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A Binding Contract

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As far as nineteenth birthdays went, Merlin didn't feel particularly different on the day of his. He had been woken up much like any other day off, after a bit of a lie-in, with his boyfriend sprawled between his thighs, sucking Merlin's cock until he came down the back of Arthur's throat.

Well, he supposed something was a little different that day. Arthur actually let Merlin fall back to sleep, cozy and warm in his post-orgasmic bliss, instead of dragging Merlin out of bed to carry on with their day off together. So that, actually, was rather nice.

Merlin woke up for a second time with less sexual urgency but rather because the smell of coffee that was filling his nose and calling to him like a siren. That was certainly Arthur's doing as well, but Merlin knew Arthur's heart was in the right place for it, so he suppose he wouldn't get too angry at it.

Merlin rolled over, sprawling across Arthur's bed for a moment. He looked in the direction of the window and lazily flicked his fingers; the blinds opened up widely, filling the room with light, catching on the bronze of the broken clip around his wrist. Merlin blinked against the new day, smiling, and then finally swung his legs over the side of the bed to get out.

His tee-shirt, which had been flung across the room in last night's sexcapades, flew back towards him now as Merlin beckoned to it with his magic. He caught it easily and tugged it over his head, and then pulled on the closest pair of jogging bottoms he could find; they were Arthur's, so Merlin pulled the draw string tight and rolled the waist over twice until it settled low on his hips.

Then he happily followed the smell of brewing coffee into the kitchen.

Arthur noticed him immediately, jumping down from his stool at the island. "There he is," Arthur said with smile. He came up to Merlin and pulled him into a loud, smacking kiss. Arthur smiled, flash of perfectly imperfect teeth. "Happy birthday, boyfriend."

Merlin kissed the tip of Arthur's nose. He couldn't help but smile broadly, just like every other time Arthur called him that. It was a bit ridiculous, but Arthur seemed unable to stop, probably because Merlin never thought to ask him to.

"I made you coffee," Arthur said proudly.

"So I see," Merlin said, going over to the counter to prepare himself a cup. Arthur walked up behind him, pressed up against his back, hands settling on his hips.

"You hungry? I can make us something. Pancakes?" Arthur suggested.

"Gee, you'd think it was some sort of special day around here," Merlin said, turning around and slipping his arms around Arthur's neck. "You never make me breakfast."

"I make you breakfast every weekend," Arthur said with a mock scowl.

"Oh, right," Merlin said. "Well, who am I to say no to tradition?"

Arthur smacked Merlin's arse lightly, teasingly, and leaned in to kiss him. "Do you want your present now?"

Merlin smiled brightly. "Present? You got me a present?"

"Of course I did," Arthur scoffed. "It's your birthday."

"Is it as amazing as a blue tie?" Merlin asked. "Because, if I say so myself, that was the best birthday gift ever."

"And Christmas gift, and Valentine's Day gift, and--"

"Oi!" Merlin protested. "You have forty-three red ties. There's nothing wrong with a little variety."

"No, I suppose there isn't," Arthur said. "I do like to wear the blue ones, on occasion."

Merlin grinned sneakily, about to make a comment but Arthur rolled his eyes and cut him off with a kiss. Merlin knew that 'on occasion' meant 'every single Friday'. Maybe Arthur didn't have nearly as many blue ties as he did red ones, but he faithfully wore one at the end of every week. And, even though he refused to admit it out of some unexplainable stubbornness, Merlin knew Arthur wore them because Arthur was thinking of coming home to Merlin for the weekend.

Merlin ducked out of the kiss and out of Arthur's arms. "Present!" he cried. He tried not to get too excited about it, but that was all Arthur's fault, actually. Presents hadn't been something Merlin had a whole lot of experience with until he met Arthur. Merlin still scolded him or felt incredibly uncomfortable when it was too extravagant, but he was getting better at accepting that Arthur couldn't help but want to spoil him rotten.

"Get your coffee and take a seat," Arthur said, nodding towards a stool. For once, Merlin didn't argue with that and did as he was asked. He faced Arthur and tried hard not to bounce up and down on the chair like a child at Christmas might.
"All right," Arthur began. He picked up the paper, which had been faced down on the worktop. "This isn't actually from me, but it just seemed very fitting and I wanted to be the one to tell you. You'll get your actual present from me later tonight."

Merlin blinked. "Um, okay? What are you giving me now?"

"Just the daily paper," Arthur said.

Merlin pouted playfully. "That's -- what kind of present is that?"

"This one." And Arthur held out the paper, showing Merlin the front page.

It read: 'Witchfinder' Aredian arrested for extortion, prostitution ring, and violation of Human Rights.

Merlin was so shocked he dropped his mug of coffee.

Arthur lurched to grab at the falling cup, but Merlin's magic caught it before it hit the ground and lifted it up to place it neatly on the worktop.

"You know," Arthur said as he handed the paper in Merlin's direction, who grabbed it greedily, "it's still a tad bit creepy when you do that, sometimes."

Arthur had been really good about Merlin's magic. The only reason Merlin hadn't been allowed to do it in the Arthur's flat for the few couple months was because Arthur was nervous about craters opening the floor and dropping Merlin onto the neighbours below. But once Will and Merlin proved to him, though a stunning show of magic 'tricks', that Merlin had full control, Arthur had been fine with it. But sometimes it made him a bit jumpy, though not intentionally, and he tried his best not to show it. Merlin adored him for trying.

"Yeah, yeah," Merlin said absently as he flipped open the paper to find the article to read. "Holy shit. Holy shit. I mean. This!" He poked at the paper, nearly shoving his finger right through. "It's--"

"Holy shit, right?" Arthur asked, amused.

"It's bloody brilliant." Merlin looked and saw Arthur had a wonderful smile across his face.

"Is really is," Arthur agreed. "It's the best birthday gift ever, if I do say so myself."

"You didn't!"

Arthur laughed. "If only I could take credit. But, no, I suspect it's just a lot of hard work by a lot of people trying to put that bastard away." He walked over to Merlin. "It's amazing, isn't it?"

"Beyond amazing," Merlin said, looking up. The paper crushed between their bodies as Arthur cupped his hands around Merlin's face and leaned closer. Merlin tilted his head back and accepted Arthur's lips, opening up while their kiss deepened, hot and slow.

Arthur pulled away, voice filled with warmth and pride when he said, "I'm happy for you, I really am. I bet that Emrys guy will have a lot to say about this."

Merlin laughed in agreement. "I'm sure he will."

They both knew right then that as soon as Merlin got a chance, he'd be over to Will's. Will would put the IP address through so many proxies that no one would be able to track down Emrys, the magic-user blogger who liked to inform the world how things were and how they needed to change, and who was finally getting some actual attention that wasn't just trolls who said hateful things.

People were starting to listen to Emrys, and there was speculation not only in the non-magical world but the magic one too. The Clipped wondered who he was, as he knew too much about them but spoke freely in ways they wouldn't, or couldn't. The Druids, ever so silent, still gave no opinion (though it was rumoured they weren't that happy with someone speaking so openly) but this Emrys certainly wasn't one of theirs either, it was believed. He was an anomaly, a loner, someone who stood away from the pack and who spoke for all of them.

It was exactly how Merlin felt, sometimes. He didn't belong to any group anymore, but he wouldn't forget anyone. All he wanted was for things to be better for them all. He wished he didn't have to hide behind a screen name, and maybe someday he wouldn't, but one step at a time. It was a start.

Arthur agreed, but supported it completely and thoroughly. He liked to say that Emrys was educating and changing the word for the better, one inane rambling blog at a time.

"It's all fantastic," Merlin said, setting the paper down on the worktop. He hooked a heel around the back of Arthur's leg to keep him close, not that he thought Arthur was in any rush to get away. "Can you even believe it? That bastard is paying for what he did to us."

"He is. For what he did to all of you."

Merlin knew Arthur was thinking of all of them, not just his own boyfriend. There was Freya, who had become just as dear to Arthur in her sweetness and friendship. Nimueh, who they still hadn't heard from but both wondered about often. And there were Jonas and Catrina, who Arthur didn't personally know. But he learned of them, through Merlin's own guilt and grief, when Merlin heard what had happened to them when the job went wrong, betrayed by someone else who had been with them in Merlin's absence.

"He'll pay," Merlin said. "Is paying. Took a while, but it's happening."

"Things happen when you work at it," Arthur agreed, a mantra he had Merlin fully believing in nowadays.

"Right," Merlin nodded. He lifted an eyebrow. "Your father is going to pitch a fit."

"I'll deal with it," Arthur said, his standard response when it came to anything having to do with Uther. Uther still didn't know any of the details, and Arthur protected Merlin from him always. It was one of the few strains on their relationship, and had cause more than one terrible row.

"All right." Merlin nodded, and left it at that, as today was just not the day to get into it. "I'm sure you will."

Merlin gazed at the front of the paper again, looked at the blurry picture that was snapped and printed of Aredian, his head down but beady eyes looking at the world with contempt.

Merlin waved his hand in front of it and the page turned blank.

"Just as it should be," Arthur said when Merlin remained quiet.

Merlin nodded, pushed the paper away, and stood up. He hugged Arthur to his body, tight as he could. "Thank you."

"For what?" Arthur asked, leaning his head against Merlin's. "I told you, I didn't actually do that. I don't have that sort of power yet--" Merlin snorted in his ear and Arthur continued, sounding amused "-- but it is an amazing thing."

"Yeah, I know. But still, thank you. Not for that, but for, well, the past year. Not only is it my birthday but it's kinda our one year anniversary. One year ago today, I tried to steal your wallet."

Arthur pulled back and looked at Merlin with wonder. "It is, now, isn't it?" Arthur smirked. "Can't believe I've put up with you for that long. Maybe I should be getting some sort of present."

"Oi!" Merlin said, and playfully pinched at Arthur's stomach. Arthur laughed and ducked away.

It was then that the land line rang and both Arthur and Merlin froze. At the same time, they exclaimed, "Freya!" She was still the only one who called it, even though she knew Merlin had a mobile of his own now. Merlin suspected it was because she didn't mind if it was Arthur she caught on the line, as she was still too shy to call him directly on his mobile.

Arthur let Merlin rushed to the phone, who picking it up with a rushed, "Hello?"

"Happy Birthday, Merlin."

"Freya!" Merlin called out happily. He glanced over at Arthur, who was watching him intently. "Please, where are you? Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," she said, though her voice sounded far away and there were bustling noises in the background. "I'm actually at the police station, just giving statements."

"They got that fucker!"

She laughed. "Yes, they did."

"And what about you?" Merlin asked, concerned. "What happens to you all?"

"We're free. His arrest breaks something in the contract, I don't know how it all works, I just know we're free."

"Bloody fucking hell, yes!" Merlin whooped. At Arthur's expression, he said, "She's free!" And Arthur gave Merlin a high-five, pumped his fist in the air, and grabbed his mobile off the counter, his fingers flying over the number-pad.

Freya said, uncertainly, "I don't know where to go."

"You'll come here," Merlin said, and Arthur nodded in agreement. "There's a spare room."

"Oh, I don't know. I don't want to be in the way."

"You won't be," Merlin said. "I'll make Arthur promise that we'll keep all birthday sex to his room."

"Merlin!" both Arthur and Freya exclaimed at the same.

Merlin could only laugh and suggest, "If it makes you feel better, I'll stay here and you can go and stay at my place?"

Merlin had his own little place, a council flat, that Gwen had helped get him set up in not too long after he was freed of all his contracts. He had a small amount of social assistance and a part time job at a pizza restaurant to help pay for it (and to pay back the list of money owed on past pick-pocketing. Which was very slow-going but being worked on.) And Merlin loved his flat -- it was a place of his own and he felt grown up and independent in a way he never had before. He knew that Arthur wasn't very fond of the place -- it was small and cheaply built, had a very distinct ordour that neither of them could place, was always dusty no matter how often they cleaned, and they could only fit in the shower one at a time.

But Arthur was supportive of it, and that was all Merlin could ask. When Merlin was determined to spend time there, sometimes going weeks without going to Arthur's, Arthur would show up with groceries and a film to watch, or make sure to bring by any of the course books Merlin left at his place, and cook dinner and be resigned to handwashing the dishes. And, sometimes, if Arthur was getting a bit too cranky about it, Merlin went weeks without being home, taking up with Arthur and spending time at his more spacious, posh flat. And they each had their own space when it was needed, though those times weren't very often at all. It all really depended on what was going on in their lives, what Merlin wanted, and what Arthur was happy to give, and vise versa. It worked; they made it work.

"It's okay, Freya," Merlin repeated. "We'll work it out until you get a place of your own."

Arthur held up his mobile. "Leon said she could stay with him."

Merlin grinned wickedly but said sweetly into the phone, "Or you could just stay with Leon."

"Merlin!" Freya exclaimed, and he could practically hear the blush in her voice. "I can't ask him to do that. He's done too much already."

Leon had been at Arthur's with him and Merlin, the three of them watching the match one Sunday evening, when Freya had showed up at the door. She had only said, Had to take the contract and burst into tears. Merlin curled up with her on the guest bed to soothe her to sleep, and it was Leon who had to try to calm a raging Arthur, so upset with, well, everything, but mostly that Freya had felt she needed to do that to get by.

And it was Leon who came up with the plan, who used Arthur's contact with Aredian to 'contract' Freya for one weekend a month; as far as Merlin knew, it paid her rent for a month, and she slept alone in Leon's guest room. He was too gentlemanly to try anything, and she was much too shy to offer.

Merlin didn't doubt that Leon would try to do what he could for his new friends, just as Arthur would. And it made a joyous feeling bubble through his entire body and he could feel his magic thrumming happily beneath his skin.

"We'll come pick you up," Merlin said into the phone. "You can join us for dinner and we'll all figure something out. "

"It's your birthday--"

"It is, and I want to be with my friends, and Will and Leon and Gwen and Morgana--"

"I thought she didn't like you much."

"We're working on it," Merlin conceded. The two would never be close, lines drawn way too early, and Morgana actually refused to tell Merlin anything about the Druids, due to his 'betrayal,' which was very frustrating for him (and Emrys, who she blatantly ignored commenting on.) But she was Arthur's family and Merlin was trying to make an effort; she finally seemed to be doing the same. "Anyway, they'll all be there, so there really is no arguing here, Freya. You're my friend so you need to be there. Everyone will be more than happy to help you out too. They did for me."

He could hear her sigh with relief. "All right then," she agreed. They made arrangements and said their goodbyes.

"All right," Merlin said, putting down the phone. "We'll get her in a couple of hours. I'll go shower and--"

Merlin paused as he saw Arthur standing there, holding out a small square box that was wrapped in shiny blue paper and had a red ribbon around it. Corny to the last detail, his Arthur was.

"What's this?"

"Your present," Arthur said, rolling his eyes. "I figured that there really wasn't going to be any more alone time today, is there?"

"Probably not," Merlin agreed. "At least, not until much later tonight."

"All right, then," Arthur said, and he didn't sound upset or disappointed at all. "So you can open it now."

Merlin made at it with grabby hands and quickly ripped off the wrapping, Arthur laughing at his excited sounds.

Merlin took off the lid to the box, reached down, and lifted the object, frowning. "It's a key."

"Sure is," Arthur said, with a small playful grin.

"It's my key," Merlin said. "To your flat."

"Actually, I was sort of hoping that--" Arthur shrugged, suddenly looking a tad bit nervous, "it was to our flat."

Merlin looked at him, surprised. "You want--"

"For the better part of the year," Arthur admitted. "I know you have your place, and you love it, but I was sort of hoping that you'd want to, you know. Stay here. Permanently. Only, you know, this would be temporary, sort of."

"That -- makes no sense, really," Merlin said.

"Well, you move in here. And then we find a place -- a new place, one that is ours -- to live in."

"You know I can't afford--"

"It doesn't matter, Merlin, it never has. It's not your money and my money. It's our money. Everything I have--" Arthur said, arms sweeping in a grand gesture around the room "-- is yours too. So, please. Let me do this for us."

Merlin stared at Arthur, thought about what he was saying. He always thought that, just in case Arthur wanted it, keeping a place of his own would be an out of their relationship. Merlin knew it wasn't easy being with him, and all the baggage that came along with it.

When Merlin didn't say anything, Arthur looked just about ready to pound his head into a wall. "Oh, for Christ sake, Merlin, this is a perfect time for you to shut up--"

Arthur didn't have a chance to say anything else because Merlin had flung himself at Arthur, peppering sweet, sloppy kisses all over his cheeks and nose and lips.

"Yes," Merlin said. "Yes, yes yes, god yes." As much as he loved his own place and having that independence -- well, nothing could compare to knowing Arthur wanted him there always.

Arthur laughed and pulled him in close. "Happy birthday," he said, sounding happy and incredibly relieved.

For someone who had never put much stock in birthdays before, Merlin had to admit that his nineteenth was a pretty damn good one. He was even looking forward to the next, but mostly to all the days until then and all the ones past it too.