s submission, and proving the worth of her own dominance, she brings about the Bete’s return to humanity and order.

Similarly in The Girl Who Could Not Laugh the Princess’s ability to laugh stands in for her dynamism. She cannot laugh—a basic human impulse—she cannot access her own sexuality, and thus, needs to be guided into adulthood. Here, rather than a beastial wildness, non-dynamism is represented as a form of death or dearth; this association is more common in primitive cultures, who give far more credence to animalistic qualities than Western culture, which favors the bestial identity as a demonstration of the monstrous. The boy who made the girl laugh by parading in front of her tower with a goose on his head and a parade of beings attached to him was in fact her soulmate, bringing with him the part of herself she was missing, performing for her so she would correct her transgressive behaviour—”
William Wattson “Non-Dynamism And Transgressive Sexuality As Exemplified In Western And Non-Western Fairy Tales” in The New Princeton Folklore Review.

---
September, 2011
Merlin threw the book he was reading across the room. Percy’s dog leapt from Percy’s lap and scurried across the floor to bark at it, hopping on her little, stumpy legs around the spread book. Percy was the biggest human being Arthur had ever met, and he owned the absolutely tiniest dog, because his second cousin’s new flat didn’t allow dogs, and Percy was the kind of man who would take his second cousin’s corgidoodle…thing… without a second thought, and carry her in the same bedazzled carrier she’d always rode around in, because he “doesn’t want to upset her.”

Percy was the kind of human being who would help you move into your new flat even if you’d moved six times that year, the new place didn’t have a lift, and it’s on the top floor, without even asking for pizza or anything. Percy had once been in a bank robbery and talked the robbers out of a hostage situation by just being himself, and then hugged them until the police arrived. True story.

Percy was a disturbingly nice fellow, but he was still the biggest bloke since the beginning of time and Merlin sort of…found reasons to sit in his lap and squeeze his muscles a little sometimes.

Arthur had told Merlin to date Percy, because Percy was exactly Merlin’s preference of Big, and—possibly—the nicest person on earth (Percy had, in real life, nursed a bag of near-drowned, unweaned kittens back to health. He’d stayed up all night, feeding them milk in tiny little drips from his finger, kept them warm and told them bedtime stories until they could eat kitten food, then he’d worn out his shoe leather for six weeks. Which had been decently easy for Percy because he had a lot of friends. True, goddamn, fucking story.) Merlin had kind of scrambled at the sheets a lot and come everywhere. They might have been having sex at the time.

But Merlin didn’t, because Arthur might actually get jealous of Percy (even if his name was actually Percival Jerome Damian William Evan Kinsley Witticker The III, of those Wittickers and his family was so posh it hurt to look at them.)

“Terrible?” Arthur asked from where he and Freya were once again trying to destroy each other in Mario Kart.

So terrible.” Merlin buried his face in his hands. “I couldn’t even get through the first three paragraphs and I read academic articles for fun. He switches languages for no reason, and he calls non-Western cultures ‘primitive’ and, like, non-objective judgement is just dripping from every word.” Merlin scrubbed his face. “A folklorist’s place isn’t to judge, it is to collect, correlate, study, synthesize and present. No folklore is objectively better or worse than anyone else’s and…” Merlin made several pained noises, so Percy’s dog scampered across the room at full tilt and ran right into Merlin’s leg, because Percy’s dog doesn’t know how stopping works. She then barked until Merlin picked her up and buried his face in her tiny, tiny, tiny body.

“It is the absolute worst.”

“Don’t read it, then.” Arthur dropped a bomb and it caught one of the A.I.’s as he sped around one of Freya’s banana peels. Freya hums Queen in response.

“Homework.” Merlin grumbled and then flopped in Percy’s lap; because Arthur was busy playing Mario Kart. You didn’t interrupt Mario Kart. “I have to type up a one page write up on it and everything and I can’t just yell about how stupidly dense and pretentious it is.”

Percy hugged Merlin, because Percy had, by now, picked up on the fact that Merlin was most comfortable when he was being sort of maybe crushed a little bit. Merlin made more disgusted noises into Percy’s chest. “Like, when I say transgressive sexuality, I also make sure to point out that it is perceived transgressive sexuality as according to either contextual or contemporary societal norms, don’t I?”

“You do.” Elyan agreed, because he was used to agreeing with crazy monologues made by brunets.

“And if something is judgemental, it should be the folk narrative itself. Like…any variant of the Maiden With No Hands fairy tale tends to be about some form of perceived transgressive sexuality. Like incest, or same-dynamic relationships.”

“Or the devil.” Arthur said.

“He tends to stand in for incest, kind of, it’s a thing. Also same-dynamic, as the devil is often characterized as submissive, because of course ze is. That’s a different thing. Anyways. The point is, if the folk narrative is judgemental, that’s fine. But you, as folklorist, analyze that judgement and contextualize it and whatever you don’t cast your own…” Merlin banged his head against Percy’s shoulder. “I want wine. I want a whole bottle of wine and then fire. But not in the wine.”

“Gwen is hoarding the first in the kitchen, the second is always a thing that can happen.” Freya offered, eyes trained on the screen as she busted through the finish line on the final lap. She threw her controller in the air and caught it in victory. “I am the Mushroom Kingdom version of Drive. All shall look upon my mighty works and despair.”

“Look upon my works ye mighty and--” Merlin started to correct.

“No. No.” She pointed at him. “No. Go get your wine.”

“Percy, carry me into the kitchen.”

Percy did, because he was Percy, and Merlin weighed, roughly, a stone. Percy once dove into traffic to save a kid and their dog (who had, zeself, dove into traffic to chase a plastic bag) and hadn’t even given his name, so the kid (who’d been wearing a Superman shirt) would think superheroes were real. True story.

Arthur fell backwards onto the carpet. “Elyan, entertain your fiancée, I’m tired of losing.”

“Do you want her to plan this wedding?” Elyan looked back down at his folders. “Because, I’ll give you a hint: it will be the worst wedding.”

Freya smiled upside down at him. “I love you.”

Elyan smiled and bent over until he could kiss her raised wrist, then went back to looking at his giant wedding binder. Gwen was helping, some, and Freya had promised to show up, look nice and only kiss him when she was allowed and not to yell at anyone over anything, especially Gwen and Elyan’s father.

Arthur and Merlin had a joint save-the-date, since Merlin wasn’t exactly going to bring any of his hook-ups to a wedding and Arthur…didn’t…have…hook-ups. Merlin had tried to help with the wedding, but he’d helped in the same way a toddler tried to help clean, and eventually they’d just put him in charge of organizing the RSVPs and keeping a spreadsheet of everyone’s dinner choices and if they were bringing a guest, denoting family groups, and who was from what side of the wedding party. Merlin had a folder for it.

Arthur had been put in charge of showing up, combing his hair, dancing at least once, and making sure Merlin didn’t drink anything and start making kinship charts. (“Weddings are anthropological!” Merlin had defended. “The world increasingly needs anthropology: now we are exploring who why and how we be people. The difference between us is not so much. Tell me your story: your piece of what is humanity.” Merlin had started singing. Merlin sang the Anthropology Song by Daionisio when threatened. He was like an angry songbird in this way.)

“I’m making brownies!” Merlin shouted from the kitchen. “Do we have opinions on these brownies?”

“Bourbon!” Freya and Elyan yelled.

“No nuts.” Arthur added.

Percy’s dog barked so she could feel included and then flopped her tongue out and smiled at the room. Arthur patted her awkwardly, so clearly they were best friends and it was her duty to drool on his knee.

“Why are we making brownies?”

“Gwen’s got cramps.” Merlin called back. Percy returned, holding a Gwen, who was--in turn-- holding onto a glass of wine for dear life. Freya immediately got up and flopped all over her, because apparently she had decided she’d married both siblings when she got the one.

“Poor dove.” Freya crooned and Percy shifted so both of them could sit on him like he was just particularly warm armchair. “You’ll have brownies soon. Merlin, make them disgustingly fudgy.”

“There’s twelve ounces of chocolate in one batch.” Merlin called back. “And a pound of butter.”

“Good.” Freya slid to the ground and took one of Gwen’s feet in her hand, moving to a spot over her ankle and rubbing up until Gwen made a tiny pained noise. “There we go.”

Freya gave terrible backrubs, as such things went, because she was morally against making people relax. She just dug into a pressure point and attacked until her mission was accomplished. It got the job done most of the time, she could get a muscle cramp tamed properly, but it wasn’t ever pleasant. Every time Gwen was brought low by an unruly internal organ, Freya worked on that spot on her leg until it practically bruised but it did the job and after three days of that, brownies and much gentler Merlin-lower-back rubs, Gwen was up and waltzing Merlin around the living room.

Merlin made a distressed noise from the kitchen.

“Don’t eat the unsweetened baking chocolate until there’s sugar in it.”

“But it looks like real chocolate.” Merlin mourned as he clanged about a bit, humming to himself. “On a scale of bourbon, from eh, bourbon to in that moment I swear we were bourbon how much bourbon are we talking about?”

Gwen made another distressed noise.

“Holy fuck bourbon it is.” Merlin said and Arthur rolled up to his feet to check on him. Merlin was usually pretty decent in the kitchen, ever since the Great Food Epiphany which ended up in Merlin making, roughly, all the cookies. But sometimes he got…liberal, with recipes. “These shall be Better Get A Spoon Because We Aren’t Messing Around Here Bourbon Brownies.” Merlin said as he sifted flour, salt, and cocoa into a mixing bowl.

Arthur looked at the door and then carefully put his chin on Merlin’s shoulder, fitting his hands to Merlin’s hips and inhaling the sharp, acidic scent of unsweetened cocoa and Merlin’s faintly-vanilla scent that he always got after a long study session.

(“There’s a chemical in paper that’s a close relative to vanilla, and as the book ages it breaks down and releases the scent, which is why they smell so good.” “So basically everyone in Silence In The Library was harbouring an abject longing for pound cake along with the soul-bending terror.” “They seriously could have just dropped some ham down in there. They’re shadow piranhas. They want meat. They don’t care. Get one of the creepy wants-to-be-eaten meat dudes from The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe and they’ll be all ‘oh hello shadow, how are you? I have delicious hindquarters’ aahhh.” “Did you distress yourself?” “They want to be eaten. And maybe that’s better than animals that don’t want to be eaten, but ahhhh… I need a milkshake. I need six milkshakes.”)

“How was your day?” Arthur kept his voice quiet, eyes on the door.

“Good.” Merlin rolled his head back and sighed. “Hate my Narrative class, the professor took an instant dislike to me, and I don’t think it’ll improve since I hate every single article assigned so far. He’s one of those folklorists that think the folk are mountainous aboriginal people completely isolated from all effects of globalization whose language we haven’t even translated. To him the folk are other, and the folk aren’t other. We are the folk: the folk are us.”

“Mmm.” Arthur said as Merlin put the sifter aside and began whisking the granulated and brown sugar into the chocolate. He, of course, then immediately took a scoop of that and licked it off his finger, humming to himself with one of his disgustingly precious little smiles.

“You?”

“Jigsaw broke again.” Arthur helped Merlin crack eggs into the chocolate as Merlin stirred. “Four people dropped out of my beginner class, but the rest look like they’ll stay on. A few because their parents are making them, but it’s still money. The more advanced class is all retired hobbyists who want to make rocking horses for their grandkids and sort of take a dim view on my age.”

“How long until the jigsaw is up again?” Merlin poured an entire fist of bourbon into the batter with a smile, and the faint vanilla smell intensified.

“I’m going in tomorrow to fix it.” Arthur took over for mixing once Merlin had put the flour in. Arthur was basically Merlin’s stand mixer. He stood. He mixed things. He didn’t take up counter space.

Merlin put parchment paper in the pan and greased it. A truly, properly, fudge-y brownie had to be basically airlifted out of the pan, and, of course, eaten with a spoon. If you could cut your brownie with a knife, something had gone wrong, in Merlin’s opinion.

“Early?”

“I thought to get up the same time as you, we could take the bus together.” Arthur stepped back when Merlin poured the batter into the pan, and then scraped the leftovers into another bowl with a spoon, dumping whipped cream and sprinkles on top. He looked at the door and kissed Arthur’s cheek, before delivering the batter-and-cream unto the woeful Gwen, as Arthur stuck the pan in the preheated oven and closed the door. He set the timer, because Merlin never remembered to set a goddamn timer and then made distressed noises when things, then, burned.

Someone turned on the telly proper and Arthur peeked out again. Stray and Robin were on screen and Arthur flopped down next to the tangle of Merlin, Freya, Gwen, Percy, and Percy’s dog (sitting victoriously on the back of the chair and smiling down at all of them) since Elyan was in a sea of table arrangements and flowers.

They were halfway through an episode of Batman: The New Animated Series. Gwen made a happier noise around her whipped cream brownie batter sprinkle monstrosity, as Merlin rubbed her lower back and Freya kept working on that particular pressure point. “Seriously, just shove it off on him.”

Gwen sighed. “You tell me that every month, and I tell you every month that he’s still on suppressants.”

“And every month I tell you that the second he’s not you just dump everyone on him because he deserves it. I shove half of mine on Elyan.” Freya pointed. “It’s his fault they’re so bad, let him suffer a little.”

On the screen Stray and Robin were facing down, Stray flipping out of the way of Robin’s staff attack and smiling over his bag of stolen gems. ”Now, now little bird. Don’t you know it’s the cat who catches the Robin?”

“Or, vamp vamp vamp, vamp, vamp vamp, I have diamonds, look how pretty I am.” Freya filled in.

“I like Stray.” Merlin said. “He’s super precious. Like, the first Animated Series added Harley Quinn, so of course the new series is going to give a supervillian a new sidekick.”

“Is The Cat really a supervillian, though?” Freya asked. “She just kind of wants to steal stuff. She doesn’t want to kill anyone, or destroy Gotham, or take over anything. She just rolls into town when some cat related expensive thing is around and rolls out again. That’s just sort of run-of-the-mill villainy with cat ears, if you think about it.”

“Also to fill Bruce Wayne with way too much sexual tension.” Merlin pressed down into the pads of Gwen’s spine. “Like, he confuses people about his gender through…radar…bat-signal stuff, but Bruce Wayne is a sub. Which is why the Jason thing? Super creepy. Dick Grayson? Sub, worked for the Teen Titans. Tim Drake? Sub. Worked for Young Justice. Jason Todd? Dom and worked with no one ever he’s mine, my precious.” Merlin switched to a terrible rendition of a Gollum voice and Gwen snorted. “And then the Joker kills him and Bruce has, like, a complete mental breakdown, enough that Tim Drake is like: honey. Sweetie. I know you were already coo-coo-bananas, but now you’re cotton-room, bughouse crazy and you need a Robin. Go talk to Dick. And eventually Batman is just like No, You! because Heaven forbid he talk about feelings with anyone. So The Cat rolls around and she doesn’t know what gender the Batman is, but by god, she’s going to go for it.”

Robin said something that they talk over that basically boils down to “You are pretty, but you need to give back to the diamonds for the Mission and Justice and the Mission, justice, justice, justice.”

“Is this the episode when the weird Black Bat, Stray, Robin love triangle starts?” Elyan looked up.

“It’s not a love triangle if Stray just wants to steal all pretty people and keep them all to himself.” Merlin said, watching Stray do a double backflip in his heels and smile at Robin before leaping off the roof. Robin runs forward and Stray has already bounced across far too many rooftops to catch up with, and fades into the background animation. “That’s how Stray’s love interests work. He wants to keep all the pretty things and he and the Cat can cuddle up in a giant kitten pile of leather and money and actual cats while they plan how to keep Batman and whichever Robin all to themselves. But no, the episode where that starts is later this season when Stray actually kidnaps Robin. He doesn’t unmask him or anything, Stray just wants to keep him chained up in a little bird cage.”

“Right.” Elyan looked at the screen a moment, before shaking his head.

“I love this show.” Freya sighed. “Though I regret that this Robin gets pants. He’s just so tiny and precious and vicious.”

“Can you not ogle animated teenagers while I plan our wedding?” Elyan asked, mildly. Freya shrugged and gestured at Robin climbing onto his far too big motorcycle to report back to Batman.

“Fair enough. And I find it hilarious that Jason Todd didn’t get pants. Don’t care if you’re a dom: No Pants For You.” Elyan said, biting on the end of his pen. “When did they reboot Bruce Wayne into a sub?”

“Around the time they decided he needed to be all dark and broody and tortured.” Merlin said, and he probably knew the exact storyline and title of the series, but then they’d be here all day. “It added pathos that he was a sub who was trying to be a dom, and also gave the world a good reason why people wouldn’t catch on that Bruce Wayne was Batman, because clearly Brucie Wayne is just the helpless but business minded, philanthropic, submissive heir to the family fortune and Batman is a terrifying dominant who comes down from the skies to wreak justice. And now I’ve reminded myself of Scarlet O’Hara. One of the Cat’s costumes was basically a green evening dress and I sort of cried into my pillow in confused frustration.”

Merlin took the dipping wine glass from a snoozing Gwen and nuzzled her temple. They watched with only occasional commentary (“These locks have been broken!” “The World’s Greatest Detective, folks!”) while Freya and Elyan snipped back and forth about the wedding (“Should the plates be white or cream? White looks more classic, but the cream sort of ties in with the orange and brown theme we have.” “I think I honestly don’t care as long as they are delivered with food.” “Pick something to pretend to care about. Just. Just one thing. You didn’t even care what I wore to the ceremony.” “Honey, wear whatever makes you feel pretty.” “But can you just have an opinion?”)

“Merlin, do your homework.”

“No, I want to analyze superheroes for the rest of the day.” Merlin whined.

“Do you want to stay up all night reading a terrible paper?” Arthur asked.

Merlin huffed and made a gesture to the book. “Force powers!”

Arthur sighed and rolled over, picked up the book and handed it over to Merlin, who glowered at it and slipped down to the ground so Arthur could take over rubbing Gwen’s lower back. It was understood that whenever anyone was feeling particularly rubbish, it was everyone else’s job to spoil them senseless, because at some point they spoiled you senseless, and it was only fair.

When Arthur had one of those vicious can’t-be-shaken colds, Gwen had made him chicken soup with big hunks of white meat and big spiral noodles, with thyme dumplings and thick cut carrots, celery and onions, with chicken stock she’d boiled down herself because Gwen was committed when she made soup.

The timer went off and Elyan got them, because he was the only one who wouldn’t need a quarter of an hour to remove himself from a tangle of limbs, nor would he cause Percy’s dog to start helpfully barking.

“Is this done?” He held up the pan. Merlin poked the edges and then the centre. “Grab-eth the spoons, Sir Elyan!” Merlin announced, and they all got teaspoons, except for Gwen who got a soup ladle and she scooped in right at the middle, where the brownie was gooiest and dumped it into her bowl with a satisfied grunt. Elyan flopped down next to them when Freya grabbed his hand. “I need to plan the wedding.”

“You need to snuggle your fiancé and watch cartoons with her, is what you need to do.”

Elyan sighed and rested his head on her shoulder and she smiled quietly, the two of them holding hands and looking happy and complete for a moment. Merlin rested his head against Arthur’s knee and made grumbling noises as he continued to page through his article and make notes in his notebook, most of which involved, to some degree the thesis: “This is the absolute worst.”

They watched another episode, letting it roll by without comment. It was a good show, well animated, with actual professional martial artists and film fight choreographers on staff to help with the fight scenes, and writers who’d grown up with the original Batman: The Animated Series, paying tribute, but also letting it actually grow and develop. Hopefully they wouldn’t change the animation halfway through to be more like some other show, because the sudden shift in the original series was still really disconcerting. Most of the original voice actors came back on again to reclaim their parts without missing a beat. Merlin had basically died a little when they’d announced it, and spent the next six months waiting for it going “Please don’t suck, please don’t suck, please, please, please don’t suck.” and re-watching the entire first run like he needed it to live.

Gwen shifted and Percy took over, kneading with one huge hand and she flopped on top of Arthur, snuggling in for a nap and Arthur took her empty bowl and put it on the top of the bookcase so Percy’s dog wouldn’t try and eat it and basically immediately die from chocolate poisoning.

Arthur closed his eyes and rested it against Percy’s arm, because Percy was good for that sort of thing, and while Arthur wasn’t a big…lap…sitter, but that was just sort of what Percy was for. You sat him down in a library to go find a book, you’d come back and he’d just be…like…covered in babies. He would be absolutely dripping which children, all of whom were just sort of climbing on him, or reading, or doing whatever, because that was just who Percy was.

And that was what was important about this particular group of people. They just sort of…had things about them and everyone else accepted it. Gwen had her whole…tragic…love interest thing going on, Percy was basically a superhero, Freya would kill a person over a really intense game of Cluedo, but was otherwise fine, Elyan had been a teenage runaway and tended to just sort of vanish for a day or three at a time for no real known reason, Leon was loyal as a goddamn dog to the worst sorts of people, and Arthur and Merlin were. Well. Themselves. And everyone was just…fine with it. They fit in here, as much as they fit in anywhere, and yes they had to lie about it, but…

“Merlin, I feel drunk.” Gwen mumbled. “How much bourbon was in those brownies?”

Merlin smiled at her, upside down and she snorted and shoved her hand in his face, shaking him back and forth and he laughed.

---
While some pre-gendered children present very strongly in favour of one gender or another, this should be considered indicative of nothing more than the preferred interests of your child. There is nothing inherently dominating about sports, vehicles, noises, or physical activities. A pre-gendered sub may enjoy the order and rules of a after-school sports team, or the child, regardless of their eventual gender, may simply have a naturally high energy level. There isn’t anything inherently submissive about creativity, an interest in beauty, or activities that allow for nurturing. A pre-gendered dom may still enjoy playing with dolls as ze wishes to have children with zer partner and start a family. Developmental psychologist Dr. Harry Chen argues that “[D]om’s, if anything, are more naturally nurturing and attentive because they wish to take care of their sub, which is an aspect often forgotten by society as a whole[i].” Or, as human sexuality expert Dr. Yolanda Reynolds states “a submissive is someone who chooses whom to submit to and how they wish to do so. It is not that they are overwhelmed by a dominant natural charisma and simply fall to their knees. It takes planning and deliberation, and above all, a great deal of self-knowledge and agency to do so. It is well known fact of well-established couples that the best scene is the one that takes the needs of the submissive and puts them above the needs of the dominant partner. It is unwise—and even dangerous— to pretend that it should, at all, be otherwise.”

It is with this in mind that you should give your child the skills necessary to live as a whole person until ze finds zer fiancée, regardless of how you feel your child will develop. We have no idea when your child will find zer after all, and thus they need to enter the world with a balanced set of skills and a stable sense of self. Every adult should be able to cook for and clean after zer self. Every adult should be able to put forward and express zer needs, opinions, and wants. Every adult should be able to empathize with others, should be able to walk with confidence in zerself instead of holding back out of some outdated social protocol. These are skills that are never wasted—a dom may decide to pamper zer sub by cooking a nice meal for their anniversary. A sub needs to know how to protect themselves—emotionally and physically— in a crisis. A switch needs to learn zerself, and needs the strong foundation of a good home and supportive family to find this.

In order to be that family, be supportive of your child’s interests, establish clear rules for your child early (such as reasonable bedtimes, noise curfews, and times when homework should be completed), and then enforce those rules. As your child gets older allow zer more freedom, so that ze knows what to do with said freedom before ze goes out into the world, but equally give a bigger sense of responsibility to temper that freedom (the use of the family car may come with a need for a job to pay for gas, a later curfew comes with a responsibility to always tell you, the parent, where they will be.) Give your child age-appropriate chores so they understand being part of a family means that the work of the house is shared, but don’t burden zer so much ze has no downtime to play. Remember that play is important; play allows the child to learn and contextualize lessons, as well as giving the child downtime to process information gained that day. Play is how a child discovers zer world and who ze is in response to it. Play, regardless of gendered stereotypes of said playthings, is absolutely vital to the healthy development of any child.

I recommend involving your child in games that engages the child—creatively, physically, etc. While video games (especially educational ones, or ones that invite a child to explore more about a subject even if the game itself is not instructional) have their place, children need to play without clear direction. Sports are of course useful both as social institutions, and physical exercises, and if your child shows an interest in them, by all means encourage it (but never attempt to force a child into any activity they hate. Trying new things is one thing, but a continued march, week after week to tennis practice or ballroom lessons will not make your child the genius prodigy the movies said they would) but ‘play pretend’ is, quite simply, the most vital and useful game for development of varied skills. Playing pretend is how you child sets zer own limits and experiences zer own mind. Ze can recreate books that you read together the night before (and I cannot stress the importance of reading together enough), ze can deal with things that have stressed zer or frightened zer (many children who have dealt with the loss of one or more parents simulate funerals with their playthings to try and make death something they can contextualize and control[ii]).

The best way to encourage your child to exercise zer creativity is to give zer space and time in which to do so. Of course this space should be a safe space, which you can monitor, but it should also be a space the child feels free within. Toys that can act as props (such as old garments, pots and pans, etc), are more useful than toys that seek to do the playing for the child. Fun is something that is made, entertainment is something that is made for them, and any child—if they are to grow to be functional adults—must learn how to make their own fun.

--Misha Schlovsky “The Importance of Play” Parenting Psychology Vol 2. Issue 26 pgs 54-78.

---
July, 2001
His uncle didn’t even bother to ask how the scrapbooking class went. Arthur just came home and he printed some pictures off on the free photo paper his printer had come with. The photos were too dark and alien looking, but he waited for them to dry, put them on the pages and left them somewhere where his aunt could find them and make what she would out of it. Then he had homework, because after school classes were basically the definition of a recursive waste of time, he stared down at his maths book and tapped his pen against his notebook before shoving it away and staring up at the ceiling, then sighing and going back to it, flopping along the desk and writing out the problem, and working it out to, at least, a solution.

The day Arthur got out of school forever would be the happiest day of both his and the educational system’s lives. At least no one had sent him to boarding school yet. Yet. Arthur dropped his head to his desk. Merlin had read him a lot of books. Not that he couldn’t read, but…he sort of couldn’t. Or. He could read, but it fell right out of his head, just…scattered apart. Merlin had read him a lot of books, and nobody liked school for long. It wasn’t learning, nobody hated learning. Everyone had interests. Merlin would hunch over research until he fell asleep right there at his desk, because he was interested. I was just…learning was something you did. Education was something done to you. And there wasn’t a single thing in this world that was better forced than it was voluntary. A tattoo you picked—even if you regretted it later—was yours. Waking up with a tattoo someone else put on you? Yeah.

Arthur stared at the books.

And they say they did it to help you. Like surgery with no prior warning, just in, out, oh look we left a scalpel, look you have to heal for a few years, look, you’re never going to walk properly again, look, you can get angry or you can move on, okay kid? Education was the mind killer. Merlin’s school was all about guided learning, figuring out what you were interested in and expanding beyond it. The physics of roller coasters, the merit of whatever book series you were already reading, the science of baking—that sort of thing. Help when you needed it. Not…a forced march through bullshit which you wouldn’t ever use purely out of spite.

If he didn’t get more problems done by the time Aunt Rebecca showed up she was going to bring it up in therapy tomorrow.

It was disgusting how much time you wished would just pass already. Youth wasn’t wasted on the young, it was wasted by the old who wished they were young, so instead they lived through you to give you a good future and…

Solve for x.

*
Every therapy session began with his aunt and uncle going into the room before him, talking for however long while Arthur drank a bottle of water, and then coming out so Dr. Whitman could do whatever repairs his aunt and uncle thought were needed based on his last week of behaviour.

Arthur then went in, handed over his, as Merlin put it “Feelings Diary of Bullshit Feelings That I Am Totally Feeling.” He tells him about the class. Shows him the layouts. Merlin calls this the “Three Ring Circus Of Look How Totally Fine I Am!”

“Merlin was there?” Dr. Whitman asked, when it came up.

“Yeah, he signed up after I told him that I did.” Arthur picked at some dried, loose skin around his nail. “Why?”

Dr. Whitman sighed. “Arthur. The point of this exercise is for you to explore yourself. You need to get in touch with yourself and stop distancing your actions from your inclinations.”

“I am!” Arthur defended. “I went to the class, I did what I was told. It was boring, but I did it.”

“But you brought Merlin.” Dr. Whitman corrected. “The idea was for you to go out and do things on your own. To experience them by yourself, and connect with how you felt. And, perhaps, should the occasion arise, make new friends.”

“I don’t need new friends. Everyone in that class is either too young or too old for me.” Arthur defended. “He’s been with me since I was three. We. We survived this long, and we’re not going to just…stop because my Uncle doesn’t think he’s suitable.”

“I didn’t mention your uncle.”

“He’s the only reason I’m here.” Arthur gestured around them. “He’s the one who hates Merlin. You don’t need to mention him for me to know what this is about. I tried to do scrapbooking. It was boring. Merlin is staying.”

Dr. Whitman bridged his fingers and stared at Arthur. “I am aware the two of you are very close. I am happy you have such a strong bond with him.” Arthur didn’t flinch. He just stared at the table and didn’t touch anything. “But you are growing up. You’ve said before that you have very different interests. You go to different schools. As you age you’ll have less time for one another.”

“We’ll make time.” Arthur clenched his jaw. “We’ve made time before. He just joined the class to keep me company.”

“You need a larger network of friends.” Dr. Whitman stated, quietly. “You’re using Merlin like a crutch, so you don’t have to go out and do anything new, or meet anyone, and I think you feel trapped by it. I think you know this, and that’s why you get angry.”

“I don’t feel trapped.” Arthur crossed his arms. “Not by Merlin. I--”

“But you feel trapped by something?” Dr. Whitman pressed.

“School. My Aunt and Uncle. Just. Merlin isn’t the problem. He is my friend.” Arthur clenched and unclenched his fists. “Isn’t this the point? To get me in touch with my more submissive qualities, and Merlin is a submissive too. He wears sundresses and make-up and he talks about doms, for fuck’s sake.”

“And are those the qualities you most associate with being submissive, Arthur?”

“Well you gave me a long list of submissive activities. All good house-partner things, all about keeping quiet and out of the way.” Arthur rubs his jaw and paced over to the window, because if he looked at Dr. Whitman any longer he was going to throw something at him. “From what Uncle Tristan tells me, I’m too loud, I run around too much, I do not have the qualities that benefits my dominant.” Arthur and his uncle don’t talk much.

His Aunt tended to try. She sat them both down, offered activities, but his Uncle was…traditional. His Aunt wasn’t. She didn’t keep him at her side, on his knees, she didn’t have him stay several steps behind her when they go out. But he still looked at Arthur like he was put together out of scrap-box pieces and didn’t belong in the house. Had Arthur been a dom he’d be fine, his Uncle would have let him run rampant, because that was just what doms did. But he wasn’t. And he should be. And he should be, and that was what made him feel the most trapped. When all those wants inside of himself that clamoured to the surface and he didn’t… He wanted them and he didn’t want to, and it would just be better if he were different. He could do all the things he liked, and he could be with Merlin without it being perverse and...

Arthur rested his head against the glass. “So isn’t having a submissive friend good for me?”

Dr. Whitman was silent for a moment. “Having a fellow submissive is good and healthy, provided they are a good influence on you. Is Merlin a good influence on you?”

“Yes.” Arthur grit his teeth. “My uncle doesn’t like him, but my uncle doesn’t like anybody. I don’t know what he’s said.”

“This isn’t about your uncle, Arthur. This is about what you think.” Dr. Whitman corrected.

“It is about my uncle and my aunt. They’re the reason why I’m here. They’re the ones who are paying you. It’s up to them whether we stay here or find another psych. They decide when I’m better. So yes, this is about my uncle and don’t pretend I’m too stupid to know that. He’s the one who hates Merlin. He doesn’t like how loud he is anymore than he likes how active I am.” Arthur grit his teeth.

“You’re looking angry, Arthur. Do you need a cool down time?” Dr. Whitman placated and Arthur could feel his nostrils flaring like he was a bull.

“I don’t need a cool down time. I need you to talk to me like a person.” Arthur squared his shoulders. “That is the problem. I would be fine, you know? I would be fine if people could just... talk to me. Instead of telling me what to do like I should just bow my head-- my Uncle and Aunt treating me like I’m not good enough because I turned out a sub instead of a dom...and if I’d been a dom they’d just be fine with me, and that’s-” Arthur inhaled sharply. “I don’t need to be here.”

“Arthur, you need to sit down and take a moment.” Dr. Whitman held up a hand and gestured to a chair.

“Merlin is my friend and if you’re saying I shouldn’t be friends with him, because my uncle doesn’t think he’s right for me. And the only reason I’m here is because...and.” Arthur stopped being able to get words out. He just. He wanted to punch Dr. Whitman. Or throw the table or just. Run and not come back and it was too hot and his skin was too tight and he couldn’t think. He couldn’t think he was just angry and he was on his feet and-

It didn’t so much rush out of him as get tackled down with a rush of… something. Something not-anger and it gave him enough time to inhale, exhale, drop his hand and swallow.

Dr. Whitman looked unperturbed and stared up at Arthur. “All I am attempting to say, is that as much as you don’t want to admit it, someday you and Merlin will go separate ways, and you need to be prepared for it.”

Arthur turned to the door and left, anger just barely held back by the rush of Merlin’s… existence, basically. No finesse, no specificity, Merlin had just shoved everything he had at Arthur and it’s. Arthur could drown in it, if he wanted. He did want, actually, kind of to just lose himself entirely. Because he couldn’t get therapy if he’d just been made wrong, or broken somewhere along the way... It’s-- it’s not something anyone could solve. Not something he wanted solved, really. Merlin was his.

Arthur ran off and away until he found a bench parked in some little corner of nothing. He sat, dug his hands through his hair. Tried to keep breathing. He didn’t come up for air for a long, long time. Just let himself drown.

---
Pavi Of The Chopped Off Hands

There was once a king who loved his Wife with all of heart, soul and obedience, and under Her firm, loving hand, and under his supporting, careful consideration, their rulership flourished. Their fields were fat with crops, their people well fed and cared for, no other rulerships encroaching upon their territory, for though they were a small and wealthy rulership, God blessed them, and none dared throw their armies against Zer might.

And so it was that the Queen blessed the king with a child, a son they named Pavi, a child who was as lovely as daylight, and as sweet as a night breeze after a hot summer day. He was a blessed child, with eyes and hair just like his father’s and a smile and heart as good and pure as his Mother’s. The king and Queen loved their boy and when he came of age, dressed him in fine fabrics and precious jewels, allowing him every luxury and sitting up at night to listen to the sweet, perfect noises he made of his harp. He was a much loved prince, and all who saw him could not help but love his beautiful features, but more, his faithful and unwavering heart, that helped the ill and broke for the sinful.

It was then, however, that the Queen fell ill. The king called for the greatest healers, the strongest mages and the most brilliant minds to find a cure, but there were none to be found. And so it was the Queen called the king to her deathbed and made him swear upon his love, oath and collar that he was to marry none that were less virtuous, beautiful, or loving of their rulership. The king did swear, performing his last act of service to his Queen and it was with this that she passed, and found her soulmate and her Saviour in Heaven.

Years passed, and the king tried to rule over his lonely kingdom by himself, but it began to fail under his grief, and his advisors began to fear the neighbouring rulerships would conquer them. They were rich with trade still, and none wished to make the first move, but the people’s joy dimmed under the shade of fear. They ordered the king that he was to find a strong hand to marry and he consented, for all that he grieved for his Wife, he loved his kingdom and could not see it suffer. So they set forth a call for all bachelors of particular valour, faith, virtue and handsome feature come forth to win the hand of the king. All available dominants came, and they were given fine clothing, bathed and fed, allowed to exercise and study and prove that they were the best to join the king and rule. As each was presented to him, the king’s heart dimmed, for none was as virtuous, intelligent, and handsome as his wife had been, and soon there was not a single bachelor left, and not one had called in his heart for him to kneel. And it was thus the king’s heart truly and finally broke and there was nothing of joy in him, and he took to long walks about his grounds as his kingdom began to collapse about him.

It was on one such walk that he saw his dear Pavi, sitting in the sunlight and playing his harp more beautifully than ever he had before. The king had sent his son away, unable to look upon him and dour his good life with his own grief, and so the son had spent these long, lonely years in his wing of the castle, mourning for his Mother and not knowing of the kingdom’s suffering. And the king, mad with grief, looked upon him and saw the only soul virtuous, intelligent and lovely enough in the entire kingdom to sit upon the throne beside him. He immediately leapt forward and grabbed Pavi’s wrists. “Son, you are the only soul in all my searches who is as lovely, pure and virtuous as your mother. It is to you I must be wed to save the kingdom.”

Pavi, being well-taught and good spirited, was lanced through with horror at his father’s proclamation, and declared that they could not, for it was a sin and they would be damned, and their kingdom no longer blessed. Surely this was a trial of God and they would be saved if they continued to be virtuous and live faithfully.

The king fell to his knees, as if his son were one of the bachelors and begged again that they be wed, and if God wished to damn them, he may, for he would not wed another.

Pavi cried out, “No, no father. We will be cast out of Heaven and our names will be filth. Tell me what it is of me that you find so lovely and I will cast it from me. Better to lose an eye that to burn entire body in hellfire.”

“You are the only one as lovely, good and righteous as your Mother,” the king lamented, “and it is your hand I will have in marriage and no other, for your hands are as strong and beautiful as hers, and as long as they are there, I will continue to love and serve only you.”

So the son commanded his maidservant to remove his hands, so his father would not be tempted by sin any longer. And the king, so enraged and maddened by this, locked his son in a watertight chest and threw him out to sea, declaring if it was not to him his son was to wed, then he could wed no one.

cont.

December, 2011

The dance floor is as packed as such places tend to be, bodies rolling like waves, sweat on everything, arms in the air, hands on bodies, lips on lips, but too chaotic and pressing to notice anything but the person right in front of you. Which, at the moment (for Arthur), is Merlin.

They’ve danced before, mostly because the high press of bodies makes it impossible to really look at anyone and see what’s happening, but they’ve still always been…careful about it. Dancing like how subs dance, only pushing close as a joke, mostly arms in the air, bodies bumping by accident, hips swaying because that’s what you do with them, apparently.

Here the floor is packed to exploding, no one knows who they are, no one can tell what they are, and so Arthur reels Merlin in, carefully settles his hands on Merlin’s waist, pressing his nose to the slightly perfumed join of his neck and shoulder. They can’t talk at all, it’s too loud for that, but Merlin’s is immediately aroused, his back pressed flush with Arthur’s front. Arthur closes his eyes, and the music isn’t anything real. Just thumping. Direction for how to guide Merlin’s body, as so much as Arthur ever does. Merlin ropes his arms behind Arthur’s neck, and when Arthur looks, arches his everything in a long undulation, smiling with all he has and feeling so damn safe Arthur wants to just keep him here without pause or question.

Arthur rubs his fingers over Merlin’s shirt, looking around. No one is paying them any attention. No one knows who they are. They’re just two…people. Two people dancing like any two people. Or three people. Or an entire knot of moving, kissing, humanity that’s just waiting for a flat space of floor to get serious on.

Merlin rocks his hips and Arthur sighs down his low-cut shirt, rides his hand up Merlin’s bare, shaved thigh and fiddles with the hem of his skirt (“It has to twirl, Arthur. There is no sense getting a skirt that doesn’t twirl.” “It’s short enough that if you spin the entire world will see everything you’ve got going on under there.” “And you’ll defend my honour against ruffians and it’ll be genius.”) Merlin body has always been his. He’s owned it forever, every growth spurt and hair, every cut and bruise and scar. They are his, because he was there for all of them, can list how Merlin got the burn on his arm (cookies), the cut on his fingers (cookies), the slash on his calf (jumping a broken bridge), the spots on his stomach (chicken pox), he knows all of them. Merlin is the only story Arthur has memorized and he squeezes his hands just hard enough on Merlin’s hips, kneading his fingers and sucking a fresh, warm mark on Merlin’s neck.

He can feel the moan against his lips and Merlin turns in his arms, pressing them front-to-front and not a single inch left for the Holy Spirit, because Merlin doesn’t care. He would happily ride Arthur’s thigh right here without a blush or a stutter, because Merlin loves him with all of himself.

He would…he would tell everyone, Arthur thinks. Even if Merlin is the one who puts the most effort into keeping their secret. Even if he does all the heavy lifting, he would…he would tell everyone. Arthur closes his eyes and puts his mouth to Merlin’s neck, inhales the scent he’s so fully imprinted on that he can’t sleep without it. He licks a wet path up to his ear and Merlin shivers under his hands. Merlin used to be such a precious, gap-toothed little kid, big jug-handled ears and huge, bright blue eyes that could get Arthur to do just about anything. Climb any kind of tree, jump from rock to slippery rock at the creek, climb on top of buildings and throw homemade bird “poop” from the top and watched doms and subs scramble and look at the sky in disgust. Scraped knees and dirty elbows, big ideas and a tiny little self.

Merlin rolled his head back and Arthur put that thought aside for the Merlin between his hands, his beautiful, pale throat that Arthur, on one hand, wants to collar, but on the other, loves to see bare and free. They compromise with necklaces Arthur makes for him, out of gemstone-bright tiny glass beads threaded and woven together in hours and hours of careful, painstaking work that is only ever for Merlin.

He runs his hands up and down Merlin’s ribs, ignoring the press of other people, keeping his nose against the only good smell in the entire world and he could slip his thigh between Merlin’s legs, if he wanted. Go into a backroom, maybe. Except…except there would be security cameras, probably. Someone. Someone would see. The bathroom, shove Merlin into a stall and suck him off, because then no one is in control. Merlin grabs his hair and fucks his mouth, Arthur pulls back and teases, it’s…

He sucks a wet patch onto Merlin’s collarbone, shivers when Merlin digs his hand into his hair and no one knows. No one knows. No one can look at them and see anything but two men who could be anyone. They could be strangers. They could have met here for the first time, thought the other was attractive and now just doing…whatever they wanted. He could just now be discovering the spot under Merlin’s ear that you had to bite just this hard and he’d shudder. He could be delighted by how easy Merlin was for someone rubbing his stomach. He could be anyone.

He could feel Merlin talking, the vibration of his throat against Arthur’s lips, but he didn’t hear any words, and warmth and love and heat are twisting inside him like they’re alive. Happiness. That bright flare, buyout and irrepressible is happiness and Arthur feels drugged with it, the tension he carries, always, slips down and away with a jerk, the omnipresent pain in his neck and shoulders vanishing down and he just…he feels good.

Merlin is still talking, but it doesn’t mean anything, so Arthur kisses him. Right there. Right there were people could see. People can see them kissing. People will look at Merlin, look at his bright-bruised lips and know who did that, but not what it means. He could kiss Merlin the rest of the night, just sway and grind to this thumping, dropping, unce-unce-unce for the rest of time and just kiss Merlin, let his hands wander and Merlin is laughing into his mouth. His eyes are so bright, so fucking bright, so Arthur kisses his eyelids, drops more down his nose, nipping at the tip and Merlin bites his chin, grinning and his hands knead at Arthur’s hair, his scalp.

“I love you,” Arthur says aloud, because no one will hear him. He promises it down Merlin’s throat, kneading it into his skin with his finger, rocking to it with his hips—and it doesn’t matter that dancing is something that other people do, he’s never leaving here, even if everyone else is jumping and jostling and they’re just here, making out like they can’t do it anywhere else.

And Merlin is happy. Arthur wraps his arms up tight around Merlin, tight enough that he probably squeaked, even if Arthur couldn’t hear it, he’s packed tight with happiness, filled to the brim with it and Arthur…Arthur wants that always. He wants Merlin to always be this giddy-high-fresh-beautiful-joy, this rich with it, he doesn’t care if he can never turn Merlin on, or get him off the right way, or make him feel properly, really safe, but if he could... if he could just make Merlin this happy all the time, he would.

Merlin is clinging to him like a baby marmoset, nothing of his touching the floor and Arthur can totally manage to get them somewhere to sit, even if he has to move slowly. Merlin is just clinging and Arthur is clinging, and they find a single, empty chair and Merlin’s just…on him, everywhere and beaming down at him and Arthur presses his fingers to the smile. Merlin kisses his fingertips and sucks them into his mouth, hot and soft and familiar. Wet. Arthur strokes his tongue and Merlin’s eyes flutter closed, curling up in Arthur’s lap and they’re anonymous. No one is even looking at them. It’s still their secret, but Merlin is brilliant with joy and Arthur will find a way to come here every week if it means Merlin will just keep looking like this and not looking anywhere else. Scarlet O’Hara herself could come and grab him by the collar and he wouldn’t even look at her.

And Arthur feels giddy with power, and then uncomfortable with it, unsure what to do with it, if he should. He could try. He could. Um. He could do anything to Merlin. He could do anything, and Merlin would let him and no one would stop him or tell him if he went too far and he’s…he could…someone could… He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know what to do because he could do anything and that is terrifying.

Merlin pulls away slowly and then just rests his head on Arthur’s shoulder, sighing in a gust against Arthur’s neck and their touches switch from greedy need to comfort and Arthur presses his face into his hand and Merlin’s happiness dwindles down with worry and Arthur should…he. Someday he’ll be better than this, maybe. Someday he won’t panic about…

He’s why Merlin makes up his stories. He’s why they keep it a secret. He’s why…

Merlin cups him through his trousers and Arthur jumps. Merlin is giving him one of his many looks, the ones that translate into “I’m tired of you marinating in your own issues, so we’re going to find a way to fuck that calms your shit down and talk about it later over ice cream.”

Arthur snorts, but relaxes his hips and Merlin keeps rubbing, slowly, sneakily, and he’s so arranged them that he could probably tug Arthur out and jerk him off right here, if either of them weren’t terrified of staining the upholstery. You don’t stain upholstery. It’s rude. Someone would have to clean it.

Merlin moved up and rubbed his abdomen, right above his pelvis. Arthur used to. Used to toss off with one hand on his cock, the other pressed down there as hard as he could manage, abs pressing back until he just…lost the thread of everything for a stark, brilliant second. Arthur fiddles with Merlin’s earrings and smiling as ruefully as he knows how. Merlin shrugs, forgivingly, and rubs a thumb over Arthur’s eyebrow, smiling to himself—probably humming. Arthur cups his hands around one of Merlin’s bare thighs, the skirt riding high and free and Merlin—who had done life-modelling in uni, been a naked model for several photography students, and done a self-directed naked shoot for the sexual advocacy group’s “Love Your Body” campaign (none of which had been terrifically sexy)--just sort of went with it, because that’s what Merlin does when there is potential nakedness.

Arthur likes at least two layers between himself and the world. Usually three. Merlin sighs and they lounge for a bit, not touching in any particular telling way, but still touching. But then, they generally are.

When a song comes on that Merlin recognizes, and likes, he drags Arthur back out, but the movements are frenetic. Merlin’s arms crossed over his head, hips swaying and a truly stupidly big smile on his face, because he knows he can’t dance and he doesn’t, exactly, care. Arthur…doesn’t examine how poorly he dances. He just knows he really can’t. It requires a certain lack of inhibition. Arthur has a lot of inhibitions.

He could make a set of collectable trading cards out of them, probably.

---

Variants of the Fox-Wife tale type in Modern Japanese Culture
Cast:
Hinata Sen: A young submissive who gets pregnant with someone other than her fiancée, whose parents made him rebuke her and take repressive drugs so that he make a better name for himself and cover the dishonour. She tries to drown herself but is pulled from the lake by Keera—a young fox. After giving birth to Hikaru she discovers that both she and the baby are werewolves.
Keera: A young female fox that saves Hinata and (the still unborn) Hikaru, then turns into a human to help take care of the baby in exchange for a favor Hinata had done for her previously.
Akira Yui: Hinata’s fiancé. He spends most of the anime trying to get enough political clout to marry Hinata. His family develops intricate plots to keep them apart.
Hikaru Sen: Werewolf baby.
Miao Miao: Kitten, who in the anime is also a dragon, but in the original manga was a normal, if sparsely appearing, cat.
Abstract
The anime Japanese: Kitsune to Ryouken—translated into English as Keera’s Honor— shows clear signs of being influenced by variant 3C of the “Fox-Wife” tale type[1]. The “Fox-Wife” is notable in folkloric terms because of the sheer number of variants sharing the common theme of said fox wife. Variant 3C is notable for the fact that it is one of the more ‘positive’ variants; As with all versions of variant 3 it begins with the human protagonist—in this case a submissive, saving a fox. The fox then seeks to repay the favor, when the submissive is in need. In variant 3C the submissive is cut off from zer bondmate and the fox establishes a phantom bond with the submissive, to balance zer for a time. In most versions the phantom bond is destroyed when the dominant returns to claim zer bondmate, or the fox is chased off by the pair’s dog—who is usually acting to restore things to the ‘natural order’. In some variants—those in which the submissive is female and pregnant or recently given birth—the fox may return to care for the child. For unknown reasons this does not hold true if the fox herself is the one who has a baby.

In Kitsune to Ryouken, the protagonist Hinata saves the Fox- Keera- as a child, and Keera waits to return the favor. The opportunity arises when Hinata’s fiancé is forced by his family to repudiate her due to her bearing another man’s child. Keera saves Hinata when she attempts to drown herself and uses a phantom bond to stabilize Hinata’s mental state.
Following the first arc of the series, when Hinata gives birth to her son Hikaru, it is revealed that she and the baby are both werewolves (although Hinata was not one prior to the pregnancy). This then brings in the tension of the dog chasing the fox off—and one of the underlying conflicts in the series is the fear that either Hinata or Hikaru will chase Keera off. This is especially poignant as the manga has Hinata, Keera, and Akira form a stable triad to raise Hikaru, giving the fox what could be easily construed as a happier ending than the one she receives in most of the actual folk tales.

 

[1] As defined by Hiro Shiba’s treatise [trans]Faces of the Fox Wife in Folklore

---
May, 2002

Arthur was still, basically, completely unused to doing his own thing only to be struck through with a sudden, sharp spike of some feeling that he had no right to be feeling. Merlin said it was like they’d jumped into a game without reading the tutorial or handbook, and now they didn’t know how the controls worked. They’d gone, basically, from being complete null-heads, to throwing their combined selves in a blender and making a delicious milkshake out of them. In Merlin’s words.

Most kids tended to have a few years to poke at the second presence in their head while it was still dampened down. They would get to practice showing select emotions off, and hiding others. Arthur and Merlin had been in over their heads from the start line. There was no learning curve, just full, wholehearted emotions and physical sensations. There had been…a lot of awkward nights that they didn’t…talk about.

He should not have been that excited about dishwashing, yet his hands were shaking and his heart was thumping, his stomach twisted around in his gut. Excitement was really, very close to fear, wasn’t it? He’d never gotten a chance to really analyze an emotion before. Generally he was too busy feeling it.

Merlin thumped in through the back door a few plates later and Aunt Rebecca sighed, pushing her hand down flat on Merlin’s head. “At least knock before coming in, hmm?”

“Yes, sorry.” He smiled up at her and she’d let it go—like she always did—and went back to whatever it was that she’d been doing. Uncle Tristan ignored them as he always did those days and Merlin paid him no more mind than a No Trespassing sign. Merlin grabbed Arthur by the elbow, “come on, I found something. Come on-“

“Merlin, Arthur needs to finish the dishes.” Aunt Rebecca chastised and Merlin huffed out an impatient little noise, shoved Arthur over to drying and began scrubbing the silverware at hyper speed, examining them carefully for food spots and then handing them to Arthur polish and dry before putting in the dishwasher, because his Uncle was psychotic about dirty dishes, and then he was hauling Arthur out the backdoor with suds still clinging to their hands. He jumped over a bush between their two yards and yanked Arthur past Lance and Merlin’s mum before he could do more than wave and be dragged up the stairs. He shoved Arthur onto the bed and pressed a thick booklet into Arthur’s hands.

“Merlin, I am not reading a book of academic essays for you or anyone else.” Arthur handed it back.

“Okay, yes, I expected that, and I’d tell you to just read the one, but it’s, you know. Fifty pages of in-depth analysis about an anime I’ve never heard of before. Granted I don’t really watch anime, but, the point is that this? This is what we’ve been looking for.” Merlin took the booklet from him. “Look, so I was going through medical journals and psychology papers and news reels and history, but all of them talk about deviant sexuality like…I mean they use the word deviant, you know? They’re pretty biased, and they.” Merlin shook his head to get himself to focus. “Well, you’ve been here for most of the helpful ones, and there are like…thirty unhelpful ones for every even mildly useful one, and it’d be better if I could get into a university library, but. But, this is about, and here’s what she calls it, ‘perceived transgressive sexuality, that which does not follow societal condoned patterns.’” Merlin looked up with a grin, like that was supposed to mean anything to Arthur.

“Okay so, every other article has taken this…looking down their nose kind of tone about anything except a relationship that contains both a sub and a dom. They don’t even like switches most of the time, and it’s only the really liberal ones who accept stable triads as a relationship type. Even when they have information, it’s always looked at as problematic, right? Like: here is something obviously wrong. Let’s poke it.”

Arthur nodded and looked at his feet and Merlin just shoved the article in his face again. “No, no, but this just talks about a fictional relationship, in this case, you know, one between a submissive and a non-dynamic fox, because it’s a fox, and foxes are all about the making babies and faffing about, and it eventually becomes a triad between a dom, sub and non-dynamic fox, but the point, the point is that it examines the relationship without sounding judgey.”

Arthur frowned and Merlin plopped down next to him. “It’s the only academic thing I’ve found that wants to explore different relationship make-ups without this underlying feeling of someone looking at the alien. Like, you get memoirs and biographies and personal essay from non-dynamics, and switches and monosexuals and people who were in triads, and the Internet—if you look hard enough, mind—has some stuff about same-dynamic couples, but it keeps it real quiet, you know? And there’s nothing, not one thing about same-dynamic soulbonds. You get monosexuals soulbonding with someone wrong-sexed, but not.”

Merlin sighed and Arthur rubbed the back of his neck. Merlin hummed and leaned into it, sent the warm pleasure right back at Arthur. Arthur shifted so he could work Merlin’s muscles properly. He could feel the tight knots under his thumbs, sure, but he could feel even better the relief of them being worked, the slight pain as he dug in and the slowly, heated relief as they let go. It was a form of meditation, of self-pleasure that they’d gotten lost in before, and probably could again. If they. He tried not to think too much about...more pleasurable things. Merlin moaned quietly and let the article rest in his lap, giving himself over to Arthur’s hands

“There aren’t really any novels either, though.” Arthur said as Merlin went to putty beneath his fingers. They couldn’t afford to get too trapped in a feedback loop. “Not that…end well. For the couple.”

Merlin sighed and fiddled with the hem of his trousers. “No. Not that I’ve found. But.” Merlin turned and gripped Arthur’s hand. It was still a shock, still a strange feeling of…of doing something wildly inappropriate. You didn’t just link fingers with people.

“But all I have is this library system, and they’re not going to have things like that. If I could just get to a good library.” Merlin grumbled. “There have to be other people like us. There…there have to be stories about it, at least. Fairy tales, the earlier ones, they’re about all kinds of things. There have to be. I’ll find them, Arthur. You know I will. I can’t be stopped. I’m a force of nature.”

Arthur snorted, but curled his fingers against Merlin’s. “Yeah, you will.”

Merlin licked his lips and squeezed his hand and Arthur was hard. Instantly. Fast enough to make him dizzy and they couldn’t keep doing this. They. But he needed this, loved-completely-the rush of Merlin against his brain the thump of his heart syncing with his own. Just...being a whole person, and being loved and. And Merlin does this all the goddamn time, because if he didn’t, then Arthur wouldn’t just…go along with stupid ideas.

“So, uh. I was also reading some. Um.” Merlin’s eyes flicked between Arthur’s mouth and his eyes and Arthur raised an eyebrow, tried to be cool, because Merlin got so much more flustered when Arthur was pretending to be above it all, and it was... cute. Merlin didn’t get this flustered for other people. This was just for Arthur. “Some of those…uh. Fics.”

“I know.” Arthur swallowed and put his free hand on Merlin’s hip. “You kind of…last night.”

Merlin flushed and looked down, before getting a certain sort of glint in his eye and looking back up. “You got all that?”

“Yeah.” Arthur’s hand seized involuntarily and Merlin’s hips twitched forward, splotchy-beautiful with his blushing and Arthur wanted to.... wanted to--

Something. He never knew what it is, never had words for it. Merlin had the words. Arthur had the... something. Whatever it was he wanted to do it so badly it hurt. It ached inside him and if he could just…figure it out, they could be happy. If he could just get inside Merlin they would be fine.

Merlin ran his free hand over Arthur’s thigh. He stopped before going too high. “Did, um- You- You liked it?”

If Arthur had been a dom they would have had so much sex by then. Nevermind chaperones, Merlin would have found a way. Merlin was devious.

“Yeah.” He said and his hand crept up, under Merlin’s shirt. They were just…touching. They couldn’t do anything, no really. Not anything that would have shown up in those fics. They were both subs. So they were just…touching. Nothing. Nothing that counted, right?

“I could- I felt- You.”

Merlin bumped their noses together. “Lance and mum are going to work soon. We could practice. You…you could stay over.” Merlin rubbed his knuckles against Arthur’s abdomen. “We- I like sleeping with you.”

“You steal all the blankets.”

“If you wanted them, you’d fight for them more.” Merlin sniffed and then there’s the call from downstairs, Merlin’s mum telling them not to burn down the house. They waited, and Merlin pulled away, opened his bedroom door and called down. No response.

Arthur sat on the bed, suddenly cold and feeling like the last bean in a bag, rattling around emptily and about to be tossed in a bin. So when Merlin closed the door and came back Arthur kissed him, just because he couldn’t do anything else. Merlin made a happy little noise and squeezed their fingers together again.

“Fuck, you’re pretty.” Merlin murmured when Arthur pulled back.

Arthur snorted and Merlin kissed him again, wet and brief, before pulling back, “I mean it. You’re all…tanned and…your hair and…muscles.” Merlin licked his lips and ran his free hand over Arthur’s shoulder. “You’re big.”

“But I’m not going to use it the way you want me to.”

Merlin carded his fingers through Arthur’s hair. “But. What if you had to protect me from something? Like…you push me out the way of a car and then we’re on the ground and you’re over me, keeping me safe, protecting me from everything, and I’m under you, being held…being held down.” Merlin had a devious mind.

Arthur checked the door, like an idiot, and then turned them so Merlin was on his back and Arthur was over him. Merlin’s breath hitched and Arthur watched his thin chest jerk.

“Come on.” Merlin swallowed. “I’m getting cold.”

Arthur moved to cover as much as Merlin’s body from the rest of the room as possible and Merlin jerked under him, startled, even if this whole thing had been his idea. The sharp twist of arousal was theirs to share, coiling between them like something alive. Arthur ducked his head, riding it out. Merlin arched his neck, luxuriating in it.

“If.” Merlin licked his lips. “If you had the kind of dom you wanted. She’d... she’d like to be held just like this. She’d want to see just how big you’d gotten for…for her.” Merlin’s voice was low and hoarse and Arthur couldn’t look away from his lips. He physically could not. “She’d. She’d want to know how strong you were so she’d know she was entirely in charge.”

“Fuck, Merlin.” Arthur squeezed his hands against the sheets. “She likes it?”

“Yeah.” Merlin breathed, quiet, “yeah she loves it. She. She loves how big you are. For her. Big and…hard and…hers. All for her.” Merlin’s breath was quick and Arthur bent and ate it out of his mouth, their tongues sliding together in a way they haven’t figured out how to make their bodies emulate. “She puts you in tight clothing so she can just…look at you. Lets you shave your head when you want to, because she. She’s so small. But she takes up so much space with just... her voice and her--ah! ”

Arthur groaned and Merlin smoothed his hands up Arthur’s ribs. “She’s so small and you’re big and no matter what she-“

“You.” Arthur demanded.

“I tell you to do, you find a way to do it.” Merlin agreed, switched, immediately. Arthur was lowering his body, keeping himself between the world and Merlin, covering and protecting him and Merlin was struggling to breathe under the weight but he liked that. Liked being covered. Liked being smothered a little bit. Sometimes he crawled under his mattress and lay under it when he was trying to think. Sometimes he let the heavy armchair in the living room gently lean back until it was practically crushing him. He said it made him feel grounded, like small spaces and Arthur did.

A good dom would tie Merlin up. Would. Would know how to do that, how to keep him all wrapped up and Merlin would love every single fucking second of it. Suspend him maybe. Or…or tie him up and put him in a cupboard or…something. A good dom would know what do with a pretty, desperate sub underneath them. Merlin could make almost anyone into a good dom for him, Arthur thought (sometimes), he could make almost anyone want to see him desperate.

Arthur, meanwhile, panicked, slightly.

“No, no, we’re practicing, we’re just practicing.” Merlin wrapped his arms around Arthur’s neck, briefly, before that wasn’t enough contact and he was pressing his fingers along Arthur’s ribs like they were piano keys. “It doesn’t count. We’re just. We’re getting good at kissing. People do it at your school all the time, right? They don’t mean anything by it.”

“Not your school?”

Merlin shrugged and kept sweeping his hands, touching and holding, like he was unsure of what to do or how to let go. “We have fifteen kids, fourteen of whom view sex as something that other people do, when there isn’t something more interesting going on, and the last of which is me.” Merlin fidgeted under Arthur, biting his lip.

“Come on, just. We’re just kissing. Friends kiss.”

“Not with tongue.” Arthur shifted again, just so their skin could slide a bit, and Merlin’s breath caught and Arthur almost pulled off again. Merlin tugged him back down, all the way, so he was crushing him, and Merlin caught breaths in tiny, tiny, desperate pants. Arthur watched, fascinated. How did his eyes stand being so big and blue? How. You could make a new world in them, if you wanted.

He felt dizzy and beautiful against Arthur’s mind.

“Sorry. I just. I don’t know what we’re doing.”

He lifted up a little so Merlin could actually catch some air, and Merlin inhaled purposefully slowly, closed his eyes and then stared right into Arthur.

“Whatever feels good?” Merlin cupped Arthur’s face again. “Just. No one is here to judge us. We’re careful. We- I’m not ever going to try and trick you into domming me, okay? I don’t.... That isn’t what we’re doing. We’re just…”

“If you say practicing-”

“We’re just making lemonade.” Merlin smiled, then cupped his arm over Arthur head and pulls him down to Merlin’s shoulder.

“When… when I feel you, um. When you start wanking, I…I have to, too. No matter what I’m doing, I just. I feel you getting all hot and the way you. Stroke.” Merlin swallowed, and when Arthur tried to look up, Merlin kept him down.

“I can feel you getting--And then you start... Touching and I can feel that and then I have to touch and it’s- It’s like that, okay? It’s. We’re not doing anything wrong, we’re just. Sharing what feels good, like we’re going to do anyways, but in the same bed.”

Arthur didn’t make any kind of noise and Merlin flicked off the bedside lamp and fidgeted. “We’re asleep.” Merlin said like he could command the world if he just thought of how. “Come on, slump over, we’re asleep.”

“We’re not asleep.”

“We are.” Merlin insisted. “Come on. We’re taking a nap. We’re asleep, slump over.”

Arthur had a direct line to Merlin’s brain and he still never knew what went on in there. But he slumped over and Merlin moved around until they were under the blankets, heads on pillows, and no books digging into anything. Arthur huffed and when he tried to open his eyes, Merlin pressed his hand over them. “No, we’re asleep.”

“Fine. We’re asleep.” Arthur re-settled himself, because he was still hard, and his trousers didn’t exactly make that comfortable.

“Do you sleep in your trousers, Arthur?” Merlin asked and Arthur slowly shucked them off, the whole thing easier with his eyes closed. He pushed them to the end of the bed, then regretted it, because his cock took that as complete encouragement and rode up against his plain-as-Jane boxer briefs. Obvious. He was so disgustingly obvious all of the time and Merlin liked puzzles. He- He didn’t understand why-

“Merlin-“

“Shh. Asleep.” Merlin moved until he was lying with his font all along Arthur’s side, prick digging into Arthur’s hip. “We’re just two subs, having an afternoon nap, because growing up is exhausting. Nothing wrong here.” Merlin kept his voice quiet, and his arm was suddenly flopped on Arthur’s stomach, low, his forearm just brushing the base of his dick in a way that couldn’t be accidental. Arthur inhaled sharply and Merlin made a sleepy sort of comforting hum, nuzzling at Arthur’s shoulder with a hot, wet breath, dragging down Arthur’s arm.

“Merlin-”

“We. Are. Asleep.” Merlin repeated and kissed Arthur shoulder. “Just... We aren’t doing anything. We’re asleep. Sometimes you wake up with sticky sheets, and it wasn’t you doing anything. It’s just your body doing whatever, while you’re asleep.”

Arthur’s heart thumped in his chest, but he allowed himself to relax against the sheets and Merlin snuggled closer.

They’d done this plenty of times, fallen asleep together. In this bed, even. Curled up under the blankets, but never…never this tense. Merlin waited, waited until Arthur’s heart stopped thudding quite so terrifically. He slowly dragged his still-covered cock against Arthur’s hip, languid and subtle, but Arthur was hyper-aware of the hard line of it against his hip. He didn’t- He didn’t know what to do.

“I’m having a dream.” Merlin said, so quiet Arthur could pretend he wasn’t talking. That he was just muttering in his sleep. “It’s a…a good dream. And I feel hot and you… You can feel it now, too. And then you push up and I feel that. And it’s fine, because we’re asleep.”

Arthur kept his eyes closed and he just. Lay still. Wanted to clutch at Merlin, wanted to run away. Wanted to just…have someone tell him what to do so that he would know he was doing it correctly. If he didn’t know what to do, how does--

Merlin rubbed at his lower abdomen and Arthur shifted his legs open a little, because that was what felt right. Merlin’s breath gusted out of him. He slipped a leg over Arthur’s groin and Arthur pressed up against it. A tease of pressure, and Merlin was thrusting again, slowly, carefully, and Arthur--

They’d done a lot of kissing. They got hard. But they’d always…ignored it. It hadn’t been something they could do anything about, so they would sit until they calmed down, and then walk home, taking care of it…later.

Merlin’s fingers kneaded, sleepily, haphazardly and Arthur carefully thrust against Merlin’s thigh. The drag of it was so fucking…it was sweet, it was hot and warm and damp and he immediately did it again. Merlin thrust against his hip, just as slow and lazy as if he actually were asleep, slight and shuddery and selfish, a low rumbly kind of moan, high and just this side of breathy. Arthur pushed up again and then rolled over, enough to be something unconscious, something done only a little awake to get more comfortable.

They stilled a moment, then shifted a little, legs tangled until scissored, Merlin’s thigh was up against his cock, his against Merlin’s hipbone, and after a moment Merlin began to rock, slowly, moving until his head was nestled under Arthur’s, his arms curled up against his chest.

Arthur made something approximating a sleepy murmur and hitched his own hips. He shivered against the slow friction against his prick, another body besides his own, Merlin shuddered as he moved, and when Arthur opened his eyes, Merlin stared right at him. Merlin sighed and brought two fingers up, closed Arthur’s eyelids again.

“Asleep, Arthur.”

“You have your eyes open.”

“Asleep.” Merlin said again, desperate, pleading. So, Arthur kept his eyes closed, squeezed his hands into fists and rocked because-- It didn’t count if they were asleep. It- It didn’t count.

Merlin got off with a choked little sound, hips stuttering over Arthur’ thigh, leaving it sticky and wet. Merlin sobbed a little, this tiny, forgettable noise, except that Arthur had done that. It would. It would play or repeat until he burned in Hell, and he... He’d done that.

Merlin’s thigh pressed up, gave him a little more, perfect, pressure, and he would have liked a warm, squeezing hand more, or…or a mouth or…

Or someone to tell him now was the right time. Or to hold off. Or. Or what to do and he was supposed to know what to do. He was supposed to know and he didn’t.

“You’re asleep.” Merlin said, petted his thumb across Arthur’s mouth. “Do whatever your body wants. You’re asleep. Arthur is offline.”

Arthur shook his head and felt Merlin’s long fingers curled up against his jaw. “Arthur. Arthur please. Don’t. Can we have this?” He pleads. “I need you.”

Arthur tucked his head down, buried his face in the pillow and thrust until it was all he could think about. Until that was all that mattered: sliding his cock against Merlin’s skinny, bare thigh, getting that bit more friction, that atom more heat,

Until-

Until-

Until Merlin held his hand and he couldn’t…think, it was just.

And.

Good.

Merlin was smiling at him Arthur opened his eyes and Arthur felt…okay.

“I’ll get some washcloths.” Merlin decided as he rolled out of bed. “Just lie there and feel floaty.”

“Sure.” Arthur agreed and shoved his face into Merlin’s pillow, because it was the best scent in the world, right then. He did feel…light. Or maybe the correct kind of heavy, because he didn’t want to move at all.

Merlin cleaned him up first, hands gentle and humming something stupid to himself. Arthur knew it was something stupid, because Merlin only listened to stupid things, and then Arthur would get some small part of it stuck in his head.

He cleaned himself less carefully, and rinsed out the rag a few times so it wouldn’t get…wank-sock-esque, then got back into bed with a flop and groan, half on Arthur and half on all the blankets, before they really did go down for an afternoon nap, partly naked and entirely fine with it.

Granted, when they woke up again, Arthur stared at the ceiling and, after a in-depth study of the stain on the plaster that looked like a pile of noodles, had a panic attack about…everything. Nothing-- just... Second verse, same as the first, and he tugged his trousers on and bolted back to his house. Where he hid like a fucking coward, because he was. He was, and he couldn’t... He shouldn’t have-- dragged anyone into his mess.

But Merlin, being Merlin, climbed onto his roof and knocked at his window.

Incessantly.

Arthur opened it, because Merlin didn’t really stop doing things just because you ignored him, Merlin squirreled in and sat on Arthur’s spotless desk so to best stare at him.

“I don’t…know what we’re doing either.” Merlin announced, finally, looking down at his fingers. Arthur kept his arms crossed and doesn’t go and comfort Merlin, because...because he doesn’t.

He should have gotten this-- they should have gone to a doctor. Except that Dr. Whitman was horrible, and they’d never... They’d just be alone, then. And Arthur isn’t sure he’d stop loving Merlin, even if he couldn’t feel him all the time. And then what excuse would they have?

“You’ve got it more together than I do.” Arthur rubbed his face with open palms, before falling back and let his head knock against the wall with a hollow thud. “You never panic. You’re always...” Arthur frowned and rubs his chest, stared at the all-too-familiar ceiling, bereft of a even single stain, crack, or mark.

“You’re panicking enough for both of us.” Merlin popped his knuckles, restlessly, and got up to pace. “I’ve told you. I. Arthur, I was so fucking happy when it was you. I’ve told you. You were there, you…felt it. You had to have.”

Arthur swallowed. “How can you be happy about the fact that we’re fucked up?”

“You’re mine, forever.” The bed dipped as Merlin lay down, curling himself around Arthur’s legs. “I didn’t have friends. I don’t have friends. Mum found Lance, and I know she still loves me, but. New soulbond is going to distract anyone, for a little while. I have fourteen classmates, of which I am the most socially adept, and in case you haven’t noticed, I am not actually good at people—”

“Bollocks.” Arthur shoved him and Merlin snorted.

“I am. I mean-- I’m good at parents and teachers, and I’m good at appearing decently normal for a little while. But, Arthur. You can’t seriously think that anyone besides you or mum really wants to listen to me wax poetic about spotted hyena sexual hierarchy.”

“A biologist, I assume.” Arthur put his hand to Merlin’s head, and Merlin arched up into it.

“You are my only friend. And you... I used to daydream that we’d end up soulbonded. Not in a sex way, but just-- We’d get dogs, and live together, and tell our adopted kids about how we knew each other as kids, and you’d never.” Merlin sighed and bowed his head. “Jesus, I’m pathetic.”

“And I’m messed up.” Arthur clutched Merlin’s hair briefly and dropped his hand. “So...what? You think this is your fault? You wished this into existence?”

Merlin didn’t look up from staring at Arthur’s knee. “And you think you should have been a dom and you’ve doomed me forever because of it. And you will not let it go.”

“Look at me. I should have been dom. My Aunt and Uncle thought so, all my teammates just took it as read we’d all be doms, my teachers and coaches just let me go off the handle because they thought it was just pre-identity aggression.” Arthur knocked his head against the wall again, kept his voice quiet, because who knew who would be listening? “I don’t. I don’t like anything subs are supposed to like, I don’t look like a sub, I don’t…I don’t want anyone…’

“You want someone to tell you want to do.” Merlin said, rubbing Arthur’s knee. “You’re terrified you’re going to hurt someone with one of your Hulk-outs, so you want someone who can take you out. Keep you down. Someone who will let you be angry and give you something to fight against. Someone who can shove you out of your own head for a bit, but the idea of being responsible for someone else, for having to be in touch enough with your own instincts that you could bring them the edge and not an inch further scares the fuck out of you. You would, if you had to.”

Merlin rolled over. “If I wanted you to, you’d learn how to dom. You’d...”

Merlin sighed and looked at Arthur’s stomach. “If-- if I let you, you’d overcome every inch of that terror and just…do it because you’d do what you thought I wanted. But you’d hate it.”

Arthur swallowed and looked out the window.

“You don’t want to hurt anybody.” Merlin crawled up the bed and pressed his forehead to Arthur’s shoulder.

“Even at your most angry you don’t…you only hit people when they hit you first. You punch walls, and you throw things, but-- I think.... I think it would have taken a lot for you to learn how to be okay with hurting someone. Even if someone wanted it. I think-- I think it’d take an entirely different life for you to-- Enjoy. Hurting anyone else... You--” Merlin rubbed Arthur’s throat and Arthur swallowed.

“You always want to be the one who gets hurt, you know? In all our games, you always wanted to be the martyr. You...” Merlin licked his lips and considered him. “You would be the first one to try a jump, the first to try and climb something. If you got hurt, we’d get you to stop bleeding and it’d be fine. When I got hurt you’d go mental.”

Arthur cupped the back of Merlin’s head and Merlin kissed his jaw. “You are who you are. I don’t... I really don’t want you to be different. I want you as you are, and who you’re going to be, and I want to sit on a porch with you and play…fucking bridge, or something. If you were a dom, you’d be different and it’d be weird and you’d-- It’d be different.” Merlin clutched at him.

“Maybe better.”

“Maybe worse.” Merlin countered, then paused, listening, before the door creaked and Merlin shoved his face against Arthur’s shoulder-- instead of pushing away, like he should-- and began…crying?

Arthur’s Aunt opened the door to look in at them, mouth already open to say something, and then took in Merlin sobbing and the way Arthur was holding him. “What’s…wrong?” She asked, instead of whatever it was she intended to say. Likely ready to demand Merlin go back to his own house, like that’d ever worked before.

Merlin shook his head and curled up tighter, and Arthur doesn’t even need to think about it before he pulled him closer. “It’s just. A thing. Can you-?”

“Right.” She stood there another moment. “Sorry, I just-- Is there anything I can do?”

Merlin shook a bit too realistically and Arthur kept petting his head, taking a tissue from the bed stand so Merlin could blow his nose. “I’ve got it.”

“Right... I--” She pulled the door closed. After a moment her footsteps retreated down the hall, and Merlin perked up and wiped his eyes.

“Damn.” Arthur commented.

“We’re doing a segment on acting.” Merlin smiled and wrinkled his nose to try and get the red out.

“It’s good I’m not a dom.” Arthur tugged his hair. “You’d run circles around me.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty much amazing.” Merlin beamed and kissed Arthur’s cheek. The conversation turned, again, before Merlin slipped out the window and Arthur went to bed late enough that he was ridiculous groggy the entire next school day, but didn’t much mind.

---
January 2012

Gwen was twenty-five and married, technically.

She’d lived, previous to this last year with Elyan and Freya, with her father for her entire life—not that that was very long. It wasn’t like she was thirty and still living in home. Not that there was anything wrong with that, provided you were close to your family. And she was, at least, to her father. She and her father had spent most of her life playing an extended game of house, since, for all the good soulbonds were supposed to do for everyone, they sure left a lot of broken homes in their wake.

Her father had been forty-four when she’d been born, and Gwen, at nine, had read between the lines and saw “accident”. Elyan had been planned because, at forty, her father had given up on ever finding his fiancé, so dated, found someone, fell in love and they got married and had Elyan before suddenly finding themselves with Gwen. And, of course, the fill-in attending doctor to Gwen’s birth had turned out to be her mother’s soulmate, and they’d run off together.

Immediate no-fault divorce, her father getting custody at first temporarily, because her mother and her fiancée were a little too occupied with each other to raise two kids, and then because they moved to America and never filed for custody. Gwen. Gwen didn’t agree with a world where you could say you were completely and utterly in love with somebody, say you’d happily spend your life with them, and then look into the eyes of some other person and forget all about the first. And it wasn’t like she was any different than any of her classmates. She identified on time, she started feeling her fiancée, she heard the same stories, watched the same telly, read the same books, but…

Her dad hadn’t quite ever gotten over it, buried himself in fatherhood when he was there, buried himself in work when he wasn’t, didn’t date anyone else. So Gwen grew up making sandwiches for him to take to work, and Elyan helped her read cookbooks, turned on the stove while she carefully measured everything, the two of them making simple little dinners, and then the three of them sitting in front of telly with bowls of condensed soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, talking over the programs and eating ice cream for dessert. She’d grown up sitting between Elyan and her father on the bus, sandwiches between them walking down the street. She’d grown up knowing her father would come to her dance recitals, and Elyan would be the one to make sure she got to practice, after school. Sitting in the waiting room and doing his homework as she stretched and listened to the teacher, finding the isolations in her growing body, reclaiming every new-found inch and using them to make her arches more graceful, her leaps more dramatic. She never got very big, her brother said the dancing stunted her growth, but she had lifts if she wanted to see more of the world.

Elyan had run away when she was twelve and Gwen had never known why. Still didn’t really know why, for all that she now lived with her brother. He’d never been able to explain it, no matter how she pushed and so that. That was a thing that they left alone. At twenty-five Gwen was living with her brother and his fiancée and it was a relationship built on the understanding that there were things they didn’t talk about. They worked their problems out between themselves, she worked her problems out in front of the mirror, the tiny stereo in the corner giving her something to think about. She was twenty-five and in charge of her own, small, community dance troupe. She was twenty-five and teaching uni students how to accept who they were and move with that. Body consciousness had no place. Awkwardness and shyness had no place. They weren’t full on professional, she was paid for her time, along with tutoring rich little pre-gendered identified subs how to look pretty for their parent’s garden party talent shows, with ribbons and spins, smiles and skirts.

And so she didn’t talk to Elyan about how their father had bent his head down and accepted it, accepted his son leaving like it was the way things worked in this world. There was a lot, too, her father didn’t talk about. But he worked that little bit harder so she could have nice things, coming home and helping with her homework, no matter how tired he was, going to bed at nine, getting up at five, where she was already up, making breakfast and packing his lunch, before going back to bed until she had to get ready for school.

She found her fiancé at twenty, still living at home, working as a waiter because dancing couldn’t make you any actual, real money. Not if you looked like her instead of the sort of people who were in music videos. But she still practiced, did shows when there was a chance to, came home after being lambasted and exhausted and then did her stretches, pulling her leg up to her chest and breathing through it, falling into a splits and arching, practicing her routine if she had one, making up something if she didn’t. Dancers had their own form of monologues to beat into their bodies. Waiting made money, if nothing else.

She met her fiancé waiting tables, in her co-workers section, sure, but it was still the sort of movie cliché that she expected to have a soundtrack for. She’d gotten off work early, gone to his hotel room, and they hadn’t crawled out again for a week, and she hadn’t cared that she hadn’t had a job at the end of it. There was always somewhere else to wait tables. They’d found a flat, moved her stuff into it, he’d met her dad, she’d told Elyan on the phone, they’d christened the entire flat like they were a bottle of champagne on the side of a boat, him looking for work, making crazy delicious meals out of food he got from somewhere or other, watching telly and telling the other everything they knew about themselves, dancing for him, teaching him how to do basic lifts in their tiny living room so she could feel like they made something together.

Then she’d been stuck with a six-month lease by herself with her fiancée off in Tibet somewhere with no warning, after a small single little fight about blanket hogging sort of maybe spread into being a fight about dishes and then took over to whether to leave the shower curtain open on the inside or the outside and then the laundry and the…and then they’d just fall into bed and it’d be perfect and they’d talk and everything would be perfect until he left his egg pan on the counter and he ran her paintbrushes through the dishwasher and-

So by the end of the first month they were trying to not fight while fighting and it wasn’t that she was stubborn, it was just. She. She’d been taking care of her father, yes, and it wasn’t that she couldn’t do it for him, too, she’d just. Her father had also done his best to take care of her too, and she’d thought, maybe, once she moved out she could have a bit of a more…equal relationship. Except then she’d go through fits of doing everything for him and then resenting that she’d done everything, which, yes, sure, was a little annoying. Probably. But that was no reason to just scamper off and become a globetrotter without warning.

Gwen was twenty-five and living with Freya and Elyan, with one big bare room in the house for her to map out the steps to the dance she was working on. She stretched in the mirror, careful in her movements, moving into her body, breathing, keeping the video recorder going so she can watch herself later, taking choreographer notes, remaking her steps for each part, building the ensemble in her head for her troupe. She wasn’t waiting. She wasn’t going to sit around waiting for the tosser, just because she loved him in that helpless, all-consuming way that horror movies were about. She was just doing her own thing, only letting herself have a screaming row about it once a month, at maximum, and Freya would calm her down, Elyan would sit quietly and they’d watch a dumb film about things that exploded or kissed one another, because there should be both kissing and explosions in everything.

Gwen liked dancing, even if she knew she was slowly falling out of her prime and she still hadn’t made anything of herself, and she wasn’t going to. She had refused to make a series of thumping, vicious, heartbroken routines, and instead put it into finding places to work. All ensemble shows, all the chorus line—she couldn’t sing, and she couldn’t act, so no point trying for many plays—did a bit of burlesque, because she could, helped in children’s theatre, was one of seventy dancers in a scene for a straight-to-video sequel to something or other, worked as a model for a small, indie, animation studio.

If nothing else was dependable, her body was. She knew how long her reach was, the circumference of her hips, the strength of her thighs and the flexibility of her back. She knew herself, even if she didn’t really know anyone else, and the one person she was supposed to get— money-back guarantee, lifetime warranty, 24/7 customer service and technical support—had run off on her with no reason and so she didn’t even have that. She could bend forward this far. She could bend back to that angle. She could spin, she could hold this for five beats, six beat, seven, nine, twelve, holding and holding as still as possible, effortless and aching. Ballroom competition because she knew how to move, working in retail and swinging through the aisles, working in an office and practicing her stretches while entering data. Standing next to buskers in the warm summer months, during festivals, and moving with them, letting them hand her crumpled singles after a long day. Living statue, holding difficult poses for thirty-minute intervals. Security guard and kicked a shoplifter right in the jaw and became known as The Ninja. Community theatre teaching amateur actors how to do a proper waltz for the crowd, how to salsa dance and make people feel it, even if it was just a few, playful steps. Karaoke night and doing a handstand on a chair with full split extended, Freya laughing drunkenly into Elyan shoulder, as he gamely continued to make it through “Show Me Your Whiphand.” off-key and full of power.

No postcards. She keeps her ring in her wallet. She doesn’t try to take anyone home, she doesn’t want anyone. She isn’t sure she’d take her soulmate, at this point, even if he showed up in her bed, naked and apologetic. She’s interviewed for a student documentary on the cities burlesque revival circuit. She teaches aging married couples how to move together, she goes to clubs and gives absolutely no fucks about how she looks. She doesn’t get over tripping over her words, because while she never underestimates the importance of body language, the rest of the whole…communicating…thing is sort of. An awkward. Mess. Merlin dances with her sometimes, clumsy, but game for everything, invested as a stockbroker in her lectures on the history of dance and it’s use as a storytelling device. Merlin loves people’s passions, passionately. She took him to an office party (if you’re going to something boring, bring Merlin. Merlin can liven up anything) and had talked to James from Market Research about his three pet rats with sincere and unqualified interest, then let Gwen spin him around the dancefloor, bending into her dip extravagantly, full of attitude and silliness as always. And when the head of a different department tried to kiss her in the copy room, Merlin had tackled her with a Viking yell and grinned up at her.

Merlin could liven up anything.

She can still get both legs behind her head, and crawl her legs up the wall and lie them flat, torso on the ground and watch telly. Arthur quietly kneels on the ground and hold up his arm when she wants to do an over the shoulder lift, stretching out her body like she’s the figure on the front of some old fashioned pirate ship and will stand still if she wants to do a flip over his arm, but he won’t actually dance. He will make her lovely stage jewellery, though, and when she’d needed to play a wizard for a show, he’d ended up making a beautiful, ornate staff for her to work into her routine. One of the patrons had ended up buying it for a few hundred, but she’d felt powerful holding it in her hands for the two week run.

Arthur is. Solid. He’s dependable. He’ll help you bring in the groceries, and help you move. He’ll slam someone giving you trouble into a wall and just…hold them there. And if that particular person is trying to steal their money, she might climb up Arthur like he’s a tree and hold a can of pepper spray to the asshole’s face while Arthur stays steady as a goddamn rock underneath her, and she phones the police. They’re good friends, the both of them.

She loves Freya, who adopted Gwen immediately and without qualm, letting her sob drunkenly about how people were so stupid and then dealing with the fact that Gwen would feel guilty about it the next morning. She watches Gwen’s dances, and drags everyone to every single show and they clap the loudest, the proudest…possibly the drunkest. She and Elyan were rebuilding broken bridges, and they watch bad movies and he helps her re-fit her costumes, because he got into clothing in a big way somewhere along the line. She’s a ghost for a haunted house, she’s part of an amateur music video contest and they get third place. Freya teaches her to roller skate, because that’s the kind of person Freya is.

Her mobile rang while she was planning out her next routine, still figuring out the intro, stretching out her arm and staring mindlessly into the mirror as she feels the floor under her feet and trying to think of what, exactly the direction is she wants to go. Most of the time she just improvises at this stage, letting the music run on repeat as the video goes, finding sequences she likes and linking them together. But she likes to have a direction, an idea of what she’s trying to do, instead of just movement, followed by movement, followed by isolation. She moves over to the mobile and step right, step left, leg lift, turn—

“Gwen, hi, it’s Arthur I-“

Gwen did not think Arthur had ever called her. Merlin, certainly. Merlin sometimes called, shouted, “You are a good and charming person!” and then disconnected, just for the sake of doing so. Merlin wasn’t one to be forgotten. No, more energetic than that, it’s an upbeat sequence. Not just attitude, no, not just energy. Maybe she should just watch how Merlin moves for a day, take some of his gestures and incorporate them. No one is made of more energy than Merlin. Oh, that’s an idea.

“I... I’m sorry for bothering you.” He sounded distressed, his voice oddly distant and she could not think of a single reason why they were talking. But it couldn’t be good and she stops thinking about the routine. Arthur was also a creature of the physical, she and Freya had agreed, once. He isn’t good with words, and stops talking entirely if stressed enough, but he knows how to move. She’s addressed how he plays footie in a piece, once, the way his world becomes the ball. Freya had worked with her, letting her work with the ball until she was comfortable with how to hit it with her head, her chest, her feet, before she brought it to her troupe. He isn’t as aggressive as Freya, but he’s beautiful focused and…relaxed. His body is only happy when it’s moving with purpose.

“It’s no trouble.” She said. “Is something the matter? Not that something needs to be the matter for you to call me. You just sound... Um.”

“Look-- We’re.” Arthur’s voice cut out a moment. “Merlin’s hurt. He’s-- I don’t know if he’s dislocated his shoulder or...” There was a pained grunt followed by a few moment of panting and she looked at her phone in case it’d gotten a particular idea of what static sounded like. “It’s. A… thing… went wrong and we’re kind of. Can you please just? I’m sorry, Merlin, just don’t move any.”

“Where are you?”

“Our flat. We-- It’s going to look.. Just-- Don’t.” Arthur’s voice caught and he sounded scared, and she wondered what exactly they’d gone and gotten done to themselves. Household accident? She had the car, she would be the one to take them to the hospital. Home invasion? Unsafe dom? She knew Merlin and Arthur were close, probably close enough to want to do a scene together, if that was what they liked. She had a few dancers who were into that sort of thing, especially after one of those shows where they were all over each other anyways. You had to be comfortable with other bodies to do this sort of thing. But she had a hard time imagining them finding a dom they both liked, they were just…very different people? But fascinating to watch. Arthur reeling Merlin in, pushing him up, always there when Merlin needing catching. Merlin wound Arthur up, relaxed him back down. They had the beat of the other.

“Please come and don’t... Bring anyone. We might need to get Merlin to the hospital-- I don’t...”

“Calm down, I’ll be right over, don’t, um. Don’t do anything.” She got up and tugged her trousers on over her dance clothes and stuffed her bound feet into her trainers. “Should I bring anything? Is…I mean are you two alone. Now?”

“There’s no one else here. Merlin, for the love of Christ, stop moving, you’re just making it worse.

Gwen didn’t have to be good at words to know something else was happening here. She closed her mobile and drove.

---
December, 2011

Morgana knew how to get what she wanted. She’d been taught well.

Her father was especially skilled at it, of course, the lockpicking lessons, and the proper way to pick a pocket or handbag, but also the right way to smile, how to cry on cue, how to be a pretty, little innocent so daddy can rush in and save her, or rush in and make it worse (but only pretend) and they can get the payday. He knew how to smile, what to say, how to make people give them what they wanted in the hopes that they would get what they wanted. (“Gotta go for the ones with greed, Mork. No good person has ever fallen into a con, because no good person ever thinks they can get something for nothing. It’s the people who think they deserve it that pay out the most, babygirl.”)

She was taught how to throw a good punch, how to run like crazy, how to kick and bite and properly, really, fight like she was going to die. She was taught how to break someone’s wrist, three different ways to choke someone. She can get what she wants with her fists and her teeth, but she doesn’t do that often. Mostly uses that to keep what she already has, because she is not a mugger. She breaks muggers’ teeth, or their ribs, or, at minimum, their sense of wellbeing.

The other models had taught an object lesson about how to use being pretty to her advantage. And then, later, how to use being attractive. It’s something most attractive people learn, eventually, but you need to look at each target and think of how far you can push before it goes too far. Never push too far, unless you have something in mind for when you need to push back, and that only happened a few times, when she’d been young and testing herself out. Sometimes you needed to break someone’s foot and run like they could never even begin to catch you. The designers and photographers had taught her, in part, how to move, how to stop, how to pose and turn and twist to get herself in magazines.

Morgause had taught her how to put it all together. How to be dangerous, clever, changeable and lovely.

“How do I get him?” She’d asked, standing on the walkway and looking down at the two of them, because they demand her notice. No one else’s, because no one else cares to look. But she is looking and she…wants. They’re worth the second, long lingering, glance. Morgause has approached her, and Morgana always knows where her sister is. Usually next to her, as steady as mountains, and she is watching too. Wants as well, because they’re… well matched, Morgana thinks. The two of them come as a package, you can tell from the way they move, the way Arthur is already offering his drink as Merlin begins to steal it. The way Merlin shifts as Arthur does until they’re both comfortable. The way people take a look, want, ask and get denied with either an apologetic smile or a look that could cure leather.

“Merlin will be easy.” Morgause says. “He already wants you.”

Morgause has grown up to think of herself as the top standard of beauty, she has to think that if she wants anyone else to. Even eggs, if you put equal pressure on them, will not break. Not unless there’s already a crack. Morgause is seamless and Morgana is trying to be. Will be. Will weld herself shut, if need be, so she had to present herself as the most beautiful to be treated as lovely at all. Merlin…reminds her of herself, and it’s a bit warped, but the sort of warped she likes.

Morgana looks at Morgause and Morgause is studying them, compiling, and will report when she’s done.

Morgause gets that studious little frown that means something is wrong.

“What?”

“It’s harder when they’re happy.” She says and cups her fingers under her chin. “He wants sex.”

“Yes…” Morgana tilted her head. “What about Arthur, then?”

“Arthur wants guidance.” She turns her gaze. “He won’t accept it, he’s wary. He doesn’t trust people, he’s sitting with his back to the wall, he’s watching everyone, and letting Merlin do as he wishes.” She smiles a little. “He’s not comfortable in his own skin. He wants to be removed from it. Pain, probably, he wouldn’t want someone to be soft with him. He…” She frowns. “They’re very good friends.”

“So. Merlin?”

“Wants to be the centre of someone’s attention, he’s used to it.” She points to how Merlin is comfortably assured that Arthur is always listening, keeping chattering and never once snaps his fingers in front of Arthur’s eyes, or gets the kind of look like someone who's being ignored again. “Wants someone to…entertain?” She cocks her head. “Wants someone to impress. He’ll be beautiful for you, not much effort at all. But you want what you always want.”

Morgause knows Morgana doesn’t mean Morgana wants him in her bed. That’s easy, she can do that with anyone. She wants to keep some part of him for herself. She wants, even if she never sees him again, to have conquered some small part of his mind. She likes to leave a mark. When she submits, her doms earn it, and love her for making them. When she controls, her sub is hers for a night. For as long as she has them, they are hers. Morgana gets what she wants, because she has made it her lifelong study to figure out how.

Morgause stays silent for a long time watching the two of them and Morgana follows suit.

The two subs have an easy friendship, a partnership, maybe, of years and years. They’ve had no steady relationships to get in the way. Arthur had followed when Merlin had moved out to uni. They were solid. Impenetrable. Provided each other’s needs in tiny, effortless little ways that made her just want that much more. If they could... keep them. If they could keep them, then they would be perfect, an Arthur for Morgause, a Merlin for Morgana, it’d be…family.

A nice fantasy, for all she has no intention of properly doing anything about it. Yet.

“Theatricality.” Morgause says at last. “Make it big. Make it dramatic. Make it…larger than it is and he’ll remember it.”

“He has a good memory.” Morgana says and Morgause fixes her hair, it’s stiff with hairspray and mousse, thick with product, it takes on the appearance of softly falling curls, it has the image of something luxurious to touch, but it crunches under her fingers when she fixes her pins. She can’t look even a bit out of it tonight, she can’t look tired, or overworked, can’t look dishevelled, she has to last until 3 am looking perfectly, beautifully put together. Smiling and effortless, energized but collected. It’s all there in the makeup, in her hair and clothing, in her posture and smile.

It’s a big opening, and she circulates through the bloodstream, finding pulse points and making sure she beats along with them. Morgana wants this club to do well, to do ludicrously well, and she knows how to get it. She will conquer this city, it will belong to her. If, even, for a short time.

“He wants someone big.” Morgause says. “He wants someone larger than life, and if you put your mind to it, you could block out the sun, sister. Give him every single inch of that and he will forget he’s ever had anyone else.”

Morgana tilts her head to look at her sister. “And you want the other one?”

Morgause smiles to herself. “Seems a shame to break up a set.”

Morgana looks back at them, feeling…something. Something she’ll tuck away for later and examine. “It does, doesn’t it?” She agrees and pushes away from the bar, striding down the walkway precisely the way she does, because she does own it, and even if she didn’t, she’d own it for a little while. Only give up fake inches, Morkie. Only give them up when you know you’ll get back a mile. Otherwise you keep those in your pocket. No matter what, you’ve got to know who you are, because no one else is allowed to.

Morgause follows and the crowd parts for them. As well they should.

September, 2001

“No.” Arthur repeats, staring at the wall.

“You need therapy, Arthur. You’re out of control.” Uncle Tristan has his arms crossed. “Your anger is probably why you haven’t formed a proper soulbond yet. No dom wants-“

No.” Arthur repeats and stands. “Or does ‘no’ not mean anything to anyone anymore? You can drag me to whoever you want, I won’t do it.”

“Then how about we send you to a school that can-“

“The neighbours would know, then.” Arthur holds his ground. “I will make the biggest scene you can imagine. I will get myself kicked out of every school you can find and I will drag your names through the mud to do it.” Arthur works his jaw. “I am done with therapy, I am done with how you think I need to act.”

“Your mother-“

“Is dead.” Arthur pushes, packed full of rage and willing to throw his uncle in a woodchipper if he would just stop talking. “And the only time you ever talk about her, ever, is to say how disappointed she’d be. It doesn’t even mean anything because, if you’ll remember, I don’t know who she was. The only time you mention my father is to blame him, how everything is his fault.” Arthur squares his shoulder and shoves himself into his Uncle’s space. “I think she’d be disappointed in what a fuck-all awful job you’ve done in raising me.”

His uncle opens his mouth, then snaps it closed. “You can’t speak to your elders like that. You are a rude, unlovable child, and if it weren’t for your aunt’s insistence, we would have left you to rot somewhere. Your father was a waste, and you’re no better. Nothing good will come of you.” His uncle looks him over. “You’re an ugly, ill-behaved sub, and if your soul-mate has any mind at all, ze will never make zerself known. You will go to therapy, or I will find the strictest school in this country and hopefully they’ll beat this out of you.”

“This is how you talk to him?” Merlin says from behind his uncle and he turns around.

“Because, you know, that qualifies as emotional abuse.” Merlin lifts his tape recorder. “If you want to keep talking, that’s cool. I can- Whoa now.” Merlin steps back as Uncle Tristan steps closer. “You lay a hand on me and my mom presses charges on my behalf.”

“You will give that to me right now.” His uncle shoves out his hand and Merlin puts the tape recorder in his pocket, crossing his arms.

“If you think you’ll be able to see Arthur once I send him off-“

“You won’t send him off.” Merlin feels terrified, Arthur could smell the stink of muddy pond water, hovering just outside of consciousness. But Merlin looks like he could conquer England. Drama classes. “Do you think that’s the only thing I have on tape? I could ruin you in this community.”

“Hand that over immediately. Anyone who's met Arthur knows he’s out of control. Rebecca allows it to a degree because she feels sorry for him. But his mother would be appalled.”

“I have records of you insulting every sub in this neighbourhood.” Merlin’s breath is coming fast and Arthur is getting all this…fear and he just…pulls. Keeps it all locked up in himself and Merlin stands taller, smiling. “I have back-ups of those. No one would ever talk to you again. Or Rebecca.” Merlin shoves his hands in his pockets. “I don’t know what your problem is, but you’re going to leave Arthur alone, or you’ll regret it.”

His uncle looks between them, eyes flashing and his smile is thin. “Oh I see. You’ve perverted yourself that much?”

Merlin blinks and Arthur is holding onto the fear, all of it. Merlin can take care of this, and Arthur is going to hold onto all of his fear so it can’t stop him. He feels like throwing up, he wants to shove it away but he can’t. He wants to smash his uncle’s head into the mantelpiece so he’ll stop talking, for the love of God, stop talking, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop talking.

He’s got his uncle slammed against the wall, every ounce of rugby muscle pinning him there and he’s ready to rip him in half, oh god stop talking.

“You’re disgusting.” His uncle is shaking and Arthur can feel himself snarling and he isn’t doing anything. Just. Keeping him away and Merlin appears next to Arthur’s shoulder.

“Leave him alone, or I will ruin you. If you just shut up and stay out and we’ll be gone before you even know it. If you don’t I will take both you and Rebecca down.” He holds up his tape recorder in Uncle Tristan’s face. “Arthur, let go.”

Arthur lets go and his uncle fixes himself and then Merlin is in front of his face. “Engineer Winslow is so ugly it’s no little wonder she’s buried herself into a technical career. She needs to lose at least twenty pounds before anyone would think of touching her. Teacher Lester is far too loud to make anyone a good sub, she should learn to keep her mouth closed, I cannot believe how little control House-partner Lee has over his children, he is a dishonour to his dom—“

He goes pale and Merlin stops and leans in, whispers something and his uncle slumps against the wall after looking at Arthur, face going slowly, splotchily red. “How did you hear that?”

“Ventilation in the loft.” Merlin lifts his chin. “I can burn CDs and everyone you want to respect Rebecca will never look at the two of you again.”

“She’ll do something.” Uncle Tristan sniffs.

“You think I don’t have anything on her?” Merlin looks at Arthur and then back at Tristan. “Arthur is my friend. You’ve been threatening to send him away for years. Remember that time you shoved him in the car, only to have it break down a block away? Remember every phone call you’ve gotten just as the three of you have gotten into a fight that would end up with him in a boarding school?” Merlin rolls his shoulders. “Remember how you invited Rebecca’s boss to dinner and everything went wrong? Funny, all of those, really.”

“You destructive little shit, I will-“

Merlin holds up the tape recorder, and when Uncle Tristan tries to grab it from him, Arthur slams his wrist against the wall. Merlin tucks it away and smiles. “Leave us alone, we’ll go away, you can continue to be a miserable wanker in peace. Let go, Arthur.”

His uncle looks between them and Merlin holds up the tape recorder. “I will know everything you ever say again, I am high achieving, I am dedicated, and I do not care what I have to do to embarrass you into silence, and I fully intend on keeping my friend here.”

“You’re perverse, the both of you. They’ll catch you. It’s disgusting. You’re both disgusting.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Merlin says and Arthur can barely breathe he just. He wants. He wants to hurt someone and.

Arthur follows Merlin out the door, because Merlin is gripping his wrist. Merlin gets them to his bedroom, with all the projects and dirigibles and books, and he gently untangles his fear from Arthur’s, leaving Arthur exhausted. “Sit tight.”

“You don’t get to tell me what to do.” Arthur grumbles as Merlin tugs off his shoes and stuffs a pillow under his head.

“I do right now. I get to be bossy.” Merlin grins and scrubs Arthur’s hair. “Let me take care of this. No one, but no one, is sending you away from me.”

Arthur stares at him and nods, crossing his arms over his chest. Merlin licks his lips. “Sit tight.” He repeats and then leaves and doesn’t come back for…however long Arthur ends up napping for.

He doesn’t know, actually, precisely what Merlin said or played for Aunt Rebecca. He knows that when someone called Merlin a weirdo he punched them in the gut. He knows when someone tried to steal Merlin’s handbag he tackled them. He knows that when someone presses their suit to hard, Arthur is the one who gets them to back off.

 

But Merlin is the one with the plans, and when he comes back he kisses Arthur on the forehead and they lie in bed. The next day his uncle is…resigned, his aunt…furious, and no one makes him go see Dr. Whitman again.

---
Hymn 293

Let me be as a submissive
to our Lord God up above
Let me bow to zer orders
and be rewarded with zer love
Let zer strength stand and protect me
Let zer forgiveness cleanse my soul
Let me love zer like no other
Let me never falter, faint or fall.

Verse 1 of Hymn 293 from The New Lutheran Hymnal

---
December, 2011

Arthur was not surprised that-by the end of the night- they found themselves in a limo with Morgana and Morgause. Well. He was a little surprised by the limo, he’d never been in one before. Merlin was looking at the sunroof thoughtfully and Arthur was sitting a little closer to Morgause than was entirely comfortable, but not so close that he felt trapped.

“I should be holding a bottle of booze and standing up out of there and screaming ‘woooo!’ I think.” Merlin said, at last, thoughtfully. “It’s a thing people do. Telly told me this.”

“Given the sort of telly you’ve told me you watch, I think I’m going to have to keep you down here. Or you’ll end up getting hit in the head with a skull and we’ll be the opening to one of your murder mysteries.”

“It’ll be a cannibal.” Merlin told her, and they’re sitting next to one another, Arthur and Morgause on the opposite side. And she isn’t ignoring him, exactly, watching Merlin and then glancing at him for reactions, but she also isn’t trying to drag him into the conversation, isn’t doing the whole…small talk while our friends basically ride each other’s thighs…thing, that he keeps ending up in. “And a serial killer. And it’ll go on for the whole season and then Zaaaaach” Merlin shoved his face in his hands “I would have taught you the ways of love, you confused adorable little dom creepy face. Ugh. Ugh.”

“He is never going to be over it.” Arthur supplied.

Not ever.” Merlin said from behind his wall of not-ever-going-to-be-over-it. “Like, Bones, we’re all—with the exception of Morgause, that we would be on our knees for her so hard and letting her rationalize how pretty we are all over the place right? Right? We’re good with this.”

“Did she wear green on that show?” Morgana frowned

“She did.” Arthur leaned his head against the back of the seat. “Merlin could probably tell you every episode we see her in green. Don’t…don’t ask him to.”

“But. Seriously. On my knees all over the place. But Zach, I would break that poor little darling in.” Merlin shoved his face against Morgana’s arm. “And how much do I love that he is a dom? How much. How much do I love that they let him be that confused and socially awkward and literal and a dom. How. How much do I love that?”

“How much telly do you watch?” Morgana asked.

“An Internet. I watch an Internet amount of telly.” Merlin looked up at her and smiled. “I make Arthur watch with me so he knows what I’m talking about.”

Morgause smiled. “Morgana does the same with books.”

Morgana returned the smile, “It’s good for you. You make me listen to your music.”

“Arthur drags me to his films.” Merlin made the worst face and Arthur reached across to flick his nose, hitting his eyebrow instead when the limo jumped over something. “They are artsy and full of thoughts and social issues and talking. So much talking. That last one? That one was entirely comprised of talking and then some bad touching.”

“It was brilliant and terrifying and you are exceedingly plebeian in your movie tastes.” Arthur defended, because it had been an amazing film and Merlin had fallen asleep. Arthur couldn’t take him to anything.

“I just want there to be dogs and kissing and explosions, but no exploding dogs. I don’t see why that’s so…” Merlin trailed off, then purred as Morgana stroked over his head, letting her hand carry his weight and she smiled to herself, lipstick so perfect Arthur wanted to scrub his hand against it just so she’d stop being so…

He was sweaty, not terrifically well dressed to begin with. Merlin skirt was riding up his thighs, his legs shaved and his neckline dropping down until it would just take a bit of a tug to see his areola. Morgana was looking at Merlin like…like…like how doms looked at Merlin, when he was being silly, and sexy and adorable. Like they wanted to take him home and chain him at the end of the bed, and then make him meet their parents, but maybe not both of those at the same time.

Morgause, when she did look at Arthur, looked…speculative, Arthur guessed. She--

He felt like he was a skittish dog, or something, the way she was holding herself—body facing Arthur, an invitation, but no reach. No demand. She didn’t look at him overly long, and Arthur hated feeling…comforted, by that. Merlin needed to be the star; he talked in grand gestures and hyperbole.

He did it, in part, because that was who he was.

He did it, in part, because he knew who Arthur was. Arthur wanted to be backstage. Arthur wanted to do the lights and the music, the sound and the stage setting. Not…not act. Not be stared at. Just be window dressing to Merlin squishing his face around with his hands as he enthusiastically described how much love he had for something.

“What film?” Morgause asked, carefully. He wasn’t fragile. He didn’t need anyone being careful with him. But he. He also didn’t enjoy being rushed, either. Not fragile, dangerous. She was... She was showing respect, he thought, and maybe she was like him. Maybe she was used to standing back and watching and protecting. And he…

It’s a little too close to home, how this could turn out. Too close to a folder in Merlin’s filing cabinet, an invention he had made to get them through a long night, or two. Tori and Jennifer were two doms who had soulbonded, Jennifer tiny, rock steady and serene sort and Tori the curvaceously muscled mischievously playful kind, because why not? They never played with Tori and Jennifer (never, ever Victoria and never, ever Jenny), because they couldn’t figure out how. They didn’t know what it would look like. There was foursome porn to be found, of course, of two doms and their submissives all going at it. But it never felt…right.

Tori and Jennifer were for when they were feeling particularly sorry for themselves while Arthur worked on making sturdy wooden and ceramic jewellery for a commission and Merlin stressed over his distribution requirements, trading stories back and forth while Arthur squinted under the bright light of his work desk and Merlin chewed on his pen over his French transitional clauses.

But, of course, according to recent statistics the normally even balance between submissives and dominants (with a small percentage of switches) was pulling ahead in favour of submissives for reasons that people had a lot of theories about—pollution, overpopulation, the media—meaning that more submissives were identifying each year with no fiancé until much later in life, like Merlin’s mum. In the 1940’s it was generally assumed that if you didn’t connect by the time you were 18 you didn’t have a partner, but by the 1960’s one out of every fifty submissives who identified reported no feelings of any soulbond at all, and other children who would later identify as dominant shifted their entire bell curve over until it was more common to feel a connection at seven or eight rather than the previously normal thirteen or fourteen. It was not something parents were pleased about for a variety of reasons.

Most of their research about same-dynamic turned up either Fisher Mulder and Annie Carter documentaries, case studies, pulp fiction rip offs, psychological horror movie tributes or research papers, websites and porn sites about Group Stress Connectivity Syndrome and the army, There was probably a support website somewhere, some underground system, maybe, but it was hidden well and judging from the way people treated both of the above subjects, it was no big surprise. Electroshock therapy was mostly off the table these days, but heavy medication and “medically necessitated” bond splits were not. The DSM may have taken same-dynamic bonding out of their newest edition, but better to just keep it a secret.

But here they were, in a limo driving to…somewhere. Arthur hadn’t heard the conversation, really, just followed Merlin’s leading hand as they’d returned the bracelets and reclaimed their coats. Here they were, together, with Merlin flirting in his own particular way (“Like, DC doesn’t want to deal with soulbonds. Superman? Alien, so he doesn’t have one. Batman? Fiancée died, just to rub it in for him. Wonder Woman> Amazons are completely Non-dynamic. Green Lantern? Power ring just went ahead and stole that physic power for itself. Just ‘cause. They just do not want to deal with soubonds, but Marvel, like, fucking delights in them. Marvel is like ‘Oh! Oh! And then we tease at who their soulbonded partner is for the next thirty years. Except obviously Captain America’s is now dead, and he can angst about that, and Bruce Banner’s powers went and ate up his head and kind of made him a switch a little bit? But Tony Stark. We are going to motherfucking taunt you bitches over that.’ They are all bastards.”) and Arthur was being…courted? Soothed? And if they hadn’t been sisters, and Morgause had been Morgana’s dom, then maybe this could have...

Maybe this might--

But they wouldn’t. They’d see how they looked at each other, and Arthur was starting to get his ability to distinguish gender back, and without that grey area the entire ride felt doomed.

But wouldn’t it just be perfect? If they could find…something like that. People who would just let them…people they didn’t have to pay to not ask any questions and pretend they were stone-stupid.

Glass. It’s a film festival circuit psychological horror film.” Arthur replied, “I thought it was brilliant.”

“By Howard Isen? We saw that. With Kelly Stan, actually.”

“I’ve done a few shoots with her.” Morgana said, “she’s mostly an art model, she gets traded around this one group of genderqueer artists, for paintings and photography and the like, and they had a gallery opening where they needed a few more models, and I had a free weekend, so.” Morgana made a ‘and the rest is history’ gesture. “It was interesting, and then she’d said she’d been in a movie, so.”

“Did you like it?”

“I did,” Morgause said. “Morgana doesn’t particularly like psychological horror films.”

“There should be gore.” Morgana clarified and Merlin enthusiastically echoed her and then they were off talking about their favourite gore-fests, and Arthur was never, ever going to like the same sort of films that Merlin did, except the few times when something of their mutual interest came along, but then they wouldn’t agree on the parts they liked. Like The Dark Knight. They could agree on telly shows, but Merlin’s interest in films was an entirely different animal.

It was three-thirty am, they were in a limo and Arthur was very likely going to get shagged. And he didn’t mind the prospect.

Merlin and Morgana were discussing Repo! The Genetic Opera (“Why is there a famous singer if everyone is always singing all the time.” “That? That’s the problem you have with that whole thing? Not…why would anyone default on their organ loans if they knew they were going to get murdered? Not that?” “Well, I assume they’re all really dumb. They got a new heart because they’d thought it be cool. They’re not smart people. That’s fine.”) And he and a handsome, interesting dom were talking about a weird little Cinderella story.

Merlin was clearly going to get shagged tonight. And then they’d do the walk of shame back to their flat, sleep for awhile, Arthur would write the first draft of his article, Merlin might work on homework, and later that night Merlin would tell Arthur about all of it, the two of them wanking each other as Merlin voice stayed low and fresh in his ear.

But.

But maybe, that time, Arthur would have something to share. Maybe they would...maybe tonight would start in a shared room. Though, actually, maybe that was too much to hope for. Probably. But they might go up for a drink, and then Merlin would scoot closer, so Morgana would slip a hand up his thigh, because it would be there, all bare and tempting. Merlin had lovely legs, really, slim, and curved, pale and just, apparently, begging to be spread open a little bit.

Arthur didn’t shave, because the few times he’d tried he’d just cut himself up after a frustrating hour that had still left some stubborn hair clinging to his ankles and knees. And afterwards his legs had itched until the hair grew back, so, no. Arthur’s legs were bulky and unshaven and he did not wear dresses or skirts or even shorts, most of the time. Arthur’s body was not like Merlin’s. It didn’t invite anything.

But Morgause had been looking at him, in brief, polite bursts, like it did. The looks lingered on his neck, on his wrists, on…his stomach? And he didn’t... He had slept with five doms, all of them only once, four of them terrible and one of them had been, ah, “Sophia.”

So he’d slept with four doms who’d yelled at him because, fuck, he wasn’t Merlin. He wasn’t easy. He didn’t go down and he didn’t. It was hard because he wanted to. He wanted to have that fuzzy sense of perfect well being that Merlin described and he sometimes felt on the edges of his brain, but it wasn’t simple, and he didn’t leave his number and they didn’t ask for it.

It wasn’t going to work. He looked at his hands, and refocused on Merlin being as precious as he knew how to be, wide and guileless like all the world was his playground. A lie. But a nice one. Merlin’s focus shifted, immediately and he bolstered up Arthur’s mood, just shoved good feeling at him: love and affection and attraction until Arthur leant back in his seat and could ride those emotions better than any other drug he knew of.

“-and you’re like no, no Bruce. No. Stop being creepy. Stop it. Stop taking in all these young, some unidentified, kids and making them your sidekick and being creepy at them. For the love of all that is good, stop. Stop it Bruce. He is so creepy. Batman is fine, but Bruce is so goddamn creepy. Like, for the third Robin’s birthday? His super special birthday surprise was to dress Alfred up as future him and be all ‘One of your friends or family is going to go dark side, figure out who’ just to make him that more paranoid and isolated then he already was. He is so goddamn creepy, is Bruce.” Merlin was babbling on autopilot as looked at Arthur in glances, testing the waters. It must have been hard, being Merlin and never knowing if Arthur’s sudden changes in mood were due to external or internal factors.

“We have a theory that Alfred is a demon butler, a la Black Butler, who made a deal with the Wayne family that he will serve and protect them and then eat their souls when they die. And he didn’t get Bruce’s parents because they were murdered.”

Morgana frowned. “But if he has demon powers that makes him less… fantastic.”

“Well it’s like Batman. He’s a human. He’s a well-trained, very rich, supposedly intelligent human, but he’s still a human. And yet to compete in the Justice League they basically made him the God in the Machine. How does he do stuff? He’s Batman! It doesn’t even mean anything anymore.” Merlin explained. “There is an actual rule at DC that says that Batman can never actually, really fail. In the end he always has to win. So Alfred doesn’t even make sense. One bloke cannot run that entire household, unless he has demon powers.”

“And he wishes Bruce would stop pushing the Robins away, because he knows Bruce won’t have kids—”

“Except he does—” Merlin interrupted.

“Wait, what?”

“He has a psychopath broken kid with an insane assassin. It’s a thing that happens.” Merlin hand waved. “But Alfred wants all the Robins to be adopted so he can nom, nom, nom souls.”

“I have never been in this extended of a conversation about Batman.” Morgana replied. “I have never enjoyed a conversation about Batman, though, so… fair enough.”

“He is the creepiest.” Merlin made a distressed face and flapping his hands slightly. “He is made of all that is creepy and why, Bruce, why. Why no trousers on Robins ever?”

Merlin turned and Morgana was staring at him. Arthur watched their reflections in the window, as Morgana cupped Merlin’s face and just… took his mouth. Arthur wondered how you did that, exactly. Just dive in and claim someone with a kiss. Merlin and he had kissed. But it had never been. It had been exploratory and quiet, never…

Morgause looked at him and he turned. She cocked her head. “May I kiss you?”

Arthur blinked and glanced back at Merlin and Morgana. She was just…taking… what she wanted. She hadn’t yet pulled Merlin into her lap, and she kept her hands above his neck, but it was... She clearly had intent in any case.

Arthur looked back to Morgause, who cocked her head, waiting for his answer.

“Do you want to, or do you just…?” Arthur cleared his throat.

“I want to.” She asserted, firmly. “I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t. I would very much like to kiss you. I’d like to do a great deal more than that.” She wasn’t touching him, wasn’t moving closer and he studied her right back.

“But you won’t unless I say you can.” Arthur clarified.

“I won’t.” She agreed. “It won’t stop me wanting to, and I can’t say I wouldn’t ask again, but I won’t, unless you say I can.”

“And if I do.”

She smiled, mysterious and pleased and Arthur licked his lips. Kissing was. He could do kissing. He was very good at kissing. He’s had- ha- practice.

He glanced at Merlin when Merlin makes a little moan, one Morgana takes right from his mouth, her teeth on his tongue with a pull. Merlin was pressed against the door, radiating love for every moment of being pressed against a dom and a hard place. Merlin’s kinks were, generally, really straightforward.

Arthur turned back. “And if I don’t?”

She shrugged. “I could take you home. We could watch a movie. We could watch them go at it for the rest of the limo ride. We could tell them to stop.”

Merlin took verbal exception to that last one.

“I could offer you a list of reasons why letting me kiss you is the decision of a person with distinguished intelligence.” She considered a moment. “Or I could throw film quotes at you.”

Merlin pulled away and looked over. “He only likes the weird, brain-y—ah.” Merlin was pulled into Morgana’s lap, the two of them tilted so Arthur and Morgause got a nice view of Morgana wrapping his hands around Merlin’s waist in a firm, long-fingered grip.

He maybe should have stopped staring at them so much, but Merlin was flushed and he had his hands curled politely against his chest, head bent so she could reach him. Her hand trailed up his back and dug into the unruly mess of his product-ladened hair.

“Though if we’ve drastically misread the situation and it is, in fact, my sister you are interested in, you should let us know.”

“No, I. Uh.” Arthur cleared his throat. “I just.”

Morgause reached forward and nudged his chin over until he’s back to looking at her. She let her fingers trail along his jaw as she moved her hand back to her lap. He licked his lips and thought…though why not? She was handsome and she was, at least, looking at him like he was…attractive?

And Merlin’s arousal jittered up his nerves, bounced in his stomach, and he could never help but respond. It…

Arthur didn’t let her kiss him, so much as he attacked first. If she couldn’t beat him back, then she didn’t deserve any of it. She didn’t slam him down like he expected, instead she allowed his assault, allowed him to bite and slide his tongue alongside hers, to push himself up and growl. She got him by the chin and rose, tilted his head and smoothed her lips over his, hummed her approval and he--

The other doms, besides ‘Sophia’, had shoved him against a wall, or against the bed, or against something and he didn’t like to be manhandled. He wasn’t Merlin. Merlin liked to be slammed and lifted and shoved. Arthur likes to hold to... he wanted someone who would use him like furniture, who would like that he wasn’t some slim, svelte, fey creature instead of. Instead of pretending he was.

Morgause didn’t shove him. She didn’t climb into his lap either, but she didn’t shove him. She held her own, and let his attack continue. She replicated the way he’d scraped his teeth on her lower lip and smiled when his fingers clenched, didn’t pay attention to the way it was Merlin who moaned.

They were trading sensations, echoed them back and forth and Arthur shivered at the way Morgana’s nails bit into Merlin’s neck. Merlin let out a low, rumbling groan at Morgause’s teeth nibbling along Arthur’s upper lip. After a moment Arthur wasn’t sure who was reacting to what, and the two sisters probably thought they were the best at sex ever the way the two of them were just both, suddenly, entirely game for it.

They should have done this sooner.

---
cont.
Pavi lay weeping in the chest, rocked by the ocean and cleaning his bloody, healing wrists with his tears. He mourned his father’s madness, wishing he had been born ugly so never to drive his father to such terrible lengths. He prayed he would pass into Heaven and spend eternity kneeling for his soulmate, and if he was to die, he might die with as much grace as his Eternal Saviour had. He prayed, mostly, that his father could redeem himself from his madness and atone so he might join Pavi and his Mother in Heaven where they could rejoice in the light of the Guardian and this would be burned away as all terrible things.

But instead of death, a trade ship sailing to distant lands rescued Pavi. They saw the chest bobbing on the waves, and—hoping it to be full of treasure—and the boy they found inside indeed was. He was the loveliest creature any of the foul, working sailors had ever seen, and upon rescuing from the chest and hearing his wretched story, sobbed for all their drinking, carousing and woeful behaviour and they were forgiven. They fed and watered him, reforming their vulgarity and filth so he might be comfortable, and served him, for he had no hands and could not serve himself, and they told him stories so he might laugh and forget his troubles for a moment. But it was not his own troubles that caused Pavi to mourn and pray so, but the troubles of his father and the kingdom he had left behind, leaving no pity or woe for himself. They revelled in his pure soul as once they had in hard drink and loose submissives, and swore they would take him to the Emperor, so he might be protected and never have fear or trouble again. Pavi thanked them, and spent many weeks teaching them of God’s word, and singing for them hymns instead of shanties, so their minds were made clean and their hearts reformed.

However, such a night came when a storm brewed and the ship was tossed wildly, crashed, the sailors aboard dying to keep them afloat. When morning rose, Pavi mourned and prayed for his rescuers, but rejoiced that they had found their way to heaven. He had landed upon an island, and he climbed down from the shipwreck carefully, unable to take provisions with him, for he had no hands with which to pack them.

He walked for days and nights, bending to drink from a stream, and eating berries from bushes, pricking his cheeks and lips, but refusing to give into vanity. He walked and he found a tower. The door was open, and though he called and asked permission, no one answered. He entered the tower and walked up the hundreds and hundreds of stairs, finally reaching the top, which was the home to a powerful wizard, currently set to his evil work. The wizard gasped upon seeing the beauty of the boy, and allowed him the use of his chambers so he might bathe, eat and drink. And, upon hearing the boy’s story the wizard renounced his terrible ways. “How terrible that you should have such things as these happen to you.”

“I mourn only for my father, for my friends on the ship and my Mother are in Heaven, and I rejoice for their good fortune. But my father has strayed from grace, and it is for him I pray.”

“But why not yourself. You have lost your hands are away from your home and all you know. Never again will you play your harp, and your soulmate, should you find him in this life, will never hold your hand.”

“If my sacrifice has redeemed my father, I can only see it with joy.” Pavi replied and the wizard wept and promised to get Pavi to the Emperor, and though he renounced all his magic, he did have a wondrous ship and they set sail to the Emperor and the renounced wizard took care of Pavi, feeding and caring for him as if he were his own son and when they reached the distant shore, the former wizard shuddered and died. He had lived many centuries in his evil, and he had kept his life in the tower, and being so far away from it ended his unnaturally and painfully long life. Pavi mourned and rejoiced that his friend had found salvation and went to find the Emperor.

August, 1989

Arthur is small and the world is big. Arthur is small and the world is pain. His chest still hurts, a lot. To breathe is to hurt, but it doesn’t hurt as much as it did. It hurt a lot for a long, long time, except when he was in the hospital, when everything was constantly foggy and he never knew what was happening. There were a lot of strangers there, and two strangers who said they were his aunt and uncle, but they wouldn’t let him see any of his parents either.

He used to have three parents, all who loved and played with him and he’d thought he was lucky, because he had three parents, and he always had a lap to sit on. And now he was in a hospital bed, and there were other children, and he didn’t like any of them, and he had nightmares, but no one was there when he woke up.

When he’d gotten out the hospital, he’d had to go to his aunt and uncle’s house and that hadn’t been anything like home, he didn’t have any of his toys, and the sheets smelled bad, and the water tasted bad, and his parents still weren’t there. And he is small and the world is big and he doesn’t understand why people keep giving him toys instead of his parents. He doesn’t want any of them. His chest hurts. They made him dress up. It’s the same dress up clothing as… as when he saw his mums.

This building is like the hospital. His mums hadn’t visited him. He wants his mums, he wants his daddy. He doesn’t have his blanket, or his teddy, and his uncle is holding his wrist, but he doesn’t do it like his mums did, one on each side, him gripping their wrists back so they could swing him up on every step, laughing, and letting him ride on daddy’s shoulder when they got tired. He wants them back. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t. He doesn’t say anything, because maybe if he doesn’t say anything his mums will be back. They won’t be cold and alone and away from him.

This hold drags him along and he wants to go home. But they said he was going to see his daddy. He wants to see his daddy. So he walks as fast as he can and he’s behind his uncle, who is behind his aunt, and the halls smell like a hospital, but there’s a blue wave on the wall, so he follows that with his eyes instead. If he keeps being quiet he will see his daddy and his daddy will take him home. If he keeps being quiet everything will be okay. He just can’t say a word and everything will be okay.

The adults talk and he doesn’t care, because there’s his daddy in a chair, and Arthur wrestles his wrist away and moves over. There’s his daddy. Daddy will take him home, and take him to his mums (who can’t be in suitcases in the ground. They can’t be.) and he runs over before anyone can stop him and climbs right into his daddy’s lap. His daddy is here and he’ll make everything good again. He’ll make Arthur’s chest stop hurting, making breathing easier, make his aunt and uncle go away, and then he’ll have his mums and-

“No.” His daddy says, gripping Arthur’s waist. “No, no, no, you are wrong.” His face is turning red and he’s hurting Arthur’s sides. “No. Where is Igraine? Where is Igraine-” They’re trying to wrestle Arthur away and he feels something in him give. Pain, again, familiar, like being in the hospital again and waiting for his mum or Daddy or anyone, and getting nobody good. Then breathing hurts more. Can’t. Can’t breathe because. His chest. Can’t. Daddy. He reaches. He’s quiet. He’s being quiet. He’s not going to talk ever again if everything will be alright. If he just never talks again. His daddy’s face is twisted and Arthur is terrified but he doesn’t make a sound.

He reaches and they give his daddy a shot and he can’t. Can’t breathe. He needs his. He needs his daddy to make this okay again. His mums can’t be in those suitcases and buried. They can’t breathe down there. He wants to tell his daddy that they can’t breathe, they aren’t happy, they need him. He can’t breathe, but he isn’t going to make a sound. He’ll be good. He’ll be the best-behaved boy in the world if it’ll bring his parents back. He’ll never cry again. He’ll never ask for any toys. If they just walk in now, he’ll be good. He won’t tell them how his chest and side burn. He’ll be the best behaved, and he’ll follow them out and he won’t cry. He was...he was crying before. When the car exploded. He’d been crying. He didn’t tell anyone. He’ll be quiet forever.

He needs to get them out. He didn’t get to see them. The suitcases were closed and he’d been too small to open them. And people had said they were sorry. People had hugged him and it had hurt his chest. He needs to see them. He needs his daddy to hug him and this isn’t. This isn’t a hug. It hurts too much. Hugs make things better, and this makes all his hurts hurt again. His chest hurts so much and no one. There’s not one. He’d been crying and his mum had reached back to grab his hand and--

They get him away and the world swims around him, because it hurts. He doesn’t make a sound. He doesn’t. He won’t, because he’d cried in the hospital and nobody had come, and his mums always came when he cried so... So he wasn’t going to anymore. His daddy is being taken away, still shouting at Arthur, screaming, screaming. Arthur doesn’t hear the words, and he doesn’t move when his daddy grabs a clipboard and throws it at him. Doesn’t move when it hits him in the stomach and clatters to the floor. He won’t cry. He won’t.

Arthur is silent, his Aunt’s arms gripping his chest and it hurts, it hurts too much to breathe, but he isn’t going to cry. He isn’t. If he just keeps quiet everything will be good again. He made a deal. He. He’ll never talk again if it brings his mums and daddy back. And now the nurse is holding him, and he coughs, and it hurts. He should tell them it hurts, but he can’t. He won’t. His aunt yelling and he just.

He’ll be quiet.

He’ll be good.

 

January 2012

Gwen didn’t ask. They. They’d never asked about her deal, and she’d always been the most…accepting of their friend group (former friend group?). She was even-keeled. She. She might not. She would at least help them. Arthur wrists ached, fingers tingling from how hard he’d been trying to break the handcuffs by sheer force.

She just got there, followed Arthur’s voice and stopped in the doorway briefly, taking in the room for only a moment. How she got in the flat proper Arthur didn’t really think about until she was already there. Maybe Merlin had given them a spare key. Maybe she could pick locks. He didn’t. She was there and she was. Arthur hadn’t been thinking properly. Wasn’t. Thinking properly, just trying to wrestle the pain from Merlin, trying to calm his own panicked heart.

“What do you need me to do?” Gwen asked after a beat.

“Grab Merlin’s trousers.” Arthur ordered, “he left the keys in them. The.” Arthur’s jaw clenched shut and he stayed silent until she fumbled the keys out and bent behind him to get his hands free. There were bright red welts around his wrists, he was still naked and she was… but that didn’t matter half so much as snatching the keys from her and getting on the floor next to Merlin. He was bent up and breathing, arms still twisted up awkwardly behind him and his face had gone white from pain, tiny little sobs echoing out on the exhale.

“You’re okay. You’re okay, I can fix this.” Arthur carefully freed his hands and Merlin let out a punched-out grunt of pain as Arthur felt around his shoulder. “The joint is still in place, I think. I’ve seen plenty of rugby injuries; I know what a dislocated shoulder looks like. But you probably tore a muscle, because you are not an escape artist and I had a plan. I had.” Arthur slowly got Merlin up on his feet, Merlin sighted Gwen and shoved his face into Arthur’s shoulder, and Arthur could feel the exhaustion and pain, pulling Merlin down like a wet towel. This was Arthur’s to deal with.

“Okay, we’re going to get you dressed and get you to the hospital. It’ll be fine.” Arthur tried to keep his voice soothing. He didn’t think he was succeeding.

“Just cut out the pain and let me sleep.” Merlin mumbled, trying for joking and completely failing. Gwen hovered awkwardly, biting her lip and wringing her hands, but still not asking as Arthur got Merlin dressed. Their secret was out. It had to be out. There was no way she could think anything else was going on. She. She wouldn’t think they soulbonded. She probably thought Arthur was... nondynamic and Merlin just…humoured him. There was plenty of evidence to that.

Or. Or they were perverts. Or. But they’d both been handcuffed and so they both. They were subs and. And she was still in shock but she was going to pull away after this, they couldn’t hang out with her and Leon, Freya and Elyan and Percy and… well maybe Percy. Percy had once had saved a same-dynamic couple from hecklers by tying the hecklers to a tree and explaining why they were wrong, before taking everyone out to dinner and, through the magic of Percy, making them like each other, rounding out the night with karaoke. True story. So. Maybe Percy. But. But not Freya, or Gwen, or Elyan or Leon and they. They were friends. They’d had friends finally.

So he just got Merlin in his clothing, carefully grabbing one of his own dress shirts and sliding it over Merlin’s arm and carefully around his shoulder. Merlin swam in it, as he always did, and hunched over himself as Arthur closed the buttons, keeping his breathing as even as possible, hazy around the eyes. Arthur bolstered him as best he could, even if Merlin wouldn’t let him take the pain, and then got him into his shoes. Only then did Arthur get his clothing on, shoving himself into his trousers and hoodie with little regard to anything except being decent enough to go outside.

“Can.” Arthur began and Gwen interrupted with “of course.” and they were on their way to the hospital. He’d say Merlin tried to pick up something heavy the wrong way and. But the welts. He’d. He’d say he’d gotten a safety call? His hoodie covered his own welts, he’d just be careful about gesticulating. An accident. He sucked at coming up with stories, that’s why Merlin did it.

Gwen still didn’t say anything, tapping her fingers against the wheel of the only car their entire friend group had. Leon’s purchase, because he had this idea that they could take road trips and have wacky adventures. Mostly it sat and sometimes it’d be used to get off with somebody, but they had it. Gwen, Arthur and Leon could drive it, Freya had nearly killed them all, and Merlin got a look of desperate terror in his eyes, followed by a giddy mad-with-power feeling that made Arthur drag him away from the wheel and ban him from touching it until he stopped being a nutter.

“How do your hands feel?”

“Fine.” Merlin leaned with his good side against Arthur. “Mostly everything is fine except for the screaming pain in my shoulder.” Merlin grit his teeth and Arthur’s insides were entirely comprised of worry and trying to take the pain away from Merlin and Merlin refusing to give it up.

“Stop that.” Arthur whispered. “You’re about to pass out. Let me have some of it.”

“No. You need to.” Merlin whined and Arthur caught him around the back of the neck, rubbing along one trip-wire tight tendon. He looked up at Gwen and then squeezed his eyes shut. “I’ll think of something.” He murmured, and Arthur carefully squeezed Merlin’s wrist. “No, just. I’ve got it. I can take care of you.”

Merlin looked up at him and then closed his eyes and kept breathing. “The sub-drop from this is going to be really bad for me, by the way.”

“What?”

“I... May have convinced myself that I’m being good if I can just-- I’m being good.” Merlin kept breathing. “I’m being good.”

Arthur swallowed and didn’t grab Merlin’s hand, though he wanted to with every atom he had, because Gwen didn’t properly know and that. Just. Any grey area would be. Would be good. “You are very good. Just keep being good for me, okay? You’re brave and strong and you need to let me take some of the pain, okay?” He kept his voice as low as he could, Gwen listening to the radio up front to give them some sense of privacy. “Shh, I’ll take care of you.” He rubbed Merlin’s neck. “Just give it up.”

Merlin whined and shook his head.

“Do it.” Arthur ordered, snapped, and the pain flared in his arm, white-hot and intense, the searing hated fire of a ruined muscle. He refused to let himself react to it beside clenching his teeth and cradling Merlin’s relaxing body. Merlin still had the lion’s share, but his breathing came a little easier.

Merlin was easy. And if he wanted to drop into headspace to contextualize the situation, fine. Arthur could. Arthur could protect them. He stroked through Merlin’s hair and quietly repeated every porn line and quoted phrase he could remember, letting Merlin drop farther, letting him curl up against him and get foggy and distant from his body, coating Merlin’s head with every bit of love he had, of respect and…and possessiveness. Focusing on Merlin in his shirt. Merlin leaning against him. Merlin needing him and nobody else.

Merlin was willing let himself be duped, leaning heavily on Arthur once they parked and went to Emergency, eventually Arthur just hoisted him up and Merlin clung as he always did, bad arm curled up on his stomach and being good and not crying even as Arthur jostled him with every step.

Gwen stayed as a silent, steady presence next to them, watching Arthur fill out Merlin’s information, not saying a word when Arthur knew every single item and Merlin kept sitting on his lap, gripping onto Arthur’s shirt and keeping his eyes closed from everything. Arthur almost stopped himself from burying his fingers in Merlin’s sweaty-greasy hair, checking himself, looking around, and then his shoulder just kept spasming so he did it anyways, ducked his head and ignored the rest of the waiting room.

He should have thought of a story. Of how this happened. But he can’t-- He can’t think of.

Merlin inhaled. “I was with a dom, play-struggling. The scene was going fine, complete consensual and I pulled myself just the wrong way. They called you, my safety call, to come over, because he didn’t know what to do and I’d passed out from pain. Gwen offered to drive you, he’s near to here, and so you decided to drive me instead of calling 999. It was a stupid accident.” Merlin voice was shaky and quiet, he swallowed, kneading at Arthur’s shirt, not looking at Gwen.

Gwen was staring at one of the extremely outdated magazines, pretending she’s in an entirely different room.

“They’ll pop my shoulder back in joint, and I’ll be fine.”

“The tendons—” Arthur began, knowing about the shoulder. It’s just a sort of cup and ball, and only tendons hold the ball joint in place, and if they get too stretched out, he’d need surgery and… And soulmates needed to be sedated together, for surgery. The body could still feel what the brain was too far gone to, and it’d just…and they’d know. They couldn’t

“Shh.” Merlin’s breath was still shaky, his face still blanched-white from pain. He closed his eyes again. “Shhh, he petted Arthur’s hoodie. “You got me. I’m safe. You can keep me safe.”

Arthur swallowed and tucked his head against Merlin’s scalp. Held on.

December, 2011
They wind up in a penthouse.

A mother. fucking penthouse. With like…huge windows looking at other buildings, and a Jacuzzi and a telly that was bigger than a telly had any right being, really. Morgana hung up her coat and stretched, back and back until her spine popped. She climbed out of her shoes and buried her toes into the carpet.

Arthur took off his shoes, because that was just what you did when you went inside someone’s house. Merlin looked around, hands tucked in the small of his back, rocking back and forth slightly as he took it in. Morgause took Arthur’s jacket from him, and hung it up where he could find it easily, putting Merlin’s up beside it.

“Coffee?” Morgana asked. “Tea? Liquor of some kind?”

“Do you have a brandy snifter?” Merlin perked up. “Or port? In those, like, super tiny sipping glasses. Oh, hey, you have an actual bar.” Merlin scurried over and Arthur stood in the entryway and watched Merlin investigate.

“How are you this effusive at three thirty am?” Morgana asked, following him at a statelier pace. Arthur and Morgause wind up on the couch, watching. “And not high.” She said taking him by the chin and looked into his eyes. “Mmm. No pupil dilation—oh, no, there it is.” She plucked up a heavy crystal flask, puts it on the bar and took the stopper out. “Brandy snifter.”

Merlin sniffed it and made a face. “That is roughly six hundred percent too fancy for me.”

“How about vanilla rum and orange juice?” Morgana asked and Merlin snapped his fingers in agreement.

“That is my exact level of fanciness. Things that taste like things that come out of ice cream trucks are the things that are my level of fanciness. Not that I ever got to see an ice cream truck, but it’s a truck! That runs around with ice cream! It’s the most solid business plan I’ve ever heard of.”

Morgause huffed, amused. “They play off each other well.”

Arthur nodded, and started to feel how it was three-thirty am. “I’ll take you up on that tea, please.”

She nodded and placed a hand on his shoulder as she moved to the kitchen to brew a cuppa. Arthur turned around, stared at the blank telly, listening to Merlin and Morgana playing off one another like they were Pong, or something. Arthur worked at a dead piece of skin on his thumb. A burn, or cut or something. His hands were so beaten, used and callused that abuse was just another thing that happened.

“I didn’t know how you took it, so.” She put down a little pot of cream and a sugar bowl, along with a few thin rounds of lemon. He put a bit of everything in and drank it down, the tea was scalding, but you had to drink it fast or—

“Tea!” Merlin clambered over the couch. “Tea for me?” He made grabby hands and Morgause put a mug in his hands, slipping a proper teacup into Morgana’s. Merlin made a pleased noise and dumped far too much sugar and nothing else, smiling and generally being as rambunctiously precious as possible. He had tried sultry, vampy, sub next-door, and approachable and mysterious, bratty and everything else under the sun, but adorable worked for him. He was marvellous at being so precious you wanted to hold him down and fuck it out of him.

Arthur was just…he didn’t. Have. Anything. He wasn’t any kind of seductive. He just. Was. He didn’t draw anyone in, that wasn’t what he was here for. Morgause was sitting too near to him to make him believe that entirely, at the moment. Merlin leaned against Arthur’s arm and pulled one of Morgana’s feet into his lap, working on them with his thumbs and Morgana makes a pleased noise. “Never met a dom who didn’t want their feet rubbed.” Merlin said, shifting and snuggling closer to Arthur under the guise of getting more comfortable. “Or an Arthur that didn’t need his forearms massaged. Hint. Nudge.”

“Taken and accepted.” Morgause said and plucked up Arthur’s left arm, and she…knows what she’s doing. Arthur’s forearms always hurt, he does stretches, alternates heat and ice, but the combination of typing, woodwork, and occasional fistfight isn’t terrifically kind on his arms or hands. But you don’t rub someone’s hands. Merlin will do it, when they’re home alone, Merlin kneading Arthur’s palms, rubbing at each knuckle, lacing their fingers together and using his thumbs to make Arthur head drop forward so they can watch something terrible with kissing, puppies and explosions. Arthur had watched many horrible films in the name of getting his hands to stop hurting.

“Not the crook of his elbow, though.” Merlin said and worked her at the big toe and the balls of her feet. “I get that heels make doms feel all big and sexy and powerful, but dear fuck does it mess up your feet.”

“That’s what pretty little subs with talented fingers are for.” Morgana knocked her free foot against Merlin’s chin, then pushed past to rest it over the back of the couch. “I might just want to do this the rest of the night.”

“He had cats as a child.” Arthur said, face lolling against the back of Merlin’s head.

“I’m very well trained,” Merlin intoned gravely and kissed her ankle. “And because I can’t think of a smoother segue, would you like to see?”

Arthur couldn’t see his face, but he knew Merlin was giving here the dorkiest smile he had and Morgana tapped Merlin’s face with her foot again before turning backwards over herself like Stray after a successful heist. She held out a hand. Merlin placed his wrist into it as formally as he knew how and she tugged him up. “You two have fun. See you in the morning.”

“If you don’t wear him out too much he’ll make crepes in the morning. If you do wear him out too much he’ll demand crepes in bed.” Arthur said and Morgana made a speculative noise and she tugged her capture down the hall.

He didn’t watch them go, because he knew he’d stare, and staring was telling. Instead he turned to Morgause and watched her work his wrist. “You needn’t feel compelled to play with me if you don’t want to.”

Arthur stared at her. She looked up at him and quirked a smile. “But I can promise you won’t regret it if we do.”

Arthur should have had something arch or flirty to say. This was the moment for something arch or flirty.

“What do you want?” Is what he said instead, because he was good at life, clearly. He wiped his mouth and shook his head and she disregarded the question. “So, listen.” Arthur began, instead. He got up and stuffed his hands in his pockets like he could lose them somewhere and thus have a reasonable excuse to go home. “I. This isn’t what I normally. Do.”

“One offs?” She cocked her head, giving him her full attention and he felt disquieted. He wasn’t used to attention being a “good thing” from anyone but Merlin. Generally if people looked at you like that it ended poorly. But Morgause asked for things. She was... tactical. She looked at Arthur like she knew he’d bolt with the wrong move, yes, but she didn’t make wrong moves.

“No. Or sceneing in general really.” Arthur stared at the giant telly and then at the tiny tea set on the table.

“I have my list.” He went to his coat and pulled out his wallet, thumbed through and handed her his yes/maybe/no/really goddamn no, list, written in ballpoint and pencil on creased notebook paper. Merlin had a printed spreadsheet that he replaced whenever he found out something new about himself. Arthur just scribbled it on with pencil. Mostly in the no/really goddamn no section.

She took the paper from him and read it, considering. “I imagine the ones in pen are the ones you researched and took a distinct disliking to, and the ones in pencil snuck up on you.”

Arthur nodded, looking down the hallway. “If I were in a committed relationship with someone I trusted I might reorganize a little, but. Right now that’s pretty solid.”

She rubbed her lip and considered, putting her feet up on the table and he looked out the window.

“You don’t like things that humiliate, degrade or in any consideration, lessen. You do like things that restrain and punish.” She noted after a moment, quietly. “I had no intention of humiliating you.”

Arthur shrugged and continued to look out the window. “I think a better question is what you want. I have preferences, of course, but you look rather more...” She cocked her head, studying, “Hard done by.”

She continued to look at him and his stomach shifted inside him. He cleared his throat and rolled back his shoulders. “I just. I don’t go down.”

“Easily?”

“At all. Usually. And I don’t mean subspace, because I’m not sure that exists. Or. Or if it does then I don’t. I mean. I can’t get into any kind of headspace at all, usually, and doms get upset at me about it, and it just gets worse when they try and...push it.”

She considered this and slowly stood. “So you’d consider yourself…challenging?”

“Sub on expert mode.” Arthur shrugged and lifted his chin. “Why, you the sort who likes a challenge?”

“Let’s say I’m not the sort who lets a thrown gauntlet lie.” She didn’t touch him then, like they would on telly. She just stood nearby with intent. “Talk to me.”

“What?” Arthur watched her as she moved past him to grab a chair, setting it down next to him before retrieving her own.

“I’m not going to go in blind. You have a hard time submitting, but it isn’t going to be solved by my dominating harder. You don’t want me to backhand you, press your face in the ground and make you lick your blood off the carpet.”

Arthur jerked and she nodded. “My point. And if all your previous partners have responded to your... disinclination as purposeful baiting, then I can only imagine how that would make the situation more difficult. I need to know where to apply pressure.” She sat and relaxed in a controlled sprawl: owning the chair and staring him down. “So. You’re a protector.”

Merlin made a noise loud enough to be heard down the hall and Arthur turned, like he could see if he tried.

“She’ll take good care of him.” She added. “He is not so difficult, is he?”

“Merlin’s easy. He gets in his headspace when the telly yells at him with the right tone of voice.” Arthur turned his attention back. Wouldn’t do him any favours if he spent all night pining down the hall. They’d both shoved their attention away from the bond, but. But maybe once he was into it, he could cheat a little? Merlin already felt fuzzy edged, like Arthur could crawl into his brain for a nap, if he wanted.

“Which is a good reason to be protective of him.” She studied him, thoughtfully, and Arthur met her head-on, because he wasn’t... He didn’t just back down like that. “But he’s safe right now, and enjoying himself. You would know if he wasn’t.”

Arthur tensed and she gestured down the hall. “He’d call for you. Morgana hates gags, she finds them...detracting from her overall aesthetic purpose.”

He rubbed his hands together and stared at the couch. “Look. I’m just. I’m complicated. Or. Just. I’ve got a lot of...brain trash just sort of sitting around and we’re not going to get through that in one night so let’s just. I mean. It’s not that I don’t—” Arthur rubbed his face and took a deep breath. “It is not that I do not wish to try, I just don’t want the backlash if it...”

“Alright.” She agreed, and it was. It was weird. The few doms Arthur had slept with, that he’d told about his whole…issue, had immediately latched on and thought the problem was that his previous partners simply hadn’t shoved him around enough. They hadn’t done this…sharing and caring and feelings business. Maybe he should have tried sceneing with doms he could talk to, instead of just ones that wanted him that he would consent to scene with. But that would have made his already small pool of potential partners a drop in a wineglass.

“Why not tell me what you like?” Morgause folded up his paper and gave it back to him. “I can see the things you will do, but I want to know what it is you need right now.”

He shrugged because he didn’t know, really. Or, well... He did. He enjoyed when Merlin made up a world for them, but he didn’t know if he liked it, or he liked the way Merlin liked it. He had a whole host of things he was pretty sure he hated, but, again, he didn’t know if he hated them objectively, or if he’d just had a poor introduction. But then, there were only a few things he craved that Merlin couldn’t give him, and he’d might as well take the opportunity.

“Impact play.” He looked at his feet. “Not in a punishment or humiliation sense. Just unto itself. I--” He pressed his lips together. “Sorry, I know you were just in for a fun night. Sorry. I can.” Arthur moved toward the door and Morgause gripped his wrist and pulled him back in.

“I am not here just for a night of fun. I knew you’d be difficult.” Morgause cocked her head. “You’re like me. Morgana and Merlin are the ones with the open minds and easy hearts. They are theatrical, they play the part.” Morgause smiled a little to herself. “Morgana says she’s not an actor, she’s just the stage. She is dressed and she becomes 1950’s small town America, or the throne room of a majestic palace, or the blank black box theatre. But she still becomes what people want her to be.” Morgause stroked her thumb along the inside of Arthur’s wrist. “Your Merlin is a…storyteller? He has the hand gestures and vocal intonation of one.”

“Yeah.” Arthur licked his lips.

“So. They’re theatrical, they’re used to slipping into different headspaces. They’re used to allowing others to make them other people.”

“And I don’t?”

We don’t.” Morgause pulled him a little closer, slipping her other hand around Arthur’s wrist and moving her free hand to his waist. “We are ourselves. We do not become other people for anyone. Who we appear is always exactly who we are. We do not shift gears. When I dominate, it’s because that’s exactly what I want to do to someone. They inspire that in me.” She trailed her fingers up to Arthur’s elbow, moving them closer. “If I don’t feel it down to the marrow of me, then I don’t do it. I only do exactly as I believe. And, if I am not mistaken, you are much the same way.”

Arthur watched her and she tilted her head, searching his face, considering. “You can submit. You just won’t unless that is exactly how you feel, and nothing I, or any other dom, can do will make you change your mind. You won’t until you want to. You won’t until you find someone who you trust and you won’t find someone you can trust until you trust someone.”

“Catch-22.” Arthur tilted his head up. “So, what do you suggest? If I can’t do something I believe, and I can’t believe something until I believe it, and I don’t believe in you, yet.”

“That I hit you.” She slid her hand up to his shoulder and rubbed his shoulder. “I just hit you. You tell me if you want it harder or faster, lighter or slower. You tell me what you want it with, and you tell me when you’re done. I hit you, because I like seeing my marks on somebody, and you get hit, because that’s what you need right now.” She carefully carded her fingers through his hair. “No mind games, no teasing. You don’t need to trust me to take over for you. We have the kind of fun we want to have.”

Arthur paused, looked down the hall. Merlin was down there. Maybe. Maybe the rooms were right next to each other so he could hear. “So I would just get comfortable, and you’d let me position myself however I wanted and then you’d hit me?”

“With whatever you wanted, however you wanted. I’m not in charge of you, you aren’t in charge of me. It’s a rather straightforward physical exchange. You tell me to stop, and I will. And if I want, or think I should, stop, I will. No bells. No whistles.”

The prospect of getting what he wanted without having to muddle through the complications of everything else that usually went with it was... It was a much better deal than he’d thought he was going to get, when they’d climbed into the limo.

“What do you have?”

She arched an eyebrow and then turned, offering her wrist. He took it.

They went down the hallway and into her room. He sat down in the desk chair as she opened her tool chest. It had usual assortment to be sure, but it lent itself well to what he was interested in. She had got the run of it, all nice quality from what he could tell and clearly well cared for. She stepped back and hovered a hand over them. “Examine them all you like and pick whatever you want. I’m skilled with all of them.”

“How skilled?”

“Professionally taught and examined.”

Arthur raised his eyebrows. Not a lot of doms outside of professionals could say that, and Arthur’s skin still tingled from how ‘Sophia’ had worked him over, just the right amount of force, the blows perfectly spaced… It’d made him relax. Not drop, but at least feel somewhat…comfortable in his skin. Like it was something he belonged in. Something he was meant for. Merlin always explained it like he was being made better, that he was being made…good? And Arthur just saw it as…as settling in.

She pointedly turned her gaze away so he could think about his options. He didn’t take anything out, just spent a moment touching. He’d never been head-over-tit for leather in and of itself. He liked the sharp tangy scent of it, yes, and he could appreciate something that was made with care by artisans who knew their craft. He liked, mostly, that they were things people had put time into. That someone had made that particular strap with their hands, that they had examined it and hung their hat on its quality. The strap was worked in, but not worn out, soft to the touch, but heavy enough to really leave a mark. He considered it a moment, then puts it back as carefully as he’d found it.

Merlin made a loud, shuddering noise in the next room and Arthur could feel it in his gut. Merlin had never been very good at being quiet, and he wouldn’t try to be, especially, if Arthur was the only one who was going to overhear him. Maybe Arthur would be louder than him for once. Give him a story worth hearing. Maybe. Maybe tonight would be…good.

He did prefer wood, or other plant life. He was used to it. Woodcrafting was the first hobby he’d ever found that he’d liked. He knew how it should feel under his fingers. And the cane was a beautiful piece of work, high quality kooboo rattan woven evenly and without flaw. He picked it up and measured the thickness. She had several weights and sizes, and this was a lovely example of a senior judicial cane, a good 10 millimetres thick, beautiful and glowing in the light. She had a junior cane as well, a tiny, snappy tool that would barely leave more than a bit of a sting, provided she didn’t try and slice his skin open. It would be good for someone who wanted, say, a naughty school child fantasy, but not that actual, proper pain of it. Still resting in its slot were two suitably terrifying reformatory cane, 12 millimetres thick, the other half an inch in diameter, neither of which he had any intention of touching.

“These are very high quality,” he noted.

Merlin and he had done a lot of research, back in the day, looking at pictures, watching videos, sitting on top of each other and studying the submissive’s face carefully, wondering how each hit felt. They’d weighed the heavy, fleshy, thump of something rubber, versus the shuddering, gleeful smack of a flat paddle, or heavy leather slipper.

The cane was smooth and unmarred: clearly his choice. He stood and offered it to her on his own two feet, chin up, no declaration, pleading, or request. His stomach seized a moment, but she just took it from him and stroked the very tips of her fingers down the length, like she was looking for fault. She ran her thumb along the handle as she gripped it. She was clearly familiar with it. This was her craft.

“Do you prefer a warm up, or to be put directly to business?” She tested her swing in the air a few times, even and measured and he was thankful she couldn’t actually tell how much he wanted that up against his skin. His throat ached with it, a need he could feel behind his teeth.

“Warm up.” Arthur wasn’t sure whether to get undressed then, of if he should wait for her to tell him. But she wasn’t going to tell him. That was the point of this. This was. This was something new.

She stepped out of her heels and placed them in her wardrobe. She closed the lid of her chest.

He pulled off his socks, stripped his trousers and his (entirely too utilitarian, really) pants off and then stood there a moment, with his back turned, before yanking off his shirt. He was not a coward. He’d been naked before. It wasn’t a big deal. If she was the kind of person who couldn’t stand to see a sub with some flaws, then she was not the kind of person he wanted to scene with anyways.

“I have found the bed is the most comfortable place to play, either the posts or the mattress, but there is also the desk, chairs or walls,” she offered, holding herself back from him. He stood there a moment, then looked over at the wall, climbing on the bed, right up against the headboard, so he could place his palms against the wallpaper. He could hear Merlin more clearly from here, the low near-constant murmur of his voice rising and falling in pitch and tone as she did whatever she was doing to him, as he contextualized it however he wanted. He wondered what story he was telling. Hopefully a good one.

“Do you want anything to help hold you up?” She asked, gesturing back to the chest. “They don’t have to be restraints. They can just be something to hold onto. She held up a pair of climbing-rope-strength nylon loops. “Or I have any number of bondage implements, if you’d prefer to be restrained.”

Arthur nodded to the loops and she smiled and pressed his forehead against the wall, digging his nails in and if Merlin were here he would come up with a reason why this was happening. But if Merlin were here, he wouldn’t be getting caned, and Arthur hadn’t gotten this sort of release in ages. Not without having to get on his knees, kiss the whip, look down at their feet and ask for it nicely. Follow all the rules. He knew all of them. His uncle had taught him. He. He knew how to ask. But he wasn’t being ask to be in any of the formal kneels, he wasn’t being asked to refer to himself in the lower third person, wasn’t asked to refer to her in the higher second.

Or he might get a few cursory slaps on his arse for his trouble, might get bruised, or he might bleed. He’d get nothing close to what he wanted. And then he felt worse for having to ask for it, especially when he was used to Merlin’s semi-omnipotent fantasy doms who always knew exactly what Arthur wanted and needed.

Morgause put up the loops and Arthur slipped his hands inside, wrapping his hands around to get a grip. He could slip out in a moment, he settled on his knees, braced himself and didn’t watch her. “Warm up with the cane or something else?”

“Cane.” He said and she stroked down his back with the long edge of the tool, following the curve of his spine, over his arse and down his thighs. “Any areas off limits? Ones you want me to pay particular attention to?”

Arthur shifted. “Um. Stay. Don’t hit my front and. Um. CBT is not. Obviously kidneys and I don’t. I don’t like my arms or the bottom of my feet whipped.”

She nodded like all this was fair and continues stroking him with the cane.

“Not my shoulders or upper back if we’re using a cane. I just. Traditional, I guess. Arse, thighs, that…sort of thing.” Arthur watched the wall shudder a little, they both listened to Merlin’s high-and-tight cry and Arthur gripped the cord and took a breath.

She started with a few teasing little cuts, tiny stings along his thighs, a bit of blaring warmth. Arthur shifted and settled down. He liked a little bit of a warm up. If she just went for it, he tended to react like it was danger. But a warm up was good, provided it didn’t go on too long. Then he got an inch between his shoulder blades, a hunger under his muscles, and he got…tetchy.

“That’s good.” He said, after a moment, a part of him squeamish as fuck to say anything. You weren’t supposed to order. You asked, you formally requested you begged, and, mostly, you accepted what was given to you. “I. Just like you would anyone else I gues-ah.”

Arthur jerked under the first hit, and it blared, bright and beautiful and like the only light in some foul pit. His breath hitched and Merlin was warm, deep, inside him, tangled up in pleasure and pushing himself closer to Arthur, his little cries just audible if Arthur rested his forehead against the wall. She kept the strikes even, rhythmic, something that was nearly lulling, how it shook his body and then rose high, mingling with the rest of him. He closed his eyes and breathed. Strike, inhale. Strike, exhale. She didn’t change it up to put him off his toes, and when she crossed her strikes, she was careful, hitting lighter but making those welts…His skin itched to sweat, it would bead and bleed into the welts and she might have to stop because wet skin bled easier.

His first dom made him bleed. Arthur was very good at-- He’d learned well how to not talk. Not talking was second nature, just hiding himself down deep in his gut, no matter what happened. Falling off a swing and refusing to cry out, someone else from the playgroup stealing his cupcake and not making a protest, quietly watching his babysitter and his dom making out and feeling each other up on the couch when he was supposed to be in bed, because he’d needed a glass of water and hadn’t said anything. Quietly, quietly, quietly slamming that self-same cupcake-stealing child’s face into their own birthday cake without comment. Forrest Mark.

His first dom had made him bleed, because Arthur had been scared and he hadn’t known how to say anything, so they just…hit him. With their belt, and it had been too wide and too sharp on the edges—sewn closed instead of a single strip of leather—and he’d bled and the dom had called out and sent him home still…messed up and silent because the dom, like all of Arthur’s classmates, hadn’t been able to look his stillness in the face.

When he made a noise, Merlin made one as well, matching him, and when he opened himself a little Merlin was right there, high as towers and just. Arthur could sink into that. It wouldn’t be the same as his own, but it made his head feel soft and dark, made going down seem so easy, but he dug his heels in. He didn’t. If something went wrong he’d have to.

“You’re tensing.” Morgause notes. “Should I continue?”

“Yes. I just.” Arthur shook his head like there were flies on the inside he had to be rid of. She kept going and he couldn’t feel wrong in his skin. He couldn’t. It was too tight for him to rattle around in. It was being tailored to him, the mugginess of pain clashing out thoughts. He was just. And there was Merlin, warm and inviting and the pain, hot and searing and Arthur, hung. Like a childhood science experiment about buoyancy, hanging in the middle of a fish tank. The pain built, and it wasn’t. It wasn’t a direct translation to pleasure. It hurt, he wanted to get away and move, it was too much. Not enough-- he needed to be hit until his skin pulled too tight and he just…split open and found himself in the mess.

His second dom hadn’t…they hadn’t liked that Arthur didn’t go down. It ruffled her feathers. It’d started out nice enough, but escalated when he’d still been too…himself, he guesses. She’d gotten angry with him. She’d shoved his head down, hogtied him and insulted him, spat on him when that did work, and when he’d finally, finally, found his voice enough to safeword out, he hadn’t looked at her at all before scrambling for his clothing and getting out as she tried to tell him what was wrong with him. Melissa Rangely.

Morgause paused for a moment. Her inhale was audible, a beautiful little noise of ownership and he turned. It was Morgause’s eyes that made him shudder. Her tempo was strict; her hits fell like she was trying to make him into something. But she wasn’t looking at Arthur like he was... Precious? Well, like he was the only one she wanted anywhere near her bed, and maybe he only knew what that looked like because Merlin. She was too hard to be Merlin, but there was a similar quality. And that was new. That was. New.

He shivered and she stops, hovering a hand over his shoulder. He nodded and she stroked, carefully. “Good?”

He nodded again, like he was all he knew how to do. He took a few deep, careful breaths. She pressed a finger to one of the red, raised welts and he jerked, gasping.

“You could make noise if you wanted. I wouldn’t judge you.” She stroked her knuckle along one throbbing line as he hunches over and hisses. “I would enjoy it, in fact. It can be very therapeutic, I hear. Not telling you what to do. Just mentioning.” her breath hitched as Arthur twisted. “You are, indeed, lovely.”

“You are good at what you do.” Arthur licked his lips. His blood felt too hot, his skin too tight, toes twisted into the sheets and fingers against the cords. “This…I feel…weird.”

She trailed her nails up to the back of his neck and she stroked. “Good weird?”

Arthur shook his head and his skin was hungry. His muscles ached, his…his teeth ache and he couldn’t. He didn’t know what he needed. He just. The skin under his nails itched. “I don’t know. I just.” Merlin usually made this easier. Merlin knew what to say.

His third dom and him had managed, at least, to get through the whole, insipid, boring scene. He’d wanted to roleplay, but it hadn’t been up to Merlin’s…level, and Arthur had sort of lay there and played along, gritting his teeth with frustration at the barely-there spanks, and he hadn’t come, but his dom hadn’t much seemed to care. His dom had liked it well enough, but Arthur hadn’t stayed for aftercare, hadn’t left a real number, gone home and felt…sick with himself for staying for the whole thing. It hadn’t been bad, exactly, not in a traumatizing sort of way. It had just been…bad. Tyrone Pith.

The wall jumped and Arthur kept shifting. He was fidgety, he couldn’t...

“May I try something?” Morgause asked, quietly. “I don’t…like seeing my partner distressed.”

Arthur shook his head and rolled his shoulders. He tried to catch the rhythm of his breath. Tried to- His- Buzzing. He might have nodded his head, he just- He needed.... He hungered. Everything buzzed and tingled and hurts and his throat ached. She grabbed him by the hair, carefully, deliberately.

“Arthur, listen to me. You are fine. You are safe.” She rubbed his neck. “You are here with me. And you took that beating—no.” She stopped and inhaled, rested her head against his shoulder. “Feel the marks, Arthur. They’re yours. You wanted them. Enjoy them.”

Arthur shifted and she scratched lightly down his back. “Do you feel these? Those are yours. They belong to you. You earned them, why are you fighting them?”

“I don’t. I feel.” Arthur tugged at the ropes, rolled his forehead against the wall. Merlin had stopped talking, and…Morgana must...

Arthur listened, desperately, for noises from Merlin. A catch in his breath. A whine on the exhale. He wanted them to be in the same room. Two beds, no. No. Same. One big bed, Morgana on one side and Morgause on the other and he would be able hear. He would be able to watch Merlin and know if he was okay. But he felt okay. He felt…drifting, happy. Arthur smiled briefly, tried to let it soothe out all of his rough, sharp edges. He was too…he was too jagged. He.

He squeezed his eyes shut. Skin was too tight. Skin was tailored wrong, too narrow in the chest and too big in the head. That was what he got for buying something off the rack—no. Charity shop.

Merlin had gotten his bespoke, custom made and beautiful, settled right over his bones. He knew how to wear makeup and how to walk and if Arthur could just slip into Merlin’s self for a day, then everything would be sunshine and boneless, brainless jellyfish (“Sea jellies”) drifting through the water like trash bags.

Everything was sharp. He was going to impale himself. No. What was the word for that? Merlin knew the word for that. If you got a cracked rib and it…went through your lungs or. Or if a leatherback turtle got tonsillitis or.

Merlin had told Arthur’s fourth dom to get blown by a leatherback turtle. They hadn’t even really gotten to the scene. It’d been a date and they’d-- Too personal, too fast. Asking if Arthur had been raped and that was why he was so closed off. Tried to get naked pictures of him before the dessert and he’d called Merlin and Merlin had shown up and thrown a glass of wine in her face before taking Arthur home without a word. She hadn’t let Arthur order for himself and scowled when he tried to tell her what he might like. She’d gotten him a salad. With balsamic vinaigrette. Anita Bower.

His thoughts felt like holding too many things at once. Something would give. Drop. Fall. Clang. Crash. Whatever the sound was for when things were still reverberating on the floor and the room had gone quiet because everyone was staring at you

“Shhh.” Morgause put her hands on his hips, holding on tight. “Shhh. They’re yours. You took them, you earned them. Stop fighting them. They’re your prizes.” She nestled mouth to his ear. “Your victory. Relish it.”

“It-- I don’t... I want to be able to.” Arthur dug his fingernails into the wall. “I can’t.”

“You are not giving in. You are not weak. You are not getting fuzzy. You aren’t going down.” She followed his arms. “You are strong for accepting this. You are beautiful. Shall I quote arcane things for you? There are High Queens, well mannered and lovely from crown to slippered foot, but O! my dearest liege, but O! you are the only who shall have my sword.” She pressed herself along his back. “I hit you as you wanted. Feel what you deserve.”

Arthur reached out blindly, but Merlin was deeper down than he was, and dragged Arthur with him, sinking them both into the ocean, a warm ocean. With terrifying creatures that Merlin can point out along the way. Arthur almost felt like they’re the same, right then. Not separated by a wall, or skin, or personality. A single, centred, creation. Something unbroken, melded together and steadily and perfectly as if planned.

Arthur’s fifth dom was a gift to him from Merlin, designed by Merlin, perfect, only, in Merlin’s image. The closest they’d ever had to what they wanted, and it still fell short. Too exposed, flayed alive, fuck, fuck.

“Go.” She commanded and he…hung, and he didn’t get in the right headspace, but he did…something and the world narrowed down to just. Merlin, and the way Merlin felt and the way they should be able to click together and complete a circuit instead. Redundancy. Program error.

*
Arthur didn’t see his sixth dom check the time and make note of it. He did feel when she freed his hands from the straps. Did feel when she pressed his head to her lap, did feel her stroke through his hair.

Didn’t notice as she listened to her half sister doing the same to his…friend…on the other side.

---
cont.
So it came that Pavi found the Emperor, but was refused entrance. Pavi stood at the gate, watching as members of the rulership came and went, standing as his sleeves draped over his hands. He did not beg, and he did not steal, instead standing outside the gate for three days and three nights, watching as the guards changed and asking again if he might see the Emperor, and again being rebuffed at each attempt. And Pavi may have died there, had not the Emperor not chosen to go for a ride.

The Emperor was a wise and powerful ruler, and as he left the gate he saw Pavi, and wondered that one of his rulership should wait for entrance, for he wished to hear the grievances of all his people so he might cast judgement and fix problems. He asked his guards why they had not allowed Pavi in, and they said he was not of the rulership. The Emperor guided his horse to Pavi, who had bowed his head and stood waiting.

“Young one, what is it that you wish to speak to me about?”

And when Pavi raised his head, the Emperor felt his heart shudder, for there, as truly as sunlight, was his intended, beloved and most pure. He leapt from his horse and swept his beloved into his arms, laughing with joy that such good fortune had befallen him. He held out his hand and Pavi turned his head, and the Emperor pressed his hand to his beloved’s face. “My life and joy, why will you not clasp hands with me? Surely you feel as I do, that we are a single soul. It is only right that we should touch.”

“My lord,” Pavi said, “I cannot clasp hands with you, for mine tempted another to sin, so I cast them away to save them. I am sorry to be so ill-used for you, my lord. For you are Emperor and your beloved should be pure and perfect, and I am not.”

And the Emperor saw that his beloved had no hands, and he was filled with grief that his most perfect and beautiful should have hurt in this way. “My soul, what has happened that caused this? You are far more beautiful and lovely than any other, and if you were not, I would still love you, for your soul has walked along mine all these years.”

And Pavi told him everything, as the Emperor took him inside his beautiful palace, for his rulership was vast and powerful and for every wonder Pavi had ever known, the Emperor had a thousand. The Emperor wept for Pavi’s terrible fortune and good spirit in the face of it, and he had them wed immediately, happy that his beloved had hurt himself, rather than led another to sin. He could not clasp hands, but he revelled in the beautiful spirit that shown along his own, and their rulership shown brighter than any other for Pavi’s love and virtue, leading all those to the path of righteousness, and the Emperor cared for Pavi all of his days, until they died and entered into the Kingdom of Heaven together, hand in hand.

end

- Myra Anders “The Straight And Narrow Path: A Christian Book of Fairy Tales”

December, 2011

Merlin’s yes/no/really, no list is a carefully organized and laminated note card, which does not have a “maybe” column, because, as he says, if it isn’t on there, he’s willing to try it once, unless it is a derivative of something on the really, no column. He pokes around her room with absolutely no shame, looking at the glass swan on her desk, and begins talking about the mating habits of swans in a disturbingly conversational tone, while she thinks.

“You have roleplaying underlined twice and circled.” Morgana notes, when he reaches a pause point. He’s flipping through one of her books, head tilted and he looks up, like he forgot he was talking.

“It’s a really, very, super yes.” Merlin shrugs. “I mean. I don’t need it. But it’s really, very, super yes.”

“What kind of roleplaying?” She taps the laminated card against her cheek. “A little dress up? Some props?”

“Umm.” He shrugs and rubs the hem of his skirt between his fingers. “I’m kind of disturbingly into it? Like. All into character. You don’t have to be if you don’t want to, just playing along is fine, but I tend to. Uh. It’s like a story, in my head.” He looks at one of the drawings she’s hung on the wall and studies it awhile. “I like stories. I like the way people contextualize their world and impart knowledge. And then I also really like trashy, trashy romance novels. I mean, just horrible stuff, where the good sub is kidnapped by a terrible, horrible, filthy brigand dom, and ze cannot be zer soulmate, ze simply cannot and there’s maybe some really problematic rape apology in there somewhere because they don’t speak the same language and the brigand knows their soulmates so ze just goes for it and…” Merlin shrugs. “So I like that, but only in a fantasy setting, because in real life that is the absolute worst and I would punch anyone who supported it in all of their faces.” Merlin runs his fingers over her footboard and grips it.

“You’ve very open.” Morgana notes and watches him. He’s smiling and far too energetic, considering the time, and she wouldn’t mind just…chaining him to her bed and keeping him there for awhile. He’d be lovely to come home to, she thinks, he’d even enjoy it for a while. He’s built of stories, and she could make him tell her all of them, about how she’s a demon, and he jumped from a bridge, and if you throw away your life, someone might take it. Or how she bought him as a pretty little decorative piece and has no problems riding him hard and leaving him to suffer once she done. Or she’s a wizard and he’s her demon, or familiar, which she can use any which way she likes. He’s filled to the brim with stories and she isn’t an actress, but she likes knowing what she’s displaying.

Merlin hops up on her desk and swings his bare legs in a purposefully adorable way. “I like getting what I want. What I want is a good story, and you’re the most beautiful woman in the world.” Merlin said, and his tone was perfectly, on-key, matter of fact. “Unto You— most lovely, unto You—most perfect, unto You—most knowing: this lowly servant gives himself.” He bows his head a little and then peeks up at her, a tilt to his smile, formal words tripping out like a tongue-twister well-rehearsed.

“She sells seashells by the sea shore.” Morgana says, instead of the formal reply, because she doesn’t think standing on ceremony will get her very far.

Merlin replied without missing a beat. “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, popped the pickled peppers past Petra Piper’s pack, who put the pickled peppers in poor Peter Piper puppy’s punch, so Peter Pipers puppy pee pickled peppers on Petra Piper’s puce purse.”

Morgana raises her eyebrows, cracks her neck, “A bitter biting bitter bit a better brother bittern and the bitter better bittern bit the bitter biter back. And the bitter bittern, bitten by the better bitten bittern, said: ‘I’m a bitter biter bit, alack!’”

They stare at each other. “Girl gargoyle, guy gargoyle?”

“Agreed.” She says and they stand off for almost a full minute, before Merlin trips over himself and laughs, poking his tongue out of his mouth and shakes his head. “Alright, fair enough. I consent to your victory.” He hops off the desk and leaps like the floor is made of lava to the footboard of the bed, holding onto the bedpost and staring at Morgana, bare foot circling the air. “So. What do you claim as your prize?”

She looked down at the little note card again. “Are you sure you don’t want me to wrestle you? You like man-handling and I may know a bit about that.”

Merlin’s eyes light up and he crawled over the mattress and extended over the bedspread, cradling his chin in his hands in a posed look of charm and whimsy. Morgana huffs and puts her feet up on the mattress. “What kind of roleplaying were you thinking of?”

Merlin looks down at that, rolling back up to his knees and then scooting to the edge, taking her feet back up on his lap and began working on her arches, moving back up to her toes and tugging each one, her big toe popping and Morgana settling down, tapping the card against her chin. “You have something specific in mind, but you’re stalling for time so you don’t seem creepy.”

Merlin shrugged. “You inspire imagination.”

Tell me.” She rotated her ankle and he cupped her toes shaking her foot back and forth to try and get some of the tension out.

“I can add any elements you like in.” Merlin looked down at the blanket. “I’m adaptable. But. Um.” He clears his throat. “I mean if you don’t like it I can change problematic elements.”

“Ah, so there are problematic elements.” Morgana nudged Merlin’s arm. “If I want something I’ll tell you. Now, tell me what you want, you have imagined something. Stayed up late one night, put a scenario together. How tailored is it? Off the rack? With a bit of tailoring for me? From a designer line? Completely bespoke?” She knocks her foot against Merlin’s knee.

“A previous sketch left on some coffee shop napkin, reborn and redesigned with you in mind, sketched out from every angle. Fabric picked out, cut, and pinned, on the mannequin and waiting for your first fitting.”

She likes this. She wants to hear the scenario first, of course. It might be boring. It might be any one of the boring dime-a-dozen porn scenarios, the light burning behind his eyes might be faux-fire, might…might not be the addicting potential she hopes it is. She hopes he’s as beautiful inside his head as he sounds like he is. All those memorized things have built something worth seeing in there. Not the overly complex rat-maze of some pet fetish fantasy, locked up too long. Not a straightforward costume-shop job. Something with meat, something with teeth, something that is worth holding onto. If he can do that, if he can make a story worth listening to. Then. Then she is going to keep him chained at the end of the bed by his wrists and squeeze every story he has out of him.

If Vulgate takes off the way they think it will, she could be in the business for a kept sub. She could get Merlin all the pretty dresses he could stand, tow him around on one of those designer chains, let him liven up a few parties. She could only imagine how much less boring they’d be with someone like Merlin talking into her ear about how they’d constructed a jellyfish out of rat heart cells, and then explaining to someone rich enough to be in a party mostly comprised of models how that worked and what the purpose was behind doing that.

She knew a few designs he would be perfect for, with those legs, the slope of his shoulders, pale, lovely skin. She could dress him in complementary colours, a lovely collar…maybe…silver? Metal. Arthur would look best in leather, of course, but Merlin would look good in metal, with some…sapphires.

Merlin licked his lips. “Can um. This is dumb, but can I be on your lap?”

Morgana re-adjusts herself without comment. “Usually the storyteller is the one who is sat upon.”

“We all have our methods.” Merlin grumbled and climbed on, shifting around so nothing was digging into her thighs. He rubs one of the buttons on her waistcoat, trailing his fingers along the line of buttons. “What I normally do is tell you the story, tell you who you are, who I am, what the scene is. Hit the high points, you saw what to avoid, you add some ideas as they come to you…” Merlin stroked over her bowtie, fiddled with one of the ears, tucked his free arm over her shoulder. “The night takes off from there.”

“Costuming?” She asked.

Merlin raised his eyebrows and Morgana pointed to the closet doors. “Walk-in, packed to the gills with a lot of options, if you like. I’m a switch fashion model with your colouring, and at times in my life, your body type. I have a lot of options here.”

Merlin smiles and nuzzles her cheek. “Oh, I like you.”

“Tell me.” She takes his chin in her fingers. “Don’t feel too much pressure for it to be brilliant, except for the bits where you do such a lovely job of convincing people that your brain is everywhere at once. So, perhaps I have some high expectations.”

Merlin licks his lips. “I think you’ll like it.”

“Mmm?”

“You get to be a God.” Merlin offers, stroking her arm. “Nearly every Pantheon had a switch God, and they are, to me, usually the most interesting. Tricksters, sometimes, like Anansi, who is both man and spider, who is both clever and stupid, who is both dom and sub, all at the same time, always. Loki and Coyote, obviously. And then you have non-Trickster switches, usually to stand in for…or I mean. Like Janus, whose got two faces and is the God of doorways. So he’s less both dom and sub at all times, and more…one half dom, and one half sub, like they got grafted onto each other, but that’s that for you. The Holy Spirit is considered a form of switch, depending on the canonization, but also sometimes non-dynamic, so it’s up to interpretation, but since Christianity is technically monotheism and the Guardian is dom, and the son is sub, so if they are the three in one, then the one, technically is both dom and sub, so. Ganesha, the God of Luck-” Merlin stops when she puts a finger to his lips.

“Focus,” she says. “While I appreciate how much more research you have done into my gender than anyone else I have ever spoken to—or worse: listened to— there is a time and a place.”

Merlin smiles ruefully and looks contrite until she lowers her finger. “So, I am a God. I like this so far.”

“You are a God of pain and pleasure. You can’t have one without the other, the switch god makes sure of it.” Merlin plays his fingers over her collarbone. “Do you want to be a Trickster?” He cocks his head. “Are you straightforward? Are you mischievous?”

“Mmm…maybe slightly… capricious?” She smiles, rubbing Merlin’s throat with the back of her knuckles. “It wouldn’t be good for you if I were predictable. And, speaking of which…you are?”

“Well.” Merlin snuggles closer. “I am, of course, your fervent follower. I get on my knees for you every night and you grew to like the quality of my prayers.”

Morgana laughs and sticks her thumb in his mouth. “So, I grow to love your rambling, and instead of asking me for suitable lovers, or to bless your marriage, or to give you a little more of one side of myself and less of the other. You…talk to me like a friend.”

Merlin laughs and nips her thumb. “You are my patron God, you deserve all my love and thoughts.” He says, pulling back, before sinking his mouth back down on her finger. His mouth is hot and he twists his tongue over her thumbnail.

 

“So, you are precious and lovely and so very faithful, so I kidnap you into my bower for a night of…my talents?”

Merlin ducks his head and smiles, still sucking her thumb.

~~~
His prayers are, by far, her favourite. She gets thousands of prayers, daily, more by night, lovers all calling up to her, pleading that she bless their union. But his prayers are always singular, and long. Poetic, perhaps, in their inclusiveness. She is not the one who gets beautiful, lovely prayers. It is not her who gets the long, drawn out praises. Hers are frequent, yes, enthusiastic, surely. But brief, unimaginative. Powerful, in their way, filling her veins with life and her fingertips with ability.

His prayers are entertaining, throwing up joy to her for things that are, maybe, under her purview, but no one ever thanks her for, bowing to her siblings in this matter, the God of joy and despair got many prayers that could, perhaps, be hers. But Merlin’s included all the things that pleased him, all the things that pained him, and praised her for both, thanking her for her gift of bliss so he can enjoy it, and equally so for her punishments so he might learn and grow stronger.

He had been a darling young submissive entirely devoted to her. He’d been worshipping since puberty. He had looked upon the Pantheon he had been taught since he was a young boy, and, at the tender age of twelve, put his token onto her altar and hasn’t looked back since. He was unafraid to grab her attention, even as she tested him. He never faltered and was never satisfied even when she gave him rewards, didn’t relax his faith, and didn’t falter once.

She was the god of pain and pleasure, she was a god who both doled each out and accepted both. She was not, as some of her siblings, either one thing or another, being firmly a giver of joy or despair at any given moment, but always, simultaneously both. Pleasure and pain were interlinked, tightly woven together in a lovely pattern that must be view in its entirety to be fully enjoyed.

And, if she was to have a faithful follower, then what, exactly, was the point of being a God in the heyday of her power and prestige, if she wasn’t to…examine him personally?

He looks lovely in her bed, all pale skin warmed by candlelight, no clothing and just her medallion around his neck, where it always resided. She did not have temples like some of her siblings, she did not have grand houses of worship where he could have been a lovely little acolyte. She would have lain him like a sacrifice on her own altar and prepared him exactly as she wanted, in front of all her priests and let them know he, at that moment, was favoured.

But her altars were wherever people made them. So this bed would be her altar and this lovely little mortal would be hers to devour however she liked. At this moment, she wanted him stretched out over her bed, stretched across it and bound, exactly like the kind of offering she would actually accept, had she temples and sacrifices and services.

She stroked through Merlin’s hair, feeling his dreams flutter under her fingertips. They’re good dreams, sweet little darlings that she could just eat out of his head like candy. Full of fluttery, beautiful little thoughts, most of which he gives to her, on his knees, in a formal Offering kneel, giving her plenty of time and thoughts and all of his emotion, all of his bliss, all his agony without question, without hesitation, does not try and shield himself and when he rages, he rages and laments and mourns and gives every ounce of that to her, and it sends shivers up her spine, arrests all of her attention.

She grips his hair, and he wakes, because she wants him to, groggy and slow, still and little under, just enough to get that slow, sleepy wonder as he blinks awake and stares at her. He blinks and tries to reach for her, then turns to stare at his bound wrist, then down at his ankle, before going back to her and biting his lip. “Um, hi.”

She strokes over his nose. “Hello there, little darling.”

“My liege,” he managed, then frowned at how slow and sloppy his voice sounded. He ran his tongue between his teeth and frowned, then smiled because a mortal being in the presence of a God tended to have…reactions. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but there certainly weren’t unaffected. “I feel…um. Hi.” He shifted on the bed and licked his lips. “I. Didn’t have anything prepared for this, actually. Um. You’re…”

She plucks up the medallion from his chest and rubbed her thumb over it. “You’ve prayed to me for hours every single night since you were thirteen and you didn’t even consider what would happen if I took notice?”

“Whatever you wanted would happen.” Merlin smiles, content with everything. “You are you. I didn’t think you’d take notice. I mean. You must notice everything, but. I didn’t think I was. I imagine you get much more eloquent prayers and praises than what I have to offer, from... um. Nicer looking people.”

She huffs a laugh. “Are we fishing for compliments, little one?”

He fidgets and she examines the medallion. It is a simple one, not cheap, and almost certainly the best he could afford. She likes being in the notch of his collarbone, likes that if she pushes down on the medallion with her thumb he’ll cough, struggle to breathe a little. She likes that he wears it around his neck, like she already owns him. Others wear their medallions on their wrists, in their hair, on their ears, dangling from any number of piercings. And she likes that, like the pain people go through to have her on them, the sharp, aching tribute present every time a lover pulls on it, afterward.

“Is it not simply enough that I chose you?” She asks and he looks ashamed with himself and she flicks his nose. “Hush now. You have my attentions, though you may regret that.”

Merlin blinks at her, slow and confused.

“I am who I am. I am not like, say, my sister of Order and Chaos, who does not inflict the latter, just takes away the former. I do not give gifts and take them away, I am not at one moment present and another absent, I am who I am, Merlin. And you know this.” She stroked though his hair, gentle, caring. “You know this, little one. That is why you praise me, even when you suffer, truly, honestly suffer. Not a bedroom game, not stubbed toes. But when you grieve…” She cradles his head and presses down on the hinge of his jaw. “When you grieve. When you hurt. When you are in agony of the spirit or body, you give yourself to me. You trust me. Not my siblings. Not my parents. You give yourself only and truly to me.” She inhales and he doesn’t fight her, she could gouge out his eye and he wouldn’t fight her, she thinks, except for the instinctual writhe of a body in pain.

“So, you know, that if I wished it, this could be about your suffering.” She took his lower lip and pinched it between her knuckles. “That would please me exactly as much as seeing your writhe in bliss would. Or any combination of the two. Would you praise me then, if your skin was hanging off you in tatters?”

He stares at her and then carefully reaches and bites her knuckle, eyes wide and blue as a song. She cocks her head and strokes his cheekbone. “Or perhaps I will torture you another way. Make you feel good until you lose every single bit of yourself to it and you longed for something to take your mind off it. Would you still be mine?”

Merlin smiles around her knuckle and she pulls back. “You will do whatever you want with me. Just as you always have. You are going to do whatever makes you happy.” Merlin smiles and he’s all teeth and joy, all eyes and ears and pale, uniform skin. Ah, of course, nicked and cut here and there. A burn here. A scrape there. But those are just part of the canvas, like the hair over his chest and the indents of his ribs. A life lived leaves leftovers.

“And you’re happy with that?”

He inhales deeply, closes his eyes and smiles to himself. “That’s for you to decide.”

“And you’ll accept my choice?” She fits her thumb into his navel, tugging downwards. Maybe she’ll leave him pierced. That would be a good present, she thinks, to let him wake up in his bed with her mark firmly on him. Or a tattoo. A brand? She’s branded a lover or two before, and they screamed for the honour. They lived their lives differently afterward. What would he do, she wonders.

“I’m yours.” He repeats. “You will do what you want with me. I may try and convince you to do things I like, but…” He shrugs. “Mortal human. We have our flaws. One of them being that I’m really selfish. But I’ve also loved you as long as I’ve known how to, and I guess I’ve grabbed your attention, somehow, and I hope in a good way, and…and whatever you want to leave me with that’s.” He shrugs, helplessly, hands lax in the bonds and smile fidgeting over his mouth. “That’s what I’m happy with having. But I think.” He licks his lips. “I think you’re happy. That I’m yours, I mean. I think you want me to keep being yours. And I will.” Merlin added, fervently, even as she digs her nail into his skin. “I will be, unless you drive me mad or kill me, or…or whatnot. Because then I wouldn’t be. So. If you want to test me, then that’s good, however you want to do it. Because I’m happy if you. I mean. I’ll do my best.” He licks his lips and looks down at her hand on him.

“Oh little one.” She rolls over to lie on top of him, rest just enough weight on him that he has to struggle to breathe, and he does struggle, but doesn’t complain, staring at her with all the respect and love that she is due. Or, if not love then…she is not used to love. That is not what she is for. People enjoy her, but they don’t love her. Merlin does, though. He wears her medallion around his neck, where he should be wearing his dom’s collar. Where his soulmate is going to want to clasp something permanent and final. But he wears her medallion there. She won’t collar him. She doesn’t want to keep anyone that long. But. Then. Mortals don’t live that long at all, do they? And the thought of her sibling keeping his soul in her citadel forever? The thought of her having him, just as she has all of those worshippers, makes her sick.

“I do like having you.” She says and rubs at his arm, pulled taught and exposed for her. “You are right about that. And you have been a…lovely worshipper, who I will enjoy keeping under my heel, under my hand, lovely as welts. So. I think I will enjoy you, tonight, my beautiful little one, and if you really are mine, you will enjoy it as well.”

Merlin shivers under her hand and he doesn’t beg for anything, doesn’t plead or order. He looks a natural in those ropes, perfect in bindings, and she slides from the bed, stretching and enjoying his worship of her form. She is a God, she could be anything. She could be man or woman, human or other, young, old, anything else… but she likes being what is most effective, and this is what is effective.

“So, the question is not what I’m going to do to you, then.” She drags her foot over the plush carpet and spins on her toe, slightly, looking around her. “I’m going to do whatever I what, however I want. But, ah. The how.” She cups his feet and stares at him. “Not that I’m asking for your input, little one. I just need to decide…what pain looks best on you.” She runs her hands up his calves and back down again. “What about you will please me the most, I wonder.”

Merlin licks his lips and his fingers twitch, eyes bright.

“Oh, you have a suggestion?”

“I. Just um.” He clears his throat and his eyes flick down her body, before dragging, slow and purposeful, back up to her eyes. “A thought was all. I.”

She crawls up the bed and hangs over him, stares down as he flushes, and then watches it spread with interest, tracing the blotchy, uneven borders of colour with intent. “Look at you. How far down does this go, anyways?” She flicks one of his nipples and he jumps a little, licks his lips again. “Your idea?”

“I just. I mean. Um.” He clears his throat. “I realize it may have occurred to you, because. I mean. Um.”

“Say it.” She presses her nail into his areola and he fidgets.

Merlin dips his eyes. “This lowly one—ah!”

She twists his ear. “I am not my sister of order and chaos, I do not like formality, so you will address me with, ha, painful honesty at all times, unless I wish the pleasure of a pretty, pretty lie. You are in my bower, little one. When I took you, I took everything that’s inside your lovely head as well.”

Merlin stares up at her and licks his lips again. “I just. I am yours, to do with as you want, whatever it is that you want, and if you want a passive…I mean, if you just. Want to do things to me; I will live happily for the rest of my days. But I would like to... worship you? A little?” He smiles, perfect and off-kilter and rueful. “I’m in the presence of my patron God, and she picked me out of…everyone everywhere. I’d…feel weird if I didn’t get a chance to show her my appreciation. I mean. If I can do that by just. Being here. Then good. But.” He inhales, sharp and desperate. “If it pleases you. I would like to…” He sucked his lower lip into his mouth and bit down, harder than a nervous habit. A tiny little tribute, just for her..

“Harder.” She says and he does, pressing down with those precious, sharp little teeth into the meat of his lip, getting it nice and bruised for her. Tender and wet, a steady, growing kind of pain that sends a shiver down her spine. “That’s lovely. But, you still haven’t actually asked for what you want.”

“I-”

She presses their noses together and stares down at him. “Ten words or less, little one.”

“May I offer the use of my mouth?” He blurted and his flush is the perfect match for the candlelight. He doesn’t flush prettily, exactly, not two high spots of colour on his cheekbones. He is splotchy and ruddy and beautifully mortal. Fragile. Trusting. His lips bruised and she would have to straddle his head for him to work and that…is a lovely image.

“Why?” She asks, continuing to toy with his nipple, alternating sweet and spice just because it makes his breath hitch.

“I want to make you feel good. I mean. I want. I want to do something and be responsible for it pleasing you.” His hands twisted, trying to gesture and failing. “But I also just…like doing that and. Um.” He fidgeted in the ropes and she knelt up over his stomach and considered him.

“I will consider it.” She says and a flick of candle catches her eye. A soft, white one, sweet smelling paraffin and mineral oil and just about exactly perfect, something light to leave darker marks on him. Heat to make him shiver, soft enough to give a little under her fingers, a ring of wax on the stand she’d left it on. She drips some on her own wrist; it stings. It stings and then sinks into her skin like a hot bath, tingles down her arm and makes her salivate, the wax pulling tight on the skin as it cools.

Oh, her boy will look beautiful covered in this.

But first…

She takes up a flask of oil, heated enough to make it comfortable and pours some on her hands, rubbing them together before stroking long and purposefully over his skin. Merlin rolls up into it, his eyes slitting with intent and she keeps her strokes hard, not really massaging, but he relaxes like she’s giving him one anyways. Trusting her entirely as she rubs down his arms, sweeps up again to his chest and over his soft, giving belly, down over his legs and back, rubbing over his prick and he doesn’t thrust, doesn’t move at all. Just watches her, quiet and happy, feet kicking in his bond, happy as flames in wood.

He stares at her, unashamed and trusting as she puts the flask back down, as she holds the candle up, high enough to test him, and watches his skin jump at the trail of wax over his chest. His breath catches and then his eyes are back on the candle, watching as the wax pools, as her hand tilts and he’s jerking before it even properly lands on his stomach, inhaling as sharp as a bracing wind.

“Well, you seem perfectly capable of that.” She lowers the candle a bit and lets good amount of wax develop in the divot, peeling the wax she’s already lain down off, so she can see the fresh pink marks. She bends to taste one, a slightly waxy residue left, but sweat is pricking up to replace any other flavour. But he’s just a bit sweet, she thinks, and she sucks a mark onto his chest. She likes that he never closes his eyes, or—if he does—it’s only for an instant before they’re snapping open again, watching her. Studying. Keeping it for later, like he’ll wake up and it’ll all be gone.

She likes how he looks at her. She is powerful, but she has always been. This makes her feel it, and she could have him on her hook with just that. She could lay hands on him and leave him feeling whatever she wanted. But he’s watching her. Studying. Keeping. And she wants to give him something to remember.

She drops a large puddle right at his navel and his abs clench, feet and arms up and then down again as he pants, the wax dribbling down the divot of his stomach, down his side, and she hasn’t given him anything but this. She’s tied his hands. She’s bound his feet. She’s marked him with wax and his cock is hard. Not fully, not as much as it will be, but he’s interested. She cocks her head. He’s smooth, shaven and she pushes his prick out the way and raises the candle again. He watched her, breath caught and lip between his teeth. She smiles and tilts the candle and he doesn’t try and get away, the wax slowly sliding down and a single, tiny little droplet lands right on his sac. He fidgets, a little.

“This is my lowest burning candle. It doesn’t even really hurt, does it? You just think it will. It’s just heat, and then it cools and pulls, restricts. Not pain, just… something to think about.” She rubs one of the marks, already fading. He can take more. If he’s hers, he can take more. She slaps his cock a little and Merlin rides up into it, and he gets harder for it. He’s one of hers. She wraps her hand around him and tugs a little, to reward him, maybe, or to see what other little noises he can make. He is unlike a whore, he isn’t theatrical with his noises, he isn’t trying to distract or convince. They’re honest, little things. Quiet, mostly. Vulnerable, like something she could carve right out of him and keep. But it would rot in her hands; go pulpy and fetid before she could even enjoy it. She is not her brother of Health and Disease, she does not enjoy gangrenous limbs or broken hearts.

“I have hotter candles, of course.” She lets another stream trail down his inner thigh, loving his tiny, broken little gasp. “And if I get bored of that, perhaps I will get one of my pinwheels.” She didn’t want to use anything where she’d have to move, to stop touching him. The pain should be close, should be trapped between them like heat in a snowstorm. And then, maybe, she’ll kneel astride his head and see what he’s capable of.

She drops a thicker stream over his nipple and she toys with it. Maybe clamps…clamps would make them all red and tight. They’d bounce if she let him up, tugging and aching, working for her even when she changes her mind and decides to mix her two domains more fully. She is a creature of sensation.

She reaches up and pinches the nipple she’s been happily abusing thus far and Merlin just makes a tiny little “ah” noise, pushing up against her fingers, torso tilted up, and he isn’t trying to pull away. But then, moving away would just pull harder, so perhaps he is trying to free himself. No, no clamps. She wants to do this herself. This will be hands-on, her masterpiece, her lovely, little servant. She releases her prize. They’re both high and perky, waiting for her attention, so she bends and sucks the abused one into her mouth. The heat probably isn’t soothing, not after how hard she pinched it, but Merlin’s sounds aren’t distressed, just questioning.

She pulls back and drips the candle wax over Merlin’s hipbone, long beautiful ellipsis over his knee and down his calf. His legs are shaved, under his arms, his sac, his face, but not his chest. He’s trying to look vulnerable; he’s giving her plenty of space to work with, open spaces ready for her nails, for her teeth, for the wax trailing down the muscles of his leg. Beautiful little darling. She wants hotter wax. She wants him to squirm. To dance under the drips. Skitter over the bed, sizzle like butter in a hot pan, sweet like sugar and caramelizing.

Coloured wax doesn’t actually burn any hotter than uncoloured—given a few understood factors—but people tend to think it does, and she wants him splattered with colour. She wants patterns all over him, for him to look like a painter’s smock. For him to be her perfect bit of art, panting and cock hard, and she wishes she’d thought to have a bowl of wax ready. To prepare something so she could trail it in huge swatches over his body, so she could dip his cock in, maybe, as a finale.

She picks up the blue, because he’ll look beautiful in blue and trails it in a line down his sternum, drips it down his ribs.

He looks at her hand, at her eyes, down at the wax and then the inside of his own eyelids for a brief, desperate second.

“Does it hurt?”

“Not. Yes.” He licks his lips and breaths. “It’s hot. It burns, but then it… Do you.” Merlin breathes a moment. “It burns for a moment. Hot enough that I want it off, but then it cools down and it…it feels good.”

She trails a line up his arm and he jerks harder for that, for the inside of his elbow, entire arm bouncing and then he calms again.

“You look lovely for me. You’re going to look better, dripping with my marks.” She flakes off a stray mark that she doesn’t like and picks up the white candle again, offering a bit of counterpoint, oh. No. Green. Green is what is needed. Green is one of her colours, and that’s what she wants to see him in. Green and purples, blue only because it suits him so perfectly, but no red. Red is…wrong, somehow. Clashes.

He doesn’t react much for wax on his legs, laughs a little breathless when it trails down the arch of his foot, spasms away when a splash hits his inner arm. She stays away from his face, is careful to guard his eyes when it’s an issue. She wants his pain, not for him to be harmed. Not him. She has brought pain to people who have—in her opinion— deserved it, left blood trails where they once had pride.

She drips purple down the underside of his cock and she gets a thin jet of pre-come for her trouble, and she laughs. “Good boy. So lovely when you flinch.”

His breath is laboured, beautiful, aching down his windpipe, scraping around his lungs like a trapped dog. She sets the candles aside, and lays on top of him, biting into his mouth, feeling the air trapped in his chest and he moans, tiny little whimpers as wax comes loose and pulls at his tender skin. She rolls up his body and clutches his hair, kissing him as viciously as she can, because she wants to see his lips plump up. Wants it to hurt when she sinks down on them, when he gets what he wants.

He allows her in, accepting every nip, accept how hard she’s pressing, and then, equally, accepts when she pulls back and soothing, petting the side of his face and shushing him, and he follows her up until he can’t go any further, and then he falls back, staring up at her, blinking as little as possible.

He’s like her own personal crime scene, her fingerprints are everywhere on him. She doesn’t need her medallion around his neck to know he belongs to her. It’s there in his eyes, it’s drenched into his skin. “I could keep you here as long as I wanted.” She noted, trailing her nail along one perfect arc of green wax. “You have pledged yourself to me. I could keep you here. You could be my personal pet, suffering and enjoying according to my every whim.”

He looks so hopelessly desperate for it that it pains her. She closes her eyes and enjoys it, petting his cheek with a sigh. “I could keep you here forever, I could teach you how to love and hate everything I did to you.”

“Why don’t you?”

She trails up and grabs his right wrist and squeezes. “Ze wouldn’t get you. I am a switch. I am complete unto myself. But you…oh you little darling.” She kisses his eyelids. “You need someone, and they are there for you. So very close.”

He stares at her and she puts her hand on the wall to support herself and his breath gets caught. “Does ze feel this? Are you sharing it?”

Merlin’s pulse jumps in his throat, and then he shakes his head.

“Do it. Give this over. Bring them into it.” She moves up and closes her legs over his arms and kneels over him. “Now.”

His eyes don’t go glazed like she expects, he’s still entirely there with her, but his mouth goes slack and he rides up in a way that has nothing to do with her. His mouth looks so wet and inviting that she lowers herself, not expecting how he’ll immediately latch onto her, how he moans and she doesn’t know what the cause is, but he is delicious, heat and need and focus, tongue and lips and it has to hurt. Has to, the way she’s left his mouth, but he doesn’t pause, eyes fluttering closed and going for it with everything he has.

She wonders how it is for her dominant siblings. How odd it must be to look down at a sub like this, full of power because of how much they want and it’s up to you to decide what to give them, but not to know what it’s like to be there themselves. She’s been on her back, packed full with all the need and desire to make a dom remember her. Love her. She knows exactly how strong the need is to prove oneself is, tied up and soaked in marks of ownership.

She gets a hand in his hair and uses it to guide him, to keep her sense of balance. He’s attentive, eyes on her even as his mouth works, trying to gauge if what he’s doing it correct.

“Suck.” She tells him, after he’s tried flicking his tongue at increment speeds and pressures, flattening it against her and writhing, tip of his tongue dragging up against her and she grabs the headboard with her other hand, licking her lips. He purses his lips around her and pulls, light pressure at first, increasing as she tugs harder, adjusting herself as she feels like, liking the strong pulls of breath he manages when she rises over him. “How long can you do this for?”

He swallows. “As long as you need me to. Am I…is there something I should be—”

She gets his hands out of the ropes, rolling them over so she can relax on the pillows. His legs are still tied, crossed over one another, but she throws a leg over his shoulder and drags his mouth back in towards her. “Impress me, then.”

He does his very best, keeping his hands spread on the bedspread, changing angles and goes easily when she hooks her fingers on the chain of his medallion and kisses him, tasting herself and purring to herself. It isn’t even about how well he works, but he is enthusiastic and unashamed, making hungry, slurping, lapping noises without care or worry. He does, in his way, worship, body curved in supplication, mouth-forming prayers, and she drags her foot against his spine, enjoying the curve of it, pleasure tensing low in her body and she smiles at the fingers of wax still visible on the lovely little priest, caressing his skin while she tugs his head up, curves her arm around his neck and pressing him down on her nipple. “Suckle, the nature of which is rather divorced from sucking, you’ll note.”

Merlin nods, body long and hot against hers, and she cradles him against her, as his mouth works on her nipple, soft and rhythmic, tongue cradled against the bottom, eyes closed and fingers curled and relaxed against his chest. She strokes his hair as he works, trails her nails down the back of his neck, shifting over until she can nudge her knee against his cock, dripping steadily and his eyes flash open staring at her.

“Is ze with you right now?”

Merlin nods carefully as she keeps the pressure on his pretty little prick steady, rubbing her thigh over it, as wax flaked off in a slow, wincing peel.

“And what is ze feeling about this, exactly?”

Merlin flushed. It was rude, of course, to talk about your partner’s soulmate, or to mention your own too frequently. But she has none of her own, and she’s…interested. Always interested in what it must be like, being half a person. Does it bleed? Do they trade bits of themselves back and forth in order to keep working? It was her sister, of love and longing, who spilt souls in half, crammed them into bodies. Bodies are so much easier to manufacture than souls, after all.

“Ze.” Merlin swallows. “Ze is…enjoying how. Um. They like how aroused I am. And they’re…” His eyes flutter. “Ze’s sort of…just. Making sure I know that I belong to zer. Ze is just…I can feel zer more. Ze is listening.”

She hums and reaches a hand down to stroke him; he shudders, biting his lip and hands fisted against his chest, her thigh running under his prick, rubbing against his sac and keeping his attention very firmly on her. She gets the rest of the wax off of his cock, liking the little choked hiccups he has once she gets a particularly…stubborn, piece off. She press his head back down to her other nipple before shoving him down, wrapping both her legs over his head, squeezing down until his ears are pressed flat against his skull, and he adapts easily, tonguing into her carefully, undulating before dragging tongue back up and sucking, slow and steady, an inch climbing her thighs, a twist in her abdomen. “Yes, good boy. Just like that.”

He shudders under her foot and she cocks her head, sweat beading at her temples. “Good, good boy. You are lovely, you are pleasing me deeply.”

Merlin sobs and practically rolls against the bed, fingers clasped in the sheets, so she lowers her voice, keeps it steady even if all she wants to do is grip her hair and press hard against his chin. “You’re such a good little love, you’re doing exactly what I want.” She continues a stream of praise that’s doing more for him than her hand on his cock had, every strip of skin that she can see from between the fingers of wax is flushed red, and he’s mouthing at her with more-than-an-under-flavour of desperation, fingers scraping against the sheets, pulling back to breathe hot air over her skin, let it get hot and sensitized before pushing in again.

“I should keep you.” She has her nails buried in her own skin. “I will keep you, wrapped up like a present at the end of my bed, and use your mouth whenever it pleases me. I would lock you in the dark like my own personal monster.”

Merlin whines high and needy, pulling back, staring up at her, eyes hollowed out with need, a fleshy abyss that she could fill with whatever she wanted and she slams him back down to the bed, pinning him down and she is filthy wet, so close she could take care of it herself in seconds, but his mouth is shiny and he’s staring at her like she could fix him, if she just reached in and yanked the right bit back into place.

“You are a sweetheart.” She murmurs, and slips down, and slides, shifts until they’re joined and his eyes nearly cross as she sinks down, as she digs her nails into his chest and sighs. Her body accepts him easily, greedily, his cock feeling perfect inside her, where she’d been clenching emptily against nothing every time Merlin had done something particularly clever. She arches back until she’s fully seated. He’s shuddering beneath her, keeping still until she tells him otherwise. He’s covered in sweat, flushed; wax chipping off where her nails shred, bite marks scattered over his neck and she grinds against his hipbone, squeezing him a little and he looks about ready to cry, or vibrate off the bed, or turn into hydrogen.

She rises and falls, enjoying the slow drag of him inside her and he shudders again, breathing shallow and quick and she wants to clasp her hands around his neck, force him to take slow, deep gasps and not faint on her. But she doesn’t, just presses her fingers to his lips. “How long has it been, little one?”

“Since, um.” Merlin licked his lips, squeezing his eyes closed a moment and taking a slow, shuddering breath. “Since what?”

“Since someone has taken their pleasure from you like this.” She rises and falls again so he has a clear idea about what she is referring to. His hands go up to the cut ropes and he squeezes, taking in another set of harsh, quick little breaths before calming himself down again.

“Um. Never.” He presses his hips more tightly against the bed. Trying to be still. Trying to be good. She pets his lips again and he laps his tongue against them, just a quick, friendly thing. She slips her fingers in to press his tongue down. Just…just for a moment, before sliding out again.

“Never?”

“Not. Um.” He shifts on the bed and takes another few breaths. “I mean. They’ve…in me. And. Um. Sometimes, with their mouths but not.” he drops his eyes to where they’re joined and shudders moment. “It’s…”

“Good?’

He nods fervently, flushed as bright as ever she’s seen, and she might have wanted to push him to the edge, to fully, properly test him, but with that tiny admission she wants it to be slow and easy and she sets up a rhythm for it, loving how his hips fidget upwards before he remembers himself. She presses down on his lower abdomen to help remind him and he jerks up hard at that, bouncing her up a bit and she bends over at the sudden rush of heat, the twist in her and she curls inward so she can enjoy it, rolling her hips and Merlin whimpers, feet kicking and holding himself in control, staring at her like she’s the only thing with a gravitational pull in all of creation.

She feels almost that powerful, coming out of it and staring down at him, smiling to herself—bracing herself— and earning every drop of sweat that beaded off his forehead, keeping her pace steady, luxuriating in the burn of her own thighs, in the desperate sounds coming out of Merlin as he slams his hands against the wall, fingers digging into the paint, reaching and stretching as far as he can to get there, a singular pale arch, too much weight resting on his head and shoulders, hips up until she slams him back down again, grabbing him by the head and kissing him, his arms helplessly flinging over her shoulders, mouth slack and mindless.

~~~
Morgana can hear Morgause and Arthur on the other side of the wall, and if she can hear them, then Merlin certainly can. He is lovely, truly lovely, and she is watching his every breath, every movement and he’s… she doesn’t know if it’s headspace or the story he tells himself or what. But he’s not entirely present, moving them up the bed slowly, trying hard enough that she frees his legs and before she knows it they’re up against the headboard, Merlin’s hands tense against the wall like they’re bound there. And if she can hear her sister and Arthur this clearly, then they must be right next to the wall as well.

She presses a hand to Merlin’s throat, not enough to cut off air, just to push his ear to the wall and his eyes alight. He’s listening. She can tell he’s listening, and he’s too far down in himself to even care if she notices. She notices, of course, she notices things. She had been trained to observe and use what she’s learned. And what she’s learning now is that Merlin is desperate to hear what’s on the other side of that wall.

What she already knew is in a folder in her sister’s bag, waiting for them to look over and begin a plan, because she wants them. She wants to keep them, both of them. Maybe just for a bit, maybe for a week, maybe forever. She wants them because they’re so hungry, so needful, and so obvious about it. You can’t…or, she can’t help but look at them and see it. See where she could slip in, grab a foothold and take them for all they were worth. They are black pits.

But.

Oh…but. This is the delicious part. This is the part that can make her salivate. They need, they need, but they are…like her. They are complete. They need because they want to need, they need to feed their own little motor-engine. They didn’t need new parts, they just need fuel, and that was perfect. They were needful, but not needy. Wouldn’t hold her or her sister back, wouldn’t root them down once they got tired of Vulgate, took the money and did something else.

And they’re special. Morgana…likes special things. She doesn’t keep them. But she likes having them for a while, at least.

When Merlin goes, he goes perfectly. He goes because she gives him permission, he goes with a cry and he goes as she hears a similar-maybe-familiar cry from the other side of the wall. She flops down next to him, pulling his head into her lap as he shivers and checks her watch. 4:36 am. She notes it for later and, for the moment, lets Merlin snuggle until he’s calmed down enough to get clean.

The wax peeled off in long, stringy webs and Merlin just stared at her for it, eyes slitted and dazed, and he goes exactly where she wants him to, cuddles close, almost…confused. She strokes through his hair and he doesn’t calm, doesn’t focus on her, turns and looks at the door. “I should be…going.”

“Just rest for a bit.” She says, instead of anything. “You did well. You deserve to rest for a bit.”

Merlin yawns hugely and flops closer to her, and it’s nearing five in the morning. She’s accustomed to being up late, to getting home when people are getting up, to finally taking off her shoes and showering as people are doing the same in reverse. She’s used to crawling into bed at long last after everyone has finally convinced their own tired bones to leave their covers. Merlin is entirely exhausted and it’s a simply matter of putting one strong arm around him and holding, until he’s fully asleep.

Morgana is good at getting what she wants.

---
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Loyalties Lie on the Flip of a Coin: The Trickster in Popular Culture
,

By Merlin Emmeryson (age 22 1/2) Arthur I can’t put that in an academic article
The role of the trickster is irrevocably (It’s precious when you use big words.) tied with the sexual identity of a switch (You just jump right on in there. Another introductory sentence would be good. Give them time to get into your paper before you start throwing things at them). Ze is also one of the most popular and widely used folklore characters in popular culture, (as you will prove later? There’s a lot of declarative sentences really early in this paper) although outside of the ‘safe’ realm of folklore zer identity as a switch may be downplayed or even written out in order to be accepted by mainstream culture. Many characters are written subtextually as switches, like the Doctor from Doctor Who, (Merlin we need to talk about your abusive relationship with commas) who switches dynamics when he regenerates into new bodies, and few are overt—most of whom are outsiders or fringe members of society, such as the con-man switch Neal Caffrey (i.e. Mr. Disturbingly Attractive) Arthur I can’t put that in an academic article on the television show White Collar. (This is your intro Merlin, it needs more folklore words and also a thesis. And a concluding sentence. Also more intro) You’re not the boss of me. Maybe my paper is avant-garde. (I am entirely the boss of you. Write it correctly or you will fail and mope on me. I will mock you. You will end up having to sell your ass on the street. I will eat all of your ice cream.)

Since Neal is a criminal and a con man, it is ‘safe’ to make him a trickster and switch (is it ok for you to put safe in mocking single quotes twice in one paragraph? I don’t think it is). Especially since he is partnered opposite the happily married dom Peter whose wife Elizabeth helps cement the safeness (no Merlin. No. Try words that exist in the real world.) Shakespeare made up words. (You aren’t Shakespeare.) While the show plays at being transgressive (Real words Merlin) Transgressive is a real word. (Word’s spell check disagrees with you.) It’s not my fault it’s ill-read by inserting sexual subtext with Peter/Neal/El or Peter/Neal, (because Neal is gorgeous) Arthur I can’t put that in an academic article although it does not allow anything overt. The fans, being on the internet and thus able to exert their agency (what?) Folklore thing. Just go with it more freely, not only make this sexuality overt and expressed, they further transgress by writing El/Neal and Neal/El, using Neal’s fluid nature to challenge and flip dynamic norms. (You need to clarify that the dom’s name comes first in pairings.) The dom’s name always comes first. We live in a dominant centric society. (Is this paper for folklore or gender studies? Just clarify it.)

The trickster, being a trickster and being a switch is untrustworthy because ze is inconsistent (inconsistent. Learn to spell). Dom/sub, female/male, friend/foe, ze is the embodiment of duality. (Are you sure duality is the word you want?) In the case of the trickster culture hero (wait so is this like an actual different typification thing or are you just making things up again?) I do what I want, Thor this allows the trickster to overcome obstacles that others cannot. The culture hero trickster is seen as benevolent and thus must have a tie to a dynamic normative relationship, forming the third point of a triangle and remaining balanced and sane (this sentence is confused. It was wandering down the road and it kept picking up bits and then it had so many bits and was dropping them everywhere.) The mythical trickster is often portrayed in a more sinister light, taking up and putting down gender roles like coats, hiding as one gender and tricking innocents into thinking they are normal—that they even may be soul bonded. (You and commas need to spend some time apart.) The most infamous trickster, Loki, stole Sigyn’s soulbond (do I know who that is?) Norse goddess of fidelity (It’s funny because he stole her away, isn’t it?) That is indeed why it’s funny. away from her fiancé by using his magic to take away her bond and tying it to his own rib, as the Norse believed that the name of one’s soulbonded partner would be carved onto one’s rib (sources disagree on where this belief came from). The Loki/Sigyn myth is argued, by scholars, to have been developed (in part) to explain disorders that could dull or block a ‘natural’ soulbond, or would explain auditory hallucinations that can occur with dysfunctional soulbonds. (Says who?) People. Who know things. Don’t ask questions. Sources come later. Shhh. Sigyn, though she found out Loki’s trick and decided to flee, eventually cleaved herself to Loki loyally. Loki used this faux bond to make himself appear normal, and earn the trust of the Asgardians. The unnatural state of affairs that arose from this began to tear the very fabric of reality apart—eventually bringing about Ragnorak. Additionally Loki was unable to remain faithful to Sigyn, his chaotic nature calling him to submit to the frost giantess Angroboda, with whom his monstrous offspring were born[1]. Of course, Loki’s nature is not entirely malevolent, although that is how he is most often portrayed (because he caused the end of the world.) Don’t be so judgmental. (He caused the end of the world, Merlin.) He was chained up in his kid’s entrails underground while a snake dripped poison in his eyes. That’ll make a guy cranky.

Contrasted with Loki is the Native American trickster Coyote, who while transgressive, (you really like that word) had a place within his own society from which to operate. Coyote uses his disconnect from the dynamic duality to prank and trick the deserving. (Examples?) SOURCES COME LATER. I HAVE A LEGEND I JUST NEED TO FIND IT, OH GOD DID WE LOSE THAT BOOK WHER-here it is.

The question then is, is Coyote written as a positive figure because switches are an accepted part of Native American culture, or are switches an accepted part of Native American culture because Coyote is a positive trickster/switch? (That sentence made no sense at all, actually.) In The Dynamics of Non-Dynamism Patricia Wriggly states that “the actual behaviour and psychological stability of non-dynamic normative persons—be they non-dynamic entirely or dual dynamic, depends largely on the acceptance of their society, as the dynamic atypical will commonly take on whatever role their culture has set up for them (361).”

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January, 2012

“You can go if you want.” Arthur offered, as another quarter hour passed in the waiting room with no end in sight. They hadn’t let him go in. He was medical proxy, but Merlin was still able to communicate and consent to his own medical procedures, so Arthur was out here. Staring at the bland-boring-beige walls and wanting, somewhat, to burn them down. “We’ll be fine.”

Gwen looked down at her gloves. “I don’t mind.”

Arthur was too tired to argue and Gwen continued to not ask any questions, didn’t even look at him funny. Which meant she had to know something about them was wrong, and tender, and she was just being…nice? Maybe she’d suspected for a while. Maybe they all had. But she didn’t say anything, didn’t look at his wrists and try to catch signs of the bruises welts. Arthur wasn’t sure whether to be thankful for that or not. Maybe she was just saving it up for later. Maybe she was hoping to find out more. What else could they have been doing? The two of them, alone, in their flat, chained up and no one else there for them to blame. Even if this mess had left Gwen thinking they scened together in threesomes, which was more damning than Arthur wanted to deal with.

Jesus, how stupid had they been? Both being tied up, and the keys across the room. That was. They’d gotten too comfortable. What if Merlin had gotten seriously hurt and the mobile had been too far away? What if. He would have gotten the mattress free eventually but. But there were so many things that could go wrong. He should sue the company who made those cuffs. He should.

But Merlin had been hurt, and it was Arthur job to stop that from happening. He’d failed and if he could take all of Merlin’s pain, Merlin could take the sick stench of guilt away from Arthur.

“He’ll be okay.” Gwen lifted her hand to touch his shoulder and then dropped it. “Just. Arthur, I won’t. I don’t know what I saw, and I’m not saying anything, but I won’t ever bring it up again, and you won’t ever need to worry about me. I don’t.” Gwen looked at her own nails and they sat there awhile, silent as too many other people breathed around them. “It doesn’t matter to me.”

Arthur nodded, staring at nothing. Staring at his nails. Morgause and Morgana had guessed, had figured them out with much less evidence and they had… carnival freakshow. Publicity tour. He has a headache, right at the base of his skull, reaching with tendril fingers up to his temples and striking hard just behind his eyes. Gwen had been the first person he could think of who would, at least, be somewhat discreet. He just wanted to take Merlin home, tuck himself over Merlin and just stay there.

Gwen shifted in her seat and continued to sit by him. She inhaled again and he looked over. She’d steeled herself and turned to face him, carefully putting her hand over his wrist. “Arthur, you and Merlin are my friends.”

He stared at her and she looked down at her hand and squeezed. “You are my friends and I. I don’t. I’m happy you trusted me enough to call me when there was a…problem.”

He looked at his feet and nodded. She nodded to herself and let go of his arm carefully, like he’d blow away if she did it too quickly.

There was a sharp pull in his shoulder, a wrenching, horrible pain, before it slowly ebbed away to a terrible, frustrating ache. He jerked in his seat, got up to his feet, and began pacing to try and cover for it. Soulmates tended to heal faster than unbonded persons did, because the pair could spread the injury across the two of them, lessen the severity by half. It’d saved plenty of people from death, turning terminal cancer into something more treatable. It also gave the injured party something nearly tangible and inescapable to hold onto. Rarely did one partner end in a coma that the other didn’t either join them in, or pull them out of.

If Merlin had lost blood, Arthur’s would have been the best for a transfusion, regardless of blood type. Not that Arthur would have been able to convince anyone of that. Or if Merlin lost a kidney and needed Arthur’s or…a thousand ways Merlin could injure himself and not get the best treatment because they were... Because. They-- Or... Or if Merlin got really sick, they’d put him on bond suppressants so his far and away bondmate wouldn’t get any of the adverse reactions to the treatment without full consent and Arthur…

He didn’t panic. He just stared at the drinking fountain and didn’t panic. His chest hurt and he rubbed it absently, fingers rolling over raised, smooth scars and he didn’t panic.

If they, in the future, went to a nursing home there would be no guarantee they’d be in the same room, for all the legal papers they’d signed.

He kept breathing. Kept breathing. He stepped aside as a kid in an arm cast pushed past him to get water. Gwen led him back into the waiting room, and there was Merlin, arm in a sling and shoulder immobilized. He signed something awkwardly, holding a prescription. He smiled when he saw them, said something and Arthur just nodded along, putting his arm around him. They’d never been on painkillers before. He wondered how that would work.

Merlin was safe under his arm. He and Gwen were talking now. Maybe Merlin was trying to spin it, make her forget what exactly she had seen. He was probably attempting to adorable his way out of that one, like he’d had every other thing in their lives, and maybe, maybe by the end of the ride Gwen would have some reasonable doubt.

Freya would have been allowed into the back, had Elyan gotten injured. Hell, in most cases, if Leon had taken the sub he was dating, or (since it was Leon), collared to the emergency room, he would have been allowed in, soulbonded or not. Leon was a serial monogamist who dated one sub extremely seriously for several years until it ended for one reason or another. Ze met zer soulmate, ze moved to Australia, ze got freaked about the level of commitment and fled. One thing or another.

Maybe he should have gotten Leon and Merlin to date. Leon was disturbingly loyal to every single one of his subs, and never had been (no matter how much of a flagrant arseface said sub was to him) the one to call it off.

If Merlin and Leon dated, Leon would probably just grow to accept Arthur and Merlin’s relationship, like he’d accept Kathy stealing (over the course of their three year relationship) thirty thousand dollars from him-- not including the rent he’d paid for her, and how many times he’d bailed her out of the drunk tank. She’d been an actor, apparently, and just moments away from her big break. Arthur had listened to one, singular, over-dramatic, over-wrought monologue and left. And Leon had loved her and given her more money and told her not to worry about it, until she took his telly and ran off with a “director.” They tried not to assume she’d been murdered.

Or Juan! Juan had cheated (over his and Leon’s five years) on Leon, to their knowledge, at least once a month, and they’d fight and Juan would cry and Leon would just take him back, right up until Juan had tried to sleep with Percy and Percy had…well, they’re pretty sure Percy did something to properly, really, scare Juan off, but they couldn’t think of what. But Percy did not sleep with people his mates were sleeping with. Or had slept with. Or wanted to sleep with. Or were related to.

Percy had once pulled over on his way to work to help a sub fix their car, gotten them to their work so he could explain to their (apparently psychotic) boss what had happened, called in to work to his (really understanding because it was fucking Percy, and Percy had helped her do her taxes and cleaned the entire building by himself when the custodial staff had been short-handed) boss and promised to work on his days off in exchange, and taken the newly fired sub out for lunch to make him feel better, spending the entire day together, and then introduced said sub to the group, and when one of Percy’s friends (who Arthur didn’t know) showed an interest that said sub returned, Percy had stepped the fuck off and gotten them a reservation at the restaurant of a chef who he’d saved from drowning. True story.

To date, Leon’s only healthy relationship had been with Priya Shrivastava (two years), and they’d hadn’t been great together, but she had, at least, been in graduate school studying henna art in its traditional and contemporary globalized forms (like how, since henna’s rise in popularity in America, asymmetrical floral vines flowing down from the index finger had become popular in India, especially since the design had been seen on movies stars, even though the asymmetrical design breaks with traditional rules of Indian body art, something Merlin had found fascinating and had interrogated Priya fervently and Arthur had learned far more than he wanted to, as she decorated his hands and arms with a peacock motif. (“No! No peacocks! No peacocks. If you squeeze a peacock his penis comes out and there was a book and Sapphos and sudden bestiality and I’m going to claw my eyes out now, why, why, why do books not have warnings?” Merlin had sobbed upon seeing them. For the next two weeks. Arthur had taken to long sleeves.)) and Arthur had let her practice on him, and take pictures for her projects, because he was the only one of them capable of sitting still. She’d finished her degree and moved back home to Banaras because her family had needed her. Leon had considered moving, but they’d sat on him until he realized there was nothing for him in India, except Priya, and while they hadn’t been able to convince him Priya wasn’t worth it, they had managed to sit on him long enough for Priya to find someone her family found more appropriate, thus renouncing Leon.

If Merlin and Leon dated, then Arthur would just be another thing Leon looked over blindly because he just wanted to love somebody. Arthur decided he might bring it up later. Maybe. Leon was a foundational member of that friend group, if…if they attached themselves like that then…

Then Arthur didn’t know. Arthur was tired, and worried, and he wanted to just…be done with this. It was a terrible secret, and they were terrible at keeping it, and the only way to do it was to just… Gwaine had been someone Merlin had just dated too long, and maybe he’d-- Arthur still didn’t know what Gwaine had thought of them. And Morgause and Morgana had just paid too much attention. They'd had too many cameras on them when they had been being stupid. When they had thought they’d had the crowd on their side. They were terrible at this. That was just the brunt of it. They were really terrible at this.

Probably.... Maybe-- Probably because they were waiting for someone to catch them, Arthur thought.

---
December, 2011

Arthur wakes up to a sudden rush of untempered panic that tastes exactly like muddy pond water. Merlin.

He pushes himself up, rolls out of bed, and maybe Morgause wakes up, and maybe she doesn’t. Arthur doesn’t know how to sleep next to people who aren’t Merlin. He kept waking up in the night, wanting to turn over, but not wanting to attract attention. Wanting to spread out but not wanting to knock his limbs against hers. He almost wondered, somewhere around nine am (and he was still tired at nine am, because he’d been up until five) if Merlin had this kind of trouble, except…no. Merlin never stayed the entire night. He always came home to Arthur.

Arthur can’t find his clothes right away, so he ventures out naked and finds Merlin sitting in what had to be Morgana’s robe, staring down at a file folder. He looks up at Arthur, lips thinned and eyes wide and Arthur goes to see what he’s looking at.

Pictures.

Pictures of them. Arthur tugs them out of Merlin’s hand. Security camera, security cameras at Vulgate, and it was… They’d gotten high off the possibilities, they’d been buzzed off finally, finally being able to just…touch. In. In public and then.

It was Merlin in his lap, in the chair. Kissing. Or, he knows they were kissing. The picture doesn’t show anything explicit. The camera was too far away, and there were too many people, and Arthur and Merlin are so tangled that it doesn’t actually matter what they were doing. If…if Freya was looking at this, she’d just snort and not think anything of it. This is who they are. This is how they have presented themselves.

Merlin would be able to spin it. He’d focus on the outrage of being spied on, or telling them that they were creepy. Or. Or something. Manipulate them right back, because maybe they used their cameras to spy on them all night, but they didn’t need to print the pictures off. Take them home. Make them into one of Merlin’s stories. Merlin would ask what they wanted with the two of them.

“You were snooping?”

Merlin shrugs with a shoulder and frowns at the pictures. “I feel like we’re a job. Or like. One of the…” He trails off, but Arthur hears him anyway. It feels like they’re someone Merlin made up.

“Can’t we just…take them and go?” Arthur asks. And there are. There are notes? It’s in a cipher (“Aimooi qk kai ycii eicmiemqqi ck yiiwqa moaa eiioaek a aciyaw kiqiagkoqe scowg kommikm com qm gcik acm qa qmkiwk kommikm aawmoqam qamiiikmqam qm qk moi saw moiw ycqi aicoag iaeo cmoii moam kocowg ci iuayqaig eaim ck moam eaa ci iuewaqaig…”) and Merlin could probably break it if he wanted, but then they’d need to take it, and that would be more telling than…than playing it off…

“They might have copies.” Merlin says, frowning. “I found this.”

“And we need to do something about it.” Arthur says.

“No, I mean.” Merlin looks around. “They could have hidden it better, but they didn’t. I found it.” Merlin taps the photographs, licks his lips, thinks, standing in the kitchen of a penthouse they just went to. Like morons, because they just... Thought it’d be okay. Are a little bit too close to living in fantasy than is healthy. Maybe if we go here we’ll find those two people who will accept us for who we are.

And who knew. Maybe they would. Maybe they already do, but they have pictures. They have notes. And that is… it makes Arthur’s skin crawl and he knows better than to stay somewhere his feet are telling him to leave.

“They wanted you to find it?” Arthur doesn’t know what any of this means except that they need to go. They didn’t give either of those two their mobile numbers, and if they just…if they just go then they might. Maybe Morgause just watches anyone her sister wants to sleep with. It makes sense. A sort of creepy kind of sense, given the cipher notes

“Maybe.” Merlin said, “They didn’t follow us home. They just took what was available. And it’s not a very clear shot.” It isn’t. There’s just there, in the image, and they could be doing anything. It’s not a close-up. Most of the rest of them are just…of them. Being normal. Affectionate, yes, but they always are. Close, but it’s a club. People get lost in those.

They could just leave. Not come back, and if either of those two find them…deal with it then. That’s a terrible plan.

Merlin writes something on the bottom of the notes section and closes the folder. “Go get your clothes, I’m going to get mine.”

Arthur looks up and Merlin is still scowling at the folder, so he sneaks into the bedroom, collects what clothing he can find, and Merlin creeps out about as sneakily, though Arthur suspects that that is not, in fact, his shirt. Merlin checks everything is in his handbag.

“What do we—”

“We won’t.” Merlin says with a tone of finality and he looks at Arthur, and then the bedroom door and he doesn’t actually hide the longing. It’s there. It. Arthur doesn’t know what it tastes like, because he wasn’t there for that formative memory, but he feels it and Merlin doesn’t try and hide it from him.

“We could—” Arthur almost suggests, but. No. They can’t. Not with the pictures and the notes and the…everything. It’s dangerous and Arthur doesn’t know if they’ll ever find someone to tell. If. If now they’ll just be more careful and Merlin will just stop sleeping with anyone at all because it’s been too many close calls too soon. “You liked them.”

Merlin wraps his coat around himself, gives Arthur’s back to Arthur. “If we want to tell someone that is our choice. No one gets to make it for us or…or take pictures or…” Merlin thins his mouth into a line. “They let me find that, I think, so we’d know they know and…I don’t know. I don’t know what their endgame was but I’m not.”

They slip out the door and Merlin isn’t angry. He was angry for just a flash, just…a moment, and then he’d written his note and was fine again. Arthur doesn’t ask him what he wrote, just watches Merlin shove his hands into his coat pockets, stare at nothing, and manoeuvre them onto the streets, losing themselves in the crowd.

“What now?”

“We go home.” Merlin says, keeping his distance, and Arthur tucks his hands in his pockets. “We think about how to. What to do now. They could find us if they really wanted to, but. I’ll.” Merlin looks tired and so Arthur tugs him in, lets him rest his head against his shoulder. No one is paying attention, and Merlin looks heartbroken enough for it, anyways. “I want to go home.”

“I’ll get us there.” Arthur says.

---
January 2012

They drove home quietly and Arthur waved a hand to Gwen. She didn’t try and follow them out, but she took Arthur’s wrist again and squeezed. He nodded and maybe, might have tried to smile. He didn’t... He didn’t really know. He walked Merlin up to their flat; the lift was still broken, so they took the stairs, slowly. The flat was unlocked, still, and Arthur looked around. Nothing looked obviously stolen, the telly was still there, so he locked the door behind him-- checking to see if it worked. It didn’t. He wondered how long that’d been broken. He put the chain on and wrote a note to himself on the counter to call the landlord. Maybe Gwen had broken the door down.

He gets them to their bedroom, navigating the spindly towers of books and piles of probably dirty laundry. He removes Merlin’s trousers. Stopped. Took off Merlin’s shoes and socks, put the socks in the hamper. The trousers in the hamper. Shoes by the door. He kept the shirt on. It was too big, thick weight and with the right amount of buttons. It made Merlin look small, or fragile. Or maybe that was the heavy white sling, keeping his arm right next to his side. Arthur rubbed the fabric and tried to feel better. He usually felt better when Merlin was in his clothing. That usually worked. When no magical feeling of comfort and safety rushed in, Arthur settled for tucking Merlin into bed, putting the right amount of pillows under his head and pulling the blankets to his chin.

He stood. He began cleaning. The room needed to be cleaned. Arthur had been working more, and Merlin was in the middle of a project about something, something, something in expressive culture, something as seen by the variants of, something, something, that followed the volitional, temporal action of something taken in the context of globalization and something, something, something caused the emergence of art with something foci and something, something, something super space ray death lasers.

Merlin let him clean without comment; let Arthur leave and put a load of laundry in, let Arthur come back and hold up books so he could say whether it was okay to put them back or not and where they went if it was. He even let Arthur sweep and vacuum and then stand in the middle of their, comparatively, clean room and stare down at his feet, five seconds from alphabetizing their surprisingly large CD collection, or reorganizing the stuffed animals Merlin had brought along with him, worried about their mental health because Toy Story was a terrible thing to show someone like Merlin. He’d cried over all his toys and promised he loved them and Toy Story 2 had brought them all down from the top of his closet as hugged every single one of them and cried about the ones he’d thoughtlessly and cruelly given to charity shops and boot sales.

Toy Story 3 had triggered an actual mental breakdown, Arthur thought, but that was better left unconsidered. Arthur moved Beary and Nala to snuggle a little more, since they were dating. Or siblings. Depending. Identities were…malleable.

“What do we do?” Merlin asked as Arthur fiddled with Scarlet O’Hara’s hat, letting her put a hand on Ollie The Otter of Oinksville (he was an otter raised by pigs. It was quite tragic, but had saved them from a fair few aerial attacks, seeing as pigs couldn’t look up.)

“She said she wouldn’t say anything.” Arthur looked at the display, stroking Mustard’s raggedy and threadbare pelt, remembering him as the Sheriff of Fairly Awesome Land. “I had to. You were hurt. You should have. We could have lifted the mattress and gotten the tie-points and we would have.” Arthur exhaled, squeezing Mustard’s paw and he stared at nothing for a moment. “I couldn’t think of who else to call.”

Merlin was quiet he isn’t angry at Arthur, for all that Arthur is, unfairly (maybe), angry at him for not just…for not just letting Arthur deal with the problem. His wrists ache and he rubs, Merlin reaches and he goes. Merlin pulls him down until he sits on the bed and Arthur sits. “You aren’t allowed to get hurt.”

“Yeah, that rule doesn’t really work.” Merlin sighed and put his hand on his stomach staring up at the ceiling. “I’m a person of action.”

“You are a person of stupid action. You tried to climb a slide with a pocket knife.”

“I saw a play about pirates!” Merlin defended.

“You fell out of the top of a tree and bruised your arm so badly you couldn’t lift it.”

“In the process of befriending a squirrel and thus beginning my squirrel army.” Merlin reasoned and Arthur put his hand on Merlin’s stomach too, because it seemed the thing to do. “It’s good neither of us have wisdom teeth, I guess.” Merlin put his hand over Arthur’s. “I’m going to be fine. You’ll make sure I do my exercises and take the pills and I’ll get to be spoiled rotten for a few days.”

Arthur shucked off his hoodie and trousers, sliding into bed and wrapping Merlin up as carefully as possible, keeping him against the wall, Arthur between Merlin and the rest of the world, mindful of his arm and taking a deep breath.

They sat a moment. “It’ll be better before you know it.” Merlin said, putting his hand to Arthur’s shoulder. “Stop feeling angry at me. I don’t like when you’re angry with me. I’m just going to be loveable until you stop.”

“You’re an idiot.” Arthur grumbled.

“You’re fieldwork, I’m ivory tower, remember?” Merlin rubbed his thumb along Arthur’s index finger. “I’m meant to be the head-in-the-clouds academic, while you’re the world weary—”

“She’ll look at us differently.” Arthur interrupted, “Even if she never says anything, she’ll…she’ll look at us differently.”

Merlin rested his head back against the pillow and sighed. “I know. We’ll. We’ll make up something. Give me time and we can.” Merlin squeezed his eyes shut. “There has to be-- A prank or… A dare. We were drunk? We got a dom and ze…left? Or if we just keep…acting normal she’ll. She’ll make up something herself.”

Arthur stroked Merlin’s back. “It was just the two of us, naked, in a room that doesn’t look like it belongs to either of us, chained up, and, until I went to the bathroom, I was still spackled with come. We smelled like sex. There is nothing else we could have been doing.”

They were quiet.

“We could move.” Merlin offered, after a long while.

“We could tell her.” Arthur counter-offered and they’d…they’d been keeping a secret for long enough that the idea of telling someone was almost heresy.

“We can’t tell-“ Merlin began and then sighed, “can’t move either, really. It’s. It’s a big city. We. We could just…” But they liked their friends. They were the first people who just…didn’t mind that they were all over each other. And. And maybe. Maybe that meant…

“We’re not perverts. We’re soulbonded, and even if we can never recognize, or prove that, it’s true.” Arthur awkwardly managed to get their hands tangled together. “If we just. She wouldn’t be able to blame us. She has a weird soulbond going on. She knows what it’s like.”

Merlin sighed. “But what if. What is she?” Merlin bit the inside of his cheek. “We’re not wrong. And I don’t want you to think we are.” He kissed Arthur’s throat. “That’s why we’re keeping it a secret now. We aren’t wrong. We aren’t messed up. We aren’t a mistake.”

“And maybe we should tell someone.’ Arthur argued. “Maybe. Maybe it’d be nice to be able to kiss each other in front of our close friends without. Panic. And. And we wouldn’t need to flirt with doms, and we could just.” Arthur exhaled and loosened his grip. “Gwen wouldn’t tell anyone. Even if she never talked to us again, she wouldn’t tell anyone.” Arthur ran his hand down Merlin’s ribs. “We can’t…keep hiding forever and escaping once people figure us out.”

Merlin squeezed Arthur’s fingers. “I just don’t want for you to feel like we did when we were teenagers. You were. You felt guilty all the time, and I didn’t know how to fix it, and it wasn’t until we’d been living here that you haven’t. I haven’t felt you feel bad about us. And I don’t want you to feel bad about us, because we’re fine.” Merlin shifted that little bit closer. “So if you want to tell her, that’s good. But don’t feel guilty again.”

Arthur rubbed his thumb over Merlin’s knuckles. “I think. I think as long as we’re hiding it, I’m going to always feel bad about it, because it’s. It’s like we’re ashamed, and I’m not. I don’t know why we soulbonded, and I don’t know what would have happened if we didn’t, but you belong to me, and I belong to you and that. That should be good enough.”

Merlin thought about it and squeezed Arthur’s hand.

“Okay.” He agreed, quietly, shutting himself down and away from Arthur. Arthur lay there in the dark until he followed.