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A Binding Contract

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As far as eighteenth birthdays went, Merlin didn't feel particularly different on the day of his. It was supposed to be some rite of passage, moving on into adulthood, becoming a grown-up and venturing out on one's own. At least, that's what everyone said, wasn't it?

Merlin had been on his own for a long time and, for as long as he could remember, he'd known that no one would look out for him but himself. He'd been shuffled in and out of the system for years, getting wrapped up in the juvenile justice system, had social workers trying to force something more out of him, having people treat him like shit, just because he was Clipped.

He finally ran away from his last foster home about a year and a half ago. His foster family just wouldn't leave him alone, always saying cruel things about Merlin and his 'genetic abnormality.' His foster mother would call him, and those like him, 'hiccups of the human race.' She, at least, had looked at him with a bit of pity, but it was too little too late to soothe him after a lifetime of hate and neglect.

People knew about the few who had 'funny little powers' but the government had (most of) them under control. Their powers were bound tight and couldn't ever be reached. They were harmless people, but freaks still, and being Clipped didn't make life easy for Merlin.

Life wasn't easy. It was one of the first lessons Merlin had ever learned.

But he'd survived. All these years and he'd survived, and now he was an adult. But he knew the passing of one day, turning from one age to the next, really wouldn't do anything to better his situation, wouldn't change it. If he got caught stealing or pickpocketing again, it would likely make life a lot worse, actually.

Still, that didn't stop Merlin. A man had to eat, after all. And he had rent due on his room that day too. So Merlin did what he always did and hit the crowds at the shopping centre. It was the easiest place to be, at midday, when wallets were handy and people were rushing about.

Merlin sat alone at a small two-person table at the back of the food court. His water bottle -- looking full and new, though he'd just filled it in the sink at the first floor loo -- sat in front of him. He picked absently at the label as he surveyed the happenings at the shopping centre, eyes like a hawk.

People were coming and going, rushing about in the short amount of time they were allowed for lunch. They were standing in queues to place their orders for greasy fast food, words rapidly spilling to the person at the till, throwing notes and coins to the counter top with lightning speed. There were all types of people cluttering the small space. Businessmen in smart suits and ties and little tie clips that flashed under the fluorescent lights; women in pencil skirts and silk tops with shoes that had tall thin heels that clacked against the fake marble floor.

There were school students in ties and dress shirts, girls in tartan skirts and boys in pressed trousers. Uni students with their rucksacks slung over their shoulders and torn blue jeans, tops layered and knitted scarves around their necks and beanies on their heads with shaggy hair curling around the edges.

There were the tough looking guys and girls with tattoos that covered their arms and hands or any other visible skin, and probably much more. They had numerous piercings, silver adorning random body parts.

It was the same thing, day in and day out. None of this surprised Merlin; he'd seen it all before.

Merlin knew better than anyone how to blend in. He didn't stick out in the crowd of people; anyone who looked at him would just glaze over, moving on to something or someone else. He was just another faceless young man, nothing special in a sea of people.

He preferred it that way. It made everything so much easier as he watched and waited, trying to pick out the perfect target.

It only took a couple of minutes that day.

The man was in a fine suit, tailored perfectly to his firm body. He wore a white buttoned shirt so stiff it must have been starched, and his deep red tie hung neatly, the tip of it disappearing behind his buttoned blazer. His black shoes shone and tapped echoingly against the floor as he walked. His blond hair swept perfectly across his brow and his eyes were a vibrant blue. He carried himself with confidence, looking as if he owned the bloody place.

Merlin had seen that kind of man a hundred times before; rich and cocky, and a complete arsehole. It was his attitude that had caught Merlin's attention -- that he obviously thought he was better than everyone else, just because he wore a suit and had a shiny expensive ring on his index finger.

Merlin hated that sort and so this man quickly became his target. Merlin watched him closely as he queued at the healthiest place in the court, paid and tucked his wallet in the inside breast pocket of his suit. He looked perfect, even as he carried a ridiculous orange plastic tray to a table, taking a seat by himself.

He annoyed Merlin. Merlin didn't need to speak to him to know that. But he couldn't stop watching the man, and only glanced away when he looked up, his eyes sweeping the crowd, gaze dangerously close to Merlin. Merlin looked in the opposite direction, taking a deep swig of his warm water.

When the man stood up to throw his wrappers into the bin, Merlin made his move. He stood up swiftly, going around tables and angling himself to walk towards the man.

Merlin walked through the crowd, going against it as they tried leaving the food court, and his eyes were on his target. Merlin walked towards him, seemingly to step around a little old lady and walked right into the man he'd been watching, elbowing him and hand jarring against his chest as if by accident.

Merlin smiled widely. "Sorry, mate," he said cheerfully.

"Watch where you're going," the man snapped.

"Sorry," Merlin repeated. He stepped around the man, and he started to walk away.


Well. Almost.

Merlin's getaway was foiled when a hand grabbed his elbow, spinning him around. He saw the man staring at him angrily. Merlin yanked his arm away. "Oi," he said, scowling. "What was that for?"

The man grabbed his elbow again. His voice was low as he said, "Give it back."

Merlin feigned curiosity. "Back? I have no idea what you're talking about. Now, if you'd just--"

"My wallet," the man said. His grip tightened a bit on Merlin's arm. "I know you nicked it."

"I don't know what--"

"Enough. Give it back to me and I won't drag you to security. Even though I should."

"I don't know--"

The man tugged on Merlin's arm. "All right, then, let's go."

"Fine," Merlin snapped, yanking his arm away. For a moment, he considered running, but given the determined look of this man, and the fact that Merlin really wanted to stay under the radar at this shopping centre and not catch the attention of security, he decided against it.

He glared defiantly at his target; the man only looked back expectantly.

"Do the right thing, kid," he said.

"I'm not a kid," Merlin said grumpily. But he pulled the wallet out of his pocket and placed it in the man's outstretched hand.

"Since this belongs to me, I won't bother saying thank you," the man said dryly.

Merlin gave him a wry smile. "Righto, then. Tah." He turned on his heels and planned on leaving as quickly as he could.

"Wait." It wasn't loud or angry but the man's request was so definitive that Merlin found himself pausing on the spot and looking over his shoulder.

The man had his wallet open and was pulling out a couple of tenners. He closed the wallet and tucked it back into his pocket, smirking at Merlin, as if daring him to take it again. But he snapped the crisp notes between his fingers and held them out to Merlin.

Merlin's response was automatic. "I don't need your charity."

The man raised his eyebrows. "This coming from the guy who just tried to nick my wallet? Just take it."

Merlin scowled. "No."

The man rolled his eyes and grabbed Merlin by the wrist -- Merlin winced as his fingers enclosed around the leather band that Merlin always wore -- and shoved the notes into his hand. "Take it," he repeated. His eyes dragged up and down Merlin. Merlin tried to stop the blush from rising to his cheeks. He knew he was a stark contrast to this well dressed man; Merlin's jeans were frayed and dirty around the hems and there was a hole in his old Converse shoes. He had owned this hoodie for a long time; it had once been black but was now a dull, old grey and it was starting to give out along the seams. The blue rucksack on his back looked like it'd been around the world and back, it was so dirty and worn.

The man said, "Buy yourself something more than a water, will you?"

He abruptly turned away from Merlin, leaving Merlin shocked and staring after him.

Merlin walked briskly down the pavement, the misty rain chilling the evening air. He carried a sack containing burgers and chips, all purchased with the man's money. Merlin sipped on a yellow straw, sighing happily as the cool milkshake filled his mouth.

Despite nearly being caught, it had still been a rather successful day. He'd been able to lift three other wallets, the chosen targets much easier than and incredibly different to Merlin's first one. He really didn't want to repeat his mistake, but playing it safe had taken away the fun and challenge.

He hopped over some fallen wooden planks and then ducked down and passed through a hole in a chain link fence. It was a poor part of the city, run down and full of squatters and the homeless and people barely able to pay the rent on their shoddy little flats. But Merlin, at least, had a home to go to … even if he was dreadfully behind on his rent. Hence the pickpocketing, and he hoped there was enough cash in the wallets that were deep in his rucksack to pay Aredian for the week; even better if it could be for the month.

He made his way up the steps of Coven House, as the residents affectionately called the run-down block of flats, and entered through the front door.

"Hullo, Helen," Merlin greeted the woman with dark hair and a gap between her front teeth, who looked up from her spot at the front desk.

"Merlin," she said. There was a click of a mouse as she stared at her computer screen. She looked at him and smiled warmly; he knew not to trust it, as she was quite the devious woman. "Your rent for the week? Or will this be going on your tab?"

He nodded at her. "Yeah, give me a few, would you? I'll be back down."

She pushed a lock of brown hair behind her ear, the bangles she wore sliding together, making soft clinking sounds. "Make sure you are."

He nodded and bounded up the stairs -- the lift hadn't worked at all in the year that he'd stayed at the Coven House. His room was small but at least it was his own; though, had he been sharing, he would've been paying less and probably wouldn't be in such debt. The things he learned after signing a contract.

Merlin sat on the edge of his narrow bed and reached down under it, fishing for a small box. He pulled it up onto the bed and threw off the lid. Sitting inside were a number of licenses, some with scraps of paper and pictures paperclipped to them. He pulled the wallets out of his bag and rifled through them, pulling out notes and counting them.

"Yes!" he muttered under his breath joyfully, seeing that he had enough to pay Helen for this week; she kept the books for Aredian and was very meticulous, and loved informing him when his little Clipped weren't paying up on time. He would know if Merlin was behind yet again.

He took the licenses from each of the wallets, and dug around to see if there were any family pictures or other important documents in the wallets. Carefully, he paperclipped them together and put them into the box.

In the little notebook kept in the box, he wrote names and the amounts of money that he took from the wallets. He was as good as Helen when it came to keeping these records, and it would be yet another debt that he'd pay off someday.

Merlin cut the credit cards into two and just as he was disposing of them and the wallets there was a knock on his door.

"Come in!"

The door opened a fraction, and Merlin glanced over to see big brown eyes peering into his room.

"Freya," Merlin said with a smile. "Come on in."

She pushed the door open and gave her customary shy smile. "Hi, Merlin," she said. Taking a couple of steps in, she sat down on the small stool in the corner of Merlin's room. "Have a good day?"

"I made out all right," Merlin said, nodding. "You?"

"I sold really well this morning. Weather held up a bit." Freya's fingers twisted the number of woven and beaded bracelets that covered half her right arm -- they were samples of her own work. It was how she made her money, setting up a blanket on different street corners or markets or where ever she could find that didn't get her in trouble.

Freya was kind and sweet, but didn't seem to quite fit in with the rest of the people staying at the Coven House. In one of the very first conversations Merlin had with her, she told him she liked being Clipped and that she wouldn't ever want to reach her magic again.

("My magic isn't good, Merlin."

"It can't be bad, though, can it? It's just… a little bit of power. Moving things with your mind or what have you."

"Mine's different. It's not all nice and gold like everyone else's."

"I… well, to be truthful, I don't know if that's what mine is, Freya."

"You don't?"

"No. I haven't been able to reach it since I was eight. I don't remember it much.")

Now, she sat on the stool in his room, nervously playing with her bracelets. She was a bit of a timid sort but when Merlin asked her about her past she always shook her head and didn't answer. He really couldn't blame her; they all had sob stories here, all different but similar in their own ways. He didn't like talking about the past much either.

"Here," he said, pulling a burger out of the bag. "Have one."

"Oh, I don't know. I don't want to take your food," she said, waving her hand a little to dismiss his offer.

He just thrust the yellow-wrapped package at her. "It's fine, I bought plenty to share. Had a good day."

She smiled at him, brown eyes finally meeting his. "Thanks," she said, taking it. He saw how she quickly opened it and ripped off some bread, shovelling it into her mouth.

He frowned. "Did you make enough for this week?"

"Barely," she said. "But I did. Just, well. Nothing extra. I'm a little worried about next week, though."

"How come?"

Freya shrugged and suddenly her burger must have become very interesting because she wouldn't look up from it. "I'm almost out of supplies." If she didn't have anything to make things out of, she wouldn't have anything to sell.

"Oh, I'll help you," Merlin said instantly.

"Merlin, you don't -- It's not like you can afford it."

Merlin grinned cheekily. "I have my ways." That was, of course, going down to the big department store and shoplifting little spools of thread and some packets of beads. He'd done it before and he'd do it again, if it'd help her. He didn't feel quite as bad doing it from those big corporate fucks who had too much money anyway.

Freya sighed. He knew that she didn't exactly approve (she was one of the few who tried to live honestly, and that made things all the tougher for her) but she nodded. "I'd appreciate it, Merlin."

He smiled, happily. "Anytime." He held up his money. "And now I have to go and see the wench downstairs."

She laughed. "You shouldn't call her that."

"I bloody well should!" Merlin protested playfully. "She's awful, the way she preys on us."

Freya tilted her head to the side. "She's just doing her job, Merlin. You know it's not her." Her hand twitched a bit and she looked down, blushing.

"I know," Merlin said. "Believe me, I know." It was a piece of information he'd discovered too late; when someone comes to you and offers you a roof over your head and a bed to sleep in, and to be around others just like you, it seems too good to be true. And he had been too young and too desperate to realise that's what it was. But he'd got himself into this mess, and it wasn't that he didn't appreciate having an actual place to stay, so he tried not to complain too much. Especially since they weren't allowed to.

He bid Freya good night and she went into her own room, thanking him again for dinner. He went downstairs to pay his dues.

"Happy Birthday, Merlin."

Merlin looked at Helen, a bit shocked. "Oh. Well. Thank you."

"It is your birthday, isn't it?" Helen asked, smiling at him. "It's in your file. Unless you lied to Aredian?"

"Oh, no, I didn't. It is. I didn't realise you knew, that's all," Merlin said, trying to be pleasant. He didn't like the gleam in Helen's eyes. He handed her the wad of notes he had. "This week's rent, all covered."

She snatched them from his hands. "Yes, we'll see, won't we?" she asked. Merlin leaned against the counter, hand trailing absently over the rough wood as she dutifully counted the money. It was the same every week -- well, the weeks he could pay up. She'd count the money, fill out the receipt, and they'd both sign it. The information went into her computer. Her boss and his landlord, Aredian, the owner of the building, would know he had paid.

On the weeks Merlin couldn't pay, he still had to initial the receipt for his tab. He hated those weeks, seeing how much money he owed on his contract. It was only supposed to be for three years -- two more left -- but unless he caught up on what he owed he'd be there longer than that.

He really wasn't sure where else he'd go, anyway. Freya had been there longer then her original contract called for, but without being able to find an actual job, she said she couldn't afford her own flat anyway. There were few other options for young people like them and at least this was somewhere.

Helen interrupted his thoughts, "You're short."

"Like hell!" Merlin protested. "Count again; I know I have it all there."

"You have it all there for your previous rate. But as this is the week of your birthday, your rent goes up thirty pounds a week."

Merlin looked at her, jaw dropping.

"It's in your contract," Helen said, a sugary-sweet smile on her face. Merlin scowled at her; she shouldn't be that cheerful over it. "Or have you forgotten? Or did you not read the full contract? Bit of a silly thing to do, wasn't it?"

"I … yes, I knew. I just forgot," Merlin mumbled. He sighed and said, "I'll get it to you tomorrow."

"It's my day off," Helen said.

"Fine, the next day," Merlin said, exasperated.

"That makes you late," Helen said. "There will be a bit of a charge on it, like all your other weeks."

"But I have it all right there!" Merlin protested angrily, gesturing at notes on the counter top.

"Not all of it, Merlin. It's not my fault that you can't keep track of your finances."

"Fine," Merlin said. "I'll pay what I can and you'll just charge on the bit I didn't pay, right?"

"Yes," Helen said, and she really shouldn't sound as sad over it as she did. "I'll make up your receipt."

Merlin scowled at her, but waited at the counter as she prepared. He nodded at a young couple coming in; Catrina and Jonas. Jonas looked quite tanked, stumbling over his feet, but he had a pleasant smile on his face. His arm was slung over Catrina's shoulders and she was weighed down under it, but tried to smile happily as well. Her eyes were bloodshot and her pupils were blown wide, and there was a distinct stale smell to the air around her. Merlin secretly urged them on, to get upstairs before getting Helen's attention.

No such luck.

"Oi!" she said as she looked back at them. "What's this? You know the rules."

Jonas protested, "We don't have anything on us!"

"Yes ma'am," his girlfriend tuned in.

Merlin said to Helen, lowly, "I think they just need to crash."

"I hate that loophole," Helen muttered dryly. She liked to run a clean house and drinking and drugs weren't allowed; but if they weren't done on other premises there wasn't a lot she could do about it.

As long as there wasn't a ruckus. The moment there was trouble, Helen was right on it, and in addition to the other consequences, Aredian would be notified,

Merlin tried to avoid that at all costs.

Helen slid Merlin the receipt to review and sign. Catrina and Jonas made their way up the stairs, causing a bit of noise but otherwise without a problem. Helen kept her narrowed eyes on them and Merlin could tell she was watching for trouble. She looked a bit disappointed that there wasn't any and she sighed as she took the paper back from Merlin.

"Thanks, Helen," Merlin said, turning to go upstairs.

"Oh, Merlin," she said, calling him back. He looked at her quizzically. She told him, "Aredian wants to have a meeting with you in the morning."

Merlin's insides went cold with nervousness. "Me? Really?"

She smiled widely. "Yes. He'll send a car for you at 9 am. Would that work for you?"

Merlin knew by her tone that he was expected to make it work. He smiled at her, swallowing back any anxiousness. "Of course."

"Excellent," she said. "I'll inform him of that."

He gave her a nod and said goodbye, and she returned it with a small wave, the bangles jangling on her wrists.

Merlin tried very hard not to be nervous as he sat in the back of the car that was taking him to see Aredian. Merlin had only met the man a couple of times before; he first approached Merlin while he was in a local park, curled up on a bench trying to get some sleep; when Merlin had accepted his offer; and on the day Merlin signed the contract. Other than that, Merlin had had very little contact with him so far.

Merlin knew that Aredian was known as the Witch Finder. The kids that had 'power', or magic (as they preferred to call it), called him that because he had a knack for finding their kind. They didn't have access to their power any more and that's how Aeridian liked them best. But he'd find them and help them out, as long as they agreed to his terms.

Aredian never visited Coven House, and Merlin had been told that none of his meetings took place in the same spot. There were tiny whispers about him that spread throughout the Coven House, but for the most part, the residents were bound against revealing any of his secrets or gossiping about him. No one knew where Aredian hung his hat, or how many places he actually had that kept Clipped people like them, or who they could talk to if they did want to report him (though that would be a disastrous move for anyone who tried.) They were quite often kept in the dark, but Merlin knew it was to preserve their way of life; who knew what would happen to most of them if they didn't have Aredian looking out for them?

Freya saw him on a monthly basis now. That morning, when Merlin was waiting in the front foyer, she had looked at him thoughtfully. "Just remember," Freya said, "you can always say no."

Merlin looked at her, surprised. Freya rarely talked about this sort of thing. "Is that what you do?"

"Always," she said. "You do have a choice, and that's something."

Merlin swallowed the lump in his throat, but her words comforted him. "All right. I'll remember that. And, hey, it might be a good thing, right? Maybe he has a job for me."

Freya had smiled sadly at him and had patted his arm comfortingly, and with a rucksack on her back and a little tattered blanket under her arm and an old umbrella in her hand, she had made her way out into the city to put in a day's work.

Now, Merlin watched as the city passed by. Finally they stopped in the alley way outside a run-down building, and the driver showed Merlin inside, knocking on a door three times. A muffled voice called through, telling him to send Merlin in.

The room was small but set up like an office. There were tall bookshelves lining the back wall, full of old texts and books with fraying, cracked spines. A large oak desk was in front of the shelves and behind it sat Aredian.

He smiled at Merlin but no warmth reached his eyes. "Merlin," he said. He gestured to the chair in front of the desk. "Please, sit."

The driver closed the door behind Merlin and he found himself alone in the room with Aredian. He sat down in the chair -- old, with dark wood and a velvet cushion that was probably once red but now looked pink. Merlin tried to smile and said, "Hullo, sir."

Aredian sat quietly, his fingers steepled in front of him while he watched Merlin. Merlin tried not to fidget in the chair too much. Aredian said, "Happy Birthday, Merlin."

"Oh, yes. Thank you," Merlin said, a bit surprised. He knew he shouldn't be though; if Helen knew, certainly her boss did.

"Did you have a good day?"

Merlin shrugged. "Just another day, I suppose."

"Ah, yes, I suppose so." Aredian looked at Merlin intensely and then said, "I will cut to the chase so I don't waste your time or my own."

"Oh. Okay. Whatever is good for you," Merlin said. His right knee bounced up and down and he had to force himself from chewing anxiously on his fingernails.

"I brought you here because now that you're of a certain age, I'm able to offer you some … jobs, if you will."

"Yes, I remember that," Merlin said. It was in his contract, and he'd known it from talking to Freya and some of the others, though they were usually rather vague about it. For some reason -- an odd sense of nobility? a legality? -- Aredian would not offer certain jobs to anyone too young.

It had been a relief, honestly, that Merlin hadn't had to deal with it before, though now he wished he'd thought of it a bit more so that he'd been better prepared.

"I have some clients who like to have -- companions," Aredian said. "Escorts, if you will. People to spend time with, and they will pay quite handsomely for that time. Though you must understand, on occasion, there are certain expectations."

Merlin said unwaveringly, "Sex."

Aredian smiled, baring his teeth. "Yes, sometimes. And it just so happens that I have a client that is looking for a young man."

Merlin felt a bit sick to his stomach and he swallowed. He opened his mouth but found his voice had been chased away.

Aredian continued, "Let me make this clear -- you can say no. I'm sure there are others who would like to take this opportunity. Now that you're eligible I thought I would present it to you first, due to your debt to me."

Merlin looked up sharply. "If I were to take this, uh, opportunity? How much?"

"I appreciate your directness," Aredian said, grinning. "Your cut would be enough to pay off your debt to me and pay down an advance of six months."

Merlin's jaw dropped and he gaped like a fish. Finally he squeaked, "That much?"

"Yes, well, it is a six week contract."

"Six weeks?"

"I must say, it is one of the most generous offers presented to me, but a time-consuming one." Aredian's face turned very serious. "I am taking quite the chance with you, seeing as it is your first time." His eyes flashed dangerously as he added, "So be sure you consider this very carefully. If you take this job and you muck it up -- well, let's just say I won't be happy."

Merlin blinked at him but nodded. "Noted."

"Especially since this is one of my regular clients. He is wanting a special gift for his son." Aredian smiled slyly. "I hope the gift is appreciated."

Merlin went back to feeling sick again and not even the thought of the money drove that away. Aredian didn't seem to notice Merlin's internal battles. He continued, "Let me explain how this works. You will sign a contract --"

Merlin interrupted, "Don't I have one with you already?"

"Clever boy," Aredian said. "This would be like me subcontracting you out."

Pimping, more like, Merlin thought bitterly. But that was illegal and he didn't doubt that Aredian had some sort of loophole for this, too, or at least a way that he wouldn't get caught. He was thinking less and less of Aredian as time went on.

"You will be bound to the contract and you will follow it; however, you have input into it. You will agree to certain things but you can put limitations to it and say no to other things. The person you are contracted to for the time must also follow these rules, or the contract is broken. Understood?"

Merlin nodded, but didn't say anything.

"Good. Before the contract is signed, you will be tested for diseases and other STDs --"

Merlin cut in, "I was six months ago. I'm clean."

"Ah, yes, well. Six months is plenty of time to have fun in, isn't it?" Merlin blushed a little bit. Aredian continued, "You will be with no one else between the time you're tested and the time your contract ends. He'll be tested too and protection is required at all times. Any questions?"

Merlin's face felt red hot and he couldn't believe the ease with which Aredian spoke about this; it was quite far out of Merlin's comfort zone, but he appreciated that he was being looked out for.

Or, rather, that Aredian was looking out for his clients, but at least Merlin got included in with that, even if it was as a side-effect.

"Do you have any other questions, Merlin?"

Merlin looked up at Aredian, who was looking at him expectantly. "I -- I don't think so," Merlin said, frowning. "I mean… six weeks is a really long time, though, right? What if I can't even stand to look at him?" Merlin hadn't meant to think that out loud, but really, he couldn't help it. Six weeks was a long time and if Merlin couldn't stand to be in the room with the fellow then there really was no point to this. He was having reservations as it was, and maybe this was the excuse he was looking for. Maybe he should just say no; he wasn't sure he was cut out for this.

Aredian chuckled and rolled his eyes a little bit. "You young ones are all the same," he said. He pulled a picture out of the folder that was out on the desk before him. "My client knows that as well and provided one picture of his son." He slid the picture across the top of the table.

Merlin picked up the picture and his jaw dropped. It was the man from the day before -- the one whose wallet Merlin had tried to pickpocket, but didn't get away with.

In the picture, his head was bowed a little bit and his lids were down over those intense blue eyes, pale lashes against his cheeks, but Merlin remembered those eyes. He had a soft smile on his face, unlike anything that Merlin had seen the day before. But this was him and Merlin couldn't help but wonder what could possibly make him smile like that, since when they'd met it had seemed like he had a big silver spoon shoved up his arrogant arse.

"Do you know him?" Aredian asked.

When Merlin looked up, he saw that Aredian was looking at him. Merlin shook his head, and answered what he felt was an honest, "No. No, I don't." Because the man in the picture was not the man Merlin remembered from the day before.

Merlin looked back down at the photo, his finger absently rubbing over the edge of it as he held it in shaking hands. "What's his name?" Merlin asked.

"Client confidentiality, Merlin. I can't tell you at this early stage."

Merlin sighed and he handed the picture back to Aredian.

"As I've said, you are more than welcome to say no, but I'll give you the rest of the day to think about it--"

"I'll do it," Merlin blurted out.

Aredian raised an eyebrow. "Will you? You want to?"

The words had left Merlin's mouth before he'd really thought about it; but on a moment's reflection Merlin knew that, yes, he wanted to. He shrugged. "That's a lot of money." He tried hard not to think of the man in the picture.

Aredian gave a predatory smile. "That is most excellent news, Merlin. I'm sure the client will be happy to hear that." He tucked away his papers, pulling a mobile out of his inner pocket. "I will make arrangements for your testing straight away; there will be a rush on the results. I have friends at the clinic."

Merlin didn't doubt that at all.

Aredian continued, "And my client will draft the conditions he's interested in for the contract. It'll be sent to you tomorrow and you will work with Helen, letting her know of anything you want changed. It'll go back to my client for a final review and if all parties are satisfied it'll be signed by the day after. Hopefully you'll begin your assignment Friday evening."

"That soon?" Merlin asked, surprised.

"Yes, my client was quite insistent that it happen sooner rather than later." Aredian gave Merlin a hard look. "Your word is binding, Merlin, as is the contract. You're sure about this?"

Merlin nodded his head. "Yes. I just didn't know it would happen that fast."

"Well, it will. Now, if you will go with my driver, he'll take you to a doctor's appointment," Aredian said.

Merlin felt dismissed, and so he stood. "Yes, well. Thank you for the opportunity."

Aredian smiled. "Pleasure to do business with you, Merlin."

Merlin worked with Helen on his contract, and it was probably the most embarrassing couple of hours of his life (and Merlin had faced a lot of embarrassment in his time.) The fact that she knew such personal things -- the things he felt could and couldn't do with some guy he didn't even know yet -- was mortifying.

But she acted with the same attitude as she usually did, and he got the distinct impression that this was far from her first time doing it, so he tried not to let the whole situation bother him too much.

Although it did bother him. The whole thing, the way Aredian set them up and used them, was sickening. As was everything that came along with it -- the embarrassment, the shame, the desperation.

On the other hand, there was a part of Merlin that was curious and a little excited. And a little turned on, too, when he thought of that picture.

He wondered what was wrong with him but thought it was probably best to not delve into it. There really wasn't that much else he could do about it. The decision had been made, no matter how rash it might have been. The choice had been his and he'd have to live with that.

Friday afternoon, he decided to go out into the city one more time, to see what kind of cash he could salvage, be it from a plastic cup on the corner or lifting a few wallets. He didn't want to leave himself completely strapped for the next six weeks. His rent would be paid for, but he really didn't know what he'd do for extra money, as staying away from his usual illegal activities was part of the package he'd agreed to.

He bounded down the stairs and tried to slip out the back so he didn't have to see Helen, but damn it if she didn't have some sort of extra sense for when the residents were around.

"Merlin!" she called out. "Merlin, come here!"

He cursed under his breath but put on a smile. "Morning, Helen," he greeted as he approached her desk.

"Morning," she said with her sugary sweet smile and he had to consciously think about keeping his lip from curling in a smirk at her. She said, "Some big news for you today."


"Final draft is in. The client accepted your counter-offer."

Merlin blinked. "Oh, already?" Not that he was surprised; the client, Aredian, and Helen all knew what they were doing and there really wasn't that much he'd thought needed changing. He suspected from Helen's comments that Merlin was actually getting a rather relaxed deal in comparison to others, most likely from the length of time he'd be, uh, offering his services for.

"And your test results are back," she said, sliding an envelope across the counter top at him.

He took it and opened it, eyes scanning. "Negative."

"As expected, I'm sure," she said smoothly, and he wondered if she was mocking him in some way. "Aredian will be sending a car to pick you up in an hour. It'll take you to meet with him and the client, and the contract will be signed. Then the client will take you to where you'll be staying. Interesting, that."

"How so?"

"Can't really discuss that, can I?" Helen said.

"Fucking frustrating, isn't it?" Merlin countered. He figured she meant how the contract was set up -- done through a regular client but technically for someone else.

"It is what it is," she replied. "You should go get ready, Merlin. There's not a lot of time."

Merlin sighed, disappointed that he couldn't carry out his plans for the day, and now there were nervous butterflies starting to flutter around in his stomach. His hands gripped the edge of her desk, his chest leaned against the tall counter, and his forehead met the wood with a thud. "What am I doing again?"

"Making ends meet, Merlin." He felt a hand lightly ruffle his hair. Surprised, he looked up but found she was staring at her computer screen, as usual. She added, not looking at him, "We all do what we have to do."

Merlin tried not to let the onus of her words settle down on him too much; he'd spent his whole life trying to stop feelings like that from weighing him down, from suffocating him. He wouldn't start now.

Merlin didn't own a lot, barely making enough money to buy the simple things in life like clothes and food and soap, let alone things he didn't need. Those came first, and so it didn't take him very long to pack at all. A couple of pairs of boxers and jeans and few shirts and he was nearly ready to go. He really hoped he wasn't going to need anything nice to wear because he didn't have anything; the client was well aware of that, he was sure. Merlin would be provided for if there were any specifics but he hated that he couldn't be more prepared and that he had so little to take.

He reached under the bed and pulled out the small box. The licenses and little notebook inside were the most precious belongings he had. And, sure, he could put a lock on the room but he knew what it was like around the Coven House; it was forbidden to take from each other but times got hard and sometimes you did whatever you had to. Well, Merlin didn't do that to the others, and he trusted Freya too, but that was probably about it.

Merlin thought about leaving the box in Freya's care. He didn't put a lot of trust into people any more but he felt he could with her. Unfortunately, other people tried to take advantage of her kindness. He really wanted to make sure this box remained safe. He thought about it for a moment and then he slipped the box into his pack. It was probably best it stayed with him.

Last, he decided to wash up, try to make himself look presentable -- well, he was required to. Merlin was pulling the disposable razor over his face, trying to get rid of his stubble, when there was a knock on his door. "Yeah, it's open," he called out. He rinsed the razor under the cold water that ran from that tap -- all the rooms had a sink, at least, though the loos and showers were communal.

He turned and expected to see Freya but instead saw Nimueh, another Coven House resident, standing at his open door.

"Oh. Hi," he said, surprised. Merlin and Nimueh had never been particularly close. He had made attempts to get to know her but she was always standoffish with him and he'd never understood why.

Nimueh was tall, thin, and extremely beautiful but Merlin always thought there was something unnatural about her. Her eyes were a vivid blue that shouldn't exist, her skin pale and flawless like a porcelain doll's, and her hair had random twists and kinks that shouldn't be there. He wondered if it was her magic deep inside her trying to get out the only way it knew how.

But he sensed a darkness that lived in her too and, as much as he hated to even think it about another one of his kind, he was glad she was Clipped. He wasn't entirely sure he wanted to see what she was like if she could reach her powers. He felt incredibly guilty thinking that and tried to push it aside.

"Merlin," Nimueh said. She looked coolly at him, a small secretive smile playing at her lips. Merlin wasn't sure he trusted it. "I heard you're going away for a while."

"Uh. Yeah," he said, shifting uncomfortably on the spot. He shrugged, trying to be nonchalant. "It's nothing, really."

She stepped into the room. He saw she was wearing clean and pressed trousers and a deep red top with a dark blue hoodie over it. The only imperfection to it was that the long sleeves had little holes at the seams of the cuffs that her thumbs stuck through. Still, she looked incredibly put together and he wondered how she accomplished that; she didn't look like she fit in with the rest of them.

"Six weeks is nothing?" she asked, raising an eyebrow. "I hope you aren't too terribly disappointed in the future. Most -- times away--" she said vaguely "--hardly last longer than a weekend."

"How'd you know it was six weeks?" Merlin asked.

"Your little girlfriend was lamenting over how long you would be gone."

Merlin rolled his eyes. "You know she's not my girlfriend."

"No, she's not your type," Nimueh agreed. "Of course, I didn't think you were Uther Pendragon's type either."

Merlin looked up sharply. "How'd you know that? I know I didn't mention--"

"I have my ways," Nimueh said smoothly. "I happen to know a lot about Uther Pendragon."

"We're not supposed to talk about this," Merlin said flatly. He turned back to the mirror and carefully brought the razor up to his face, continuing to shave.

"No, I suppose we're not, are we?" Nimueh said, stepping into the room a bit more. She was behind Merlin, looking at his reflection as she spoke. "I suppose that means I shouldn't tell you to watch yourself with him then, should I? Silly me, thinking to look out for you."

"Well, I don't need you to," Merlin said. "I'm not for him." Merlin's hand twitched, dangerously close to nicking his skin and he sighed, pulling the razor away.

Nimueh's features softened -- she looked a little surprised but not sly anymore. "You're not?"

"No." Merlin dropped the razor in the sink and turned to her. "Fuck, Nimueh," he said, annoyed. "You know I'm not supposed to talk about this."

"Of course," Nimueh said. "Well, I should leave you to get ready then."

"Yes, please," he huffed. He picked his razor up out of the sink, waving it in her direction, shaving foam falling to the floor. "I have to be presentable or some shite like that."

"The Pendragons are rather particular," she said, a hand smoothing over her thigh, flattening out her already perfect trousers.

"I take it you've had experience?" Merlin said. It would explain her jealousy, he thought. He held up a hand when she went to protest, "I know, I know. Big bad secrets and all that."

She smirked. "You'll get used to it."

He snorted, turning back to the mirror. "I hope not."

She ignored his comment and turned to leave. "Bye, Merlin. Have fun." She smirked. "Then again, that's the whole point, is it not?"

"For him, anyway," Merlin muttered but she had already left.

Merlin didn't like to think he was very easily intimidated but walking through the door into Aredian's office he couldn't help but feel that way.

It wasn't the same office as before, though it had exactly the same feel. Old, formal, impersonal. The extra addition to it was that this time there was someone else sitting across the desk from Aredian.

"Merlin," Aredian said. He gestured to the man, who Merlin assumed was the client. "This is Uther Pendragon."

Uther was an older gentleman, but he still seemed fit. He wore a suit and tie and had gleaming shoes, and his hair was a distinguished silver. He smelled and looked like he was made of money. He probably was.

Merlin tried to muster up a smile. He held out a hand. "Hello, sir."

Uther raised an eyebrow at him, looked him up and down, but did not take Merlin's offer. Merlin's smile faltered and his arm dropped back down to his side. Looking back at Aredian, Uther said, "You were right. Precisely Arthur's type."

Arthur. That was the man in the picture, the man at the shopping centre. The man that Merlin would be spending the next few weeks with. Merlin had held onto that name, rolled it around in his head and wondered about it, ever since he read it in the contract the day before.

Aredian smiled. "I do know my business."

"That you do," Uther agreed. "And he's new to it, you said?"

"Yes, he is."

Merlin stood uncomfortably, not knowing if he should take a seat or not. He hated that they spoke of him like that, as if he wasn't even standing there, or that his thoughts didn't count.

To them, they probably didn't.

Uther glanced back at Merlin. "That's good. So is Arthur. Not to sex, obviously, but to having -- a companion, if you will." Aredian and Uther smirked knowingly at each other but Merlin just thought it was plain odd that Uther would know that about his own son. Uther continued, "But Arthur does like being in control, taking the lead. This will be a good situation for him."

Aredian nodded. "I'm glad to hear that."

"Me too," Merlin put in. He sat down in the chair next to Uther, sick of being left out of the conversation. Uther looked at him, unimpressed. Merlin said with fake earnestly, "Will make everything go smoother, if he's happy with it."

And Merlin felt better knowing that there were certain rules in place that prevented Arthur from getting carried away in taking control.

Aredian answered, "Yes, it will." He said to Uther, "And I can guarantee Merlin will do everything to make sure it does. Won't you, Merlin?"

Merlin hoped his effort to smile came through, though he wasn't sure how sincere it looked. "Of course."

"Hm," Uther hummed. "Make sure you do. A lot of money was spent on this contract."

Merlin was nauseated at the ease in which Uther said that, as if Merlin was nothing more than a transaction, a thing, rather than a person who was likely to get hurt or demeaned or embarrassed somewhere in this whole mess of a situation.

He smiled, automatically, and hated himself for it. "Yes, sir."

"Excellent," Aredian cut in. He pulled a thin stack of paper out of his briefcase, as well as a pen. "There is no need to dawdle here. Mr. Pendragon is a busy man, I say we get this underway."

"Sure," Merlin said with a nonchalant shrug, though really he quite agreed. He just wanted this awkward meeting to be over.

Aredian slipped the papers across the desk to Merlin. "A copy for you to sign," he said. Merlin had already seen it, of course, but he looked it over and made sure nothing had been added in that he didn't know about. Not that he didn't trust Aredian and Uther but -- well, no, he didn't really trust them at all.

But when everything looked fine and exactly what he'd agreed on, he nodded. "All right," he said. "Here we go."

Aredian handed him the pen. "Use this," he said.

Merlin had seen that pen before. He took it, examining the silver and gold swirls that intertwined themselves up and down it. His ran his fingertips over its length, feeling the engravings carved into it. He'd seen those runes before; they belonged to his kind, used to control and subdue.

Aredian smirked at him. "You remember how this works?"

Merlin nodded. He'd used it before, when he signed the contract to have a room at Coven House. The magic would bind him to the contract, force him to follow the rules.

He hated that Aredian used it against him, against the Clipped, and for his own profit. It wasn't fair; he wasn't magic, but he knew how to use it for his own benefit.

It made Merlin so angry, the injustice of it, but there wasn't anything he could do. Not against Aredian, not against Uther, not against the governments and society who created it and allowed it. He was powerless.

Sighing, he signed the paper.

He could feel the magic flowing, ever so slightly, and he swore he could see a slight golden glimmer through the air. It flowed from the pen into his fingers, crawling up his hand, and it made his arm twitch. It disappeared under the wide leather band he wore, and wrapped around his wrist like a heated bracelet.

Done signing his name, he dropped the pen, breaking the chain of power, but he knew -- could feel -- that it had taken hold of him. Bound him. For his part, the deal was done, completely.

Glancing at Aredian and Uther, neither looked surprised or shocked. Merlin didn't even know if they'd been able to see it, the magic, but he knew by the smirks on each of their faces that they knew what had happened.

Uther took the papers and the pen, quickly sprawling a signature. There was no gold, no magic, nothing, but Merlin felt it in his hand just the same as when he held the pen. He was bound again, this time to Uther.

"I'll take this to Arthur," Uther said, "when I take the boy to him. He'll sign it and I'll return it to you."

"I normally don't operate this way," Aredian said. "But you're a trusted client and a friend. As always, it's a pleasure doing business with you." Aredian stood from his chair and held out his hand to Uther. The other man stood as well and took it in a firm shake.

"I appreciate your making alterations for this," Uther said. "It's not something Arthur would arrange for himself but I'm sure he'll enjoy the benefits."

Aredian smiled. "I'm sure he will."

Uther left the room and Merlin followed behind him. There was a sleek car waiting outside, one that didn't belong in that part of town, but it had remained untouched.
Before he got into the car Uther stopped and finally looked directly at Merlin. Uther said, "I want to make something very clear to you. I don't like your kind -- you're a blight on society and you have no right existing."

Merlin's jaw dropped as he stared Uther.

Uther continued, "The only reason I trust you is because I trust Aredian and I know from experience that you're now under control. But make no mistake, you are expected to fulfill your contract and please my son. If I hear anything otherwise, I'll make sure you never work again. Understood?"

Merlin was fuming now, angry at Uther's hypocritical statements. He bit out, "Then why even bother with us?"

"You need to make a contribution to society some way. Can you think of another?"

Merlin gaped at him like a fish, and didn't know how to answer.

Uther said dryly. "That's what I thought. My son doesn't know what you are; I think it's best we keep it that way. Now, get into the car." Uther got behind the wheel and didn't say anything else.

Merlin stood there, shocked for a moment. But then he took a deep breath and gritted his teeth, letting Uther's hate roll off his back, because Merlin had heard it all before, and much worse. He got into the car and hoped that Uther's son was nothing like him. He felt rather doubtful.

Chapter Text

Arthur Pendragon looked rather surprised to see Merlin in his flat. But Merlin, who had entered through the door behind Uther, looked at him and gave a very small shake of his head. He really hoped Arthur was smart enough to pick up on it and not give away that they'd (sort of) met before. After all, Arthur had caught Merlin in the act of pickpocketing -- so he really couldn't be that dense, could he?

"Father," Arthur greeted formally. He glanced at Merlin again. "This is your business associate?"

"Not quite," Uther said. "I do business with Merlin's … boss, if you will."

"Merlin?" He smirked at Merlin. "Really?"

Merlin scowled at him. He was still smarting from Uther's comments and not in a good mood at all, and he didn't particularly feel like pretending to be pleasant with either of them at the moment. "It's a perfectly fine name, thank you very much."

"For a bird," Arthur retorted.

"Well, really, I suppose you'll be able to call me whatever you want, won't you?" Merlin said snidely.

Arthur looked confused. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Merlin blinked at him, a bit shocked. He looked over at Uther, who looked entirely too bemused at the moment. Merlin asked, "He doesn't know?"

"Surprise, Arthur," Uther said, chuckling.

Merlin muttered sarcastically, "Oh, this is going to be bloody fantastic."

Uther snapped at him, "Watch yourself, boy."

Merlin scowled at the floor but kept quiet, waiting for Uther to explain to his son just what he was in for.

"What do you mean, surprise?" Arthur asked his father. "I thought I was entertaining a business associate of yours?"

Merlin took this moment to look closely at Arthur. He was dressed much the same as he had been when Merlin saw him at the shopping centre. Black suit, white shirt, his blazer unbuttoned this time. He wore another red tie, this one with some gold flourish near the bottom of it. In Merlin's opinion he looked too formal and business-like for an evening in his own home. Merlin wondered who Arthur had been expecting, since he obviously hadn't known about Merlin.

"Yes, I know that is what I told you," Uther answered. "I wanted to surprise you. Reward you for you excellent efforts with the Mercian deal."

"Your thanks are reward enough, Father," Arthur answered. "As was having that deal completed."

"Yes, it was a great feat, and you put in months of hard work and long hours. You take the business too seriously sometimes. I fear you forget what it's like to have a little fun."

"I just want to do well for your company," Arthur said. "That's all."

"Yes, but before you know it, you'll be my age and your life will be gone," Uther answered. "It's time to have some fun now, before it's too late."

Merlin snorted. He hadn't meant to, really, but listening to the woes of the incredibly rich was rather boring and trivial.

Arthur and his father looked at him. "Sorry," Merlin quipped. "Allergies. Must be all the dust."

"There is no dust," Arthur said, scowling.

Looking around, Merlin saw that was probably true. Arthur's flat was sleek and modern and incredibly well kept. Merlin shrugged and smirked at him.

"I still don't know why you're here."

Merlin looked at Uther, waving a hand through the air, gesturing at Arthur. "Would you like to tell him, or should I?" Merlin asked, boldly. He was rather annoyed with both of them right now and couldn't keep his mouth shut or his attitude in check.

Uther quickly took care of that.

"He's here for your use," Uther said. "A companion, if you will. Take him to dinner, to see a film, have sexual relations--"


"He's mostly here for the sex," Uther clarified.

"Father," Arthur said, scandalised.

Uther chuckled. "Yes, yes, I'm sure you don't want to discuss that part of your life with your father. But I have it on good authority your social life is, and I quote, 'sad and pathetic and lonely' because I apparently work you too much."

Arthur sneered. "Morgana doesn't know everything, as much as she likes to think she does."

"Is she wrong? Are you seeing someone? Even sleeping around?"

"No but I don't--"

"Want to talk about it, yes, I understand," Uther said. "These aren't discussions to have with me, but I'm sure Merlin would be more than happy to listen." Uther finally glanced at Merlin, smiling. "Won't you?"

Merlin answered dryly, "Ecstatic."

Arthur shook his head, putting up his hands in the air. "Father, it's a, um, generous offer, but I'm not -- you shouldn't have. No, really, you shouldn't have."

"Hmm, it's a pity you don't appreciate my thinking of you." Uther looked at Merlin thoughtfully. "He is bought and paid for, after all."

Merlin swallowed hard and for the first time since entering Arthur's flat, his cheeks flushed with embarrassment. He looked down at the floor, unable to meet Arthur's eyes at first. It was the way Uther said it, dismissive, as if he was some thing to be used and discarded; what if his son thought the same?

When Merlin glanced up he saw Arthur looking at him intensely, but Merlin couldn't read the expression on his face.

Uther said, nonchalant, "Suppose I'll have to use him, then."

Merlin looked at him, unable to hide his horror. Nimueh's vague warning rang through his mind. Merlin glanced at Arthur, somewhat desperately -- at least Arthur seemed somewhat uncertain about it and probably wouldn't put him through what Uther could. But Merlin knew by the contract that it was a possibility -- technically, Uther owned him and that's why he signed too. Merlin had never thought it might come to that. He had thought Arthur knew but in hindsight he could see how wrong he was to assume.

Uther added, "A bit disappointing, really, if you don't accept this gift."

Arthur was silent for a moment, looking conflicted. He straightened his shoulders, then said formally, "Thank you, Father, for your gift. I appreciate it. I'm honoured you thought of me like that."

A smile bloomed across Uther's face and he looked happy at Arthur's words. Merlin couldn't believe he didn't notice the underlying sarcasm, the need to say them just to please. Even Merlin knew it wasn't genuine, but he didn't say anything because he didn't want to upset the balance.

Uther held out the rolled papers that were in his hand. "You need to sign this to complete the contract."

"Contract?" Arthur asked, surprised.

"Yes, yes, this is all very professional," Uther said. "You didn't think I was messing around, did you? Or picking up some random man off the street? That's preposterous."

"No, of course not," Arthur said, taking them from his father. Unrolling them, he could see his eyes scan over the words, the conditions. Merlin noticed his cheeks started to turn a slight pink and Merlin knew exactly which part he was reading over. His eyes skipped down quickly to the end and Merlin wondered how much he actually took in. Arthur had been put on the spot, after all.

"All right then, I'll just sign," he muttered, reaching into his pocket for a pen.

Uther held out Aredian's pen. "Use this one."

Arthur took it from him, not noticing anything special about it. He placed the papers on a flat surface and scrawled a signature on the right line.

Nothing happened to Arthur, of course, but Merlin felt it like he had earlier, his hand twitching under the brief imprint of the binding magic. Glancing over, Merlin saw Uther watching him with a calculating smile.

"There," Arthur said, handing papers and pen over to his father, not noticing something was off about the exchange. "Done."

"Excellent," Uther said, smiling at his son and clasping him briefly on the shoulder. "I'm happy for you. You need a good break, something to take your mind off work."

"Oh, it'll be that," Arthur said, seeing his father to the door. They brushed past Merlin, and Uther didn't even give him a second look.

Once Uther was gone, Arthur's forehead thudded against the back of the door. He groaned, "What the fuck?"

Merlin answered with fake cheerfulness, "So, your father's a pleasant man."

"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur said, turning to look at him. "What the bloody hell am I supposed to do with you for six weeks?"

"I think that's obvious," Merlin said. Jesting sardonically, he asked, "Are we to be having the sex now?"

"This isn't funny," Arthur snapped.

"Yeah, I think it's really hilarious," Merlin said sarcastically, rolling his eyes. "I love being rented for sex, it's exactly the way I always imagined I'd live my life."

"I didn't ask for this," Arthur said. "You're the one who chooses to do this for a living."

"I don't, actually," Merlin answered honestly. "Not usually. This is my first time. For the whole --" he waved a hand through the air "--companion thing."

"Why would you do this? Why would anyone want to do this?"

"I'll give you three guesses and the first two don't count," Merlin said. "Why do you think? How'd we first meet? Oh, right, I needed money."

Arthur's finger jabbed through the air. "Don't you dare steal my wallet. Or anything else. Because I will press charges if you even try."

"Don't worry, I won't. I'm not allowed."

Arthur snorted. "And that's stopped you before? It's never allowed, idiot."

"I mean the contract, you prat. It's against the rules. So, no, I won't be stealing anything."

"I don't see how some stupid piece of paper is going to stop you from doing anything."

"It has its ways," Merlin said vaguely -- that wasn't something he wanted to get into with Arthur right then. Or ever, really. He technically wasn't even allowed to. "You might not think much of me, but I'll honour what I'm supposed to do."

"Which is?"

"Pretty much whatever you want," Merlin said. "Within the limits of the contract. So, you know." Merlin shrugged. "Let me know."

Arthur rubbed his temple and there was a pained look on his face. "How old are you? For god sake's, please tell me you're at least eighteen."

"Yep. I'm eighteen."

Arthur's eyes squeezed shut. "Jesus, you're so young."

"It's not that young," Merlin said defensively. "I bet I've lived more of a life than you have."

"Someone thinks highly of himself, doesn't he?"

Merlin grinned cheekily. "I tell it as it is." He looked at Arthur curiously. "How old are you?"

"Not eighteen, that's for damn sure."

"You're not going to tell me?"

"No. No, I'm really not."

Merlin shrugged. "I'll just have to guess, then."

Arthur looked like he was struggling between not wanting to care and wanting to know. Finally, he broke, "All right, let's have it. What's your guess?"


Arthur looked right put out. "I am not thirty."

"Okay, okay," Merlin said, putting up his hands. "Are you going to tell me?"


"I'll just have to guess again. Thirty-three."

"You little bastard," Arthur said, scowling. "Twenty-seven."

Merlin grinned. "Not too old, then."

"Too old for you," Arthur said, sighing. "Look, I'll show you around and to your room--"

"I'm not staying in yours?"

"Merlin," Arthur said, exasperated.

Merlin smirked at him. He was rather enjoying the fact that Arthur wasn't comfortable with the whole situation -- it amused Merlin and made him feel a bit more at ease.

But he was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Arthur might not be as noble as he believed himself to be. Merlin wondered how long it would take him to break.

Merlin wondered if he wanted Arthur to. He was quite fetching, actually, even when annoyed with Merlin. Especially then. It could be a long haul if Arthur wasn't willing to be entertained.

God, Merlin had to get himself to stop thinking like that.

Merlin's attention was drawn back to Arthur with a snap of fingers in front of Merlin's nose. Arthur asked, annoyed, "Are you even listening to me?"

Merlin shrugged. "Trying not to."

"And here I am, trying to be helpful and make a plan on getting us out of this. Remind me not to be nice to you anymore."

"Right, nice. That's exactly how I'd describe you," Merlin said. But he added, "I don't think that's going to happen, Arthur."

"I'm Arthur Pendragon," he said, arrogantly. "I'm going to make it happen."

"If you say so," Merlin said.

"I do," Arthur answered. "Now, come on. I'll show you to your room -- your room," Arthur stressed. "You can settle for the night and we'll figure this out tomorrow."

By this point, Merlin was quite certain that it was going to be a very long six weeks. Hopefully he and Arthur wouldn't end up driving each other insane before then.

"I really think we should fuck," Merlin said to Arthur.

Arthur was sitting at his dining room table, and he had been lifting a fork of spaghetti to his mouth. It froze in mid-air as he finally glanced up from the newspaper spread out beside his plate and stared at Merlin.

Merlin was sitting across from him. He'd already eaten earlier -- and had in fact made the spaghetti that Arthur was now eating since he'd arrived home from work late. Again. (And promptly complained that Merlin's spaghetti was too soft and the sauce too runny, but after Merlin said it was the first time he'd ever had a real kitchen to work in Arthur shut his mouth and dutifully ate his dinner.)

Merlin's chair was pushed back a little, and he was leaning forward so that his chin was rested on the table top. He looked up at Arthur from underneath the fringe of his hair. His arms were stretched out to the sides along the edge of the table and his fingertips drummed restlessly against the dark wood.

"Don't start, Merlin," Arthur said. He bit the food off his fork, chewed, and out of the corner of his mouth, he said, "You know that's not happening." He swallowed and frowned. "And would you sit up? Were you raised in a barn?"

"The kerb, actually," Merlin said and didn't move a smidge. Arthur glared at him and Merlin knew he wouldn't be able to keep pulling the 'street kid' act to get anywhere with Arthur much longer. He was becoming a bit immune. Arthur seemed to have certain expectations of how Merlin was supposed to behave around him and was none too pleased when Merlin defied them. Not that they actually spent much time together, mind you.

After a few moments of silence and Arthur pretending to read his paper he finally said, annoyed, "Would you stop lounging like some child and sit up?"

Merlin huffed, breath fogging the dark wood of the table. He pulled his long arms in and sat back in the chair. But he slouched and crossed his arms, legs splayed casually. Merlin smirked. "Better?"

"Barely," Arthur said, rolling his eyes. He turned his attention back to the paper, flipping a page absently as his eyes roamed over the columns.

Merlin sighed petulantly. "I'm bored."

It had been quite the uneventful week. Arthur had left for a weekend getaway with some mates of his the day after Merlin had been dropped off on him. Merlin wondered if it was something he'd made up on the spur of the moment, to try to avoid the situation, since Uther seemed quite aware of Arthur's schedule. Merlin offered to go along but Arthur flat-out refused, claiming he didn't want to have to explain who Merlin was nor did he want to lie to his mates. So Merlin was left behind at Arthur's flat with a set of rules regarding what he could and could not use, touch, or borrow.

Merlin hadn't minded that much, truthfully. He was put up in the guest room and it had its own full bathroom with a deep tub -- he'd had several relaxing baths. He hadn't been that thoroughly clean in a long time. Also the bed had the softest mattress and fluffiest pillows he'd ever used. He'd slept better in two days than he probably had in years. He spent a lot of time in the weekend sleeping and lounging and resting, resulting in his feeling more rejuvenated than he had in a long time.

But then he was bored.

Arthur seemed to work a lot. He was always up much earlier than Merlin and was gone before Merlin even woke. He'd arrive home really late, claiming that he had to get to bed straight away since he had to work the next day.

Their interaction had been rather minimal, just a bit of time in the late evening, watching the news or sharing a meal. But overall it seemed as though Arthur was avoiding Merlin. He'd come home one evening in quite a sour mood and said that they were stuck with the contract. Merlin had mocked him a bit, saying that Arthur Pendragon was supposed to make things happen.

Arthur had scowled and said that what he had made happen was preventing Merlin from having to end up with Uther. Merlin had let it drop after that.

Now, Arthur continued to eat his dinner and read his paper and he seemed to be trying very hard to ignore Merlin's insistent stare and his claims of being bored.

Finally Arthur sighed and looked up. "I'm not here to entertain you, Merlin."

"No, that's supposed to be my job, and you won't let me do it."

"Not happening," Arthur said flatly.

"You know you're not supposed to fuck anyone else right now, right?"

Arthur shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "I'm aware. I'm also now aware that I need a new doctor since somehow my father was able to obtain my annual check-up results from my current one," Arthur spat, annoyed.

Merlin still had trouble drumming up sympathy for the rich and spoiled, but he supposed he could see how Arthur would be pretty pissed off about that. Still. "Since we're both clean--"


"Fine, fine," Merlin grumbled. He never thought he'd practically be begging for it but, even if he did think Arthur was a complete prat, he was also a fit and gorgeous one. Being stuck with some guy who was refusing him on principle actually made it worse.

But any attempts at seduction had been quickly thwarted by Arthur, so now it was just plain amusing.

Merlin sighed again. "All right, so we're still no for the sex--"

"--Damn right and don't expect it to change--"

Merlin ignored him, "But I am supposed to be here for company and you're always working."

"I can't just shirk off work just because you're here," Arthur said, resuming his calm demeanour. "I have responsibilities, even if my father was trying to impose a break on me. I'm not going to abandon them."

"Yeah, but don't you do anything for fun?"

"I work. Work is fun."

Merlin snorted. "You're full of it. You don't know how to have fun, what with that big stick shoved up your arse."

"Oi!" Arthur said, poking his fork through the air at Merlin. "Are you supposed to be talking to me that way?"

Merlin smirked. "Doesn't seem to be a problem."

"Well, it is with me," Arthur said. "Cut it out and let me read the paper. Can't you go … do something?"

"Like what?" Merlin countered. "I've been cooped up here all week."

Arthur frowned. "You haven't left? At all?"


"Well, why the hell not?" Arthur asked. "It's stupid for you to sit around here all day. You should get out some."

Merlin raised an eyebrow at him. Carefully he asked, "Are you telling me it's okay to?"

Arthur's jaw dropped. "I have to give you permission? To leave my flat?" Merlin nodded and Arthur groaned. "This is like babysitting a child."

"I can show you how not like a child I am--"

"Enough!" Arthur snapped.

Merlin laughed. It was almost too easy to get Arthur riled. He asked, "So, what are my conditions?"


"Yeah, you know," Merlin shrugged, "I'm allowed to go out, but have to be back before you get home from work or something."

Arthur blinked at him and said, "Yes?"

Merlin laughed again. "Is that a question or permission?"

"Yes. No. I mean," Arthur said, a bit frustrated. "Yes, those conditions sound fine. That works. When I'm not here go do," he waved his hand around, "whatever. Do not get into trouble." Arthur looked at him sternly. "I'm not dealing with that sort of mess."

"Told you, I'm not allowed."

"I still don't see how signing a piece of paper can stop you from doing anything."

Merlin shrugged, trying to evade the question. Instead he said, "We should do something today."

Arthur eyed Merlin, uncertain. "Like what?"

Merlin snatched a section of the paper, causing Arthur to protest when his business section was half pulled across the table. Merlin flipped through the entertainment pages. "What about a film?" he suggested. He'd also watched more television in the past week than he had in a year, and he couldn't escape all the adverts that saturated the programmes. There were a couple of films he wouldn't mind seeing.

"Yeah?" Arthur said, peering over a bit. "Anything look good?"

Merlin glanced up and saw Arthur looking genuinely interested at the prospect of spending actual time with Merlin -- or, well, going to the cinema at least. Merlin's smiled, something soft and real for a change. "Yeah. Some of it looks not too bad."

Arthur gave a little smile back. "Good." His smile morphed into a smirk. "Make sure you don't pick anything boring. God knows I don't want to have to listen to you complain about that next."

Merlin rolled his eyes but it didn't stop the smile from spreading across his face.

Arthur looked at Merlin, disgusted. "How can you eat that?"

"It's good," Merlin said, muffled through a mouthful of pancake. He picked up the bottle of syrup and squeezed out more, the thick liquid oozing down as he slowly moved the bottle through the air. It made a spiralling pattern on the golden surface before it soaked into the pancake, which was already soggy with all the syrup in it.

Arthur poked at his own pancake, which just had a bit of his low calorie marmalade spread sparingly on it. "That's really unappealing," he said as he eyed Merlin's plate.

"Weren't you the one who told me I had to, and I quote, 'put meat onto my bones'"? Merlin asked. He speared a piece of pancake with his fork and brought it up to his mouth, a string of syrup training from the plate up to his lips.

Arthur's lip curled. "I'm sure there's healthier ways than infusing your body with that much sugar."

Merlin gestured at the bottle. "It says it's the light version."

"Which means you should use it lightly."

"It does not!"

"Don't argue with me, it does too." Arthur pushed the fruit bowl in Merlin's direction. "Just make sure you eat some of this too, yeah?"

Merlin rolled his eyes. "Yes, mum."

"Oh shut up," Arthur said, without any real heat. "You are also cleaning up the mess you made in my kitchen."

"Oi," Merlin protested mildly. "You're the one who cooked." Arthur gave him A Look and Merlin grinned cheekily. They both knew the only reason Arthur had ended up cooking was because Merlin's attempt had been a horrible mess. Merlin shoved more pancake into his mouth and grinned wide, on purpose, so that there were little bits food sticking between his teeth. "Okay, okay, I'll clean."

Arthur scrunched up his nose. "You really are disgusting."

Merlin just chuckled and they continued eating.

Merlin had come up with the idea to have brunch the day before, when he was trying to help Arthur make some supper. He'd been told to search through the cupboards for something called a 'lettuce spinner,' which left Merlin baffled, and instead he pulled out some weird frying pan contraption.

"What is this?" Merlin had asked. It was a frying pan that had a second frying pan attached to it so that they snapped together.

Arthur had glanced at it. "A pancake maker. When you need to flip the pancake you just close the lid and flip the whole thing over so that it falls onto the second frying pan and you don't actually have to use a turner."

"Is using a flipper all that difficult?" Merlin asked as he stared dubiously at the frying pan.

"No," Arthur said. "Which is why I never use the stupid thing."

"Why do you even have it, then?"

"My sister Morgana gave it to me for a birthday gift because she's bloody ridiculous," Arthur said dryly.

Merlin laughed. "This is what she gets you? She's got to be quite well-off too, so you'd think she'd get you something a little more brilliant than this."

"Yes, well," Arthur said uncomfortably. "She says she doesn't know what to buy a man who buys everything he wants for himself anyway. So she buys me things I never would buy myself. They get more ridiculous as the years go by. And that one was at least eight years ago."

Merlin laughed. "And you've never used it?"

"God, no."

"Well, then," Merlin said determinedly. "I'll use it to make us brunch tomorrow."

Arthur gave him a wry look but shrugged. "If you want."

The pancake frying pan seemed to be a bit more trouble than it actually looked. Putting batter in it was perfectly easy; flipping it was not. When it was time, Merlin closed the lid-pan and turned it in a quick flip -- and the pancake went flying out through the space left between the two pans. It skidded across the counter, leaving a trail of batter in its wake.

Arthur had barked out laughter, especially after seeing Merlin's scowl. But by the third misshapen pancake, Arthur grabbed the pan from him and ordered Merlin away from the oven. Arthur pulled out a normal frying pan, a normal turner, and made pancakes with ease.

And now that they were finished eating, he ordered Merlin to clean his kitchen. Which Merlin supposed was only fair since he'd made the mess, but the smirk on Arthur's face while he sat on a stool up at the kitchen island as he oversaw Merlin's work really wasn't necessary.

Arthur was sitting with his laptop in front of him, presumably reading the news, since he seemed obsessed with it, as Merlin scrubbed at the dried batter on the counter. Merlin was not at all surprised when Arthur's mobile buzzed on the counter top beside the laptop, as it was constantly going off. It was usually work, and there was no break from it, not even on the weekend.

When Merlin glanced over at him, he saw Arthur frowning at it. "Oh, hell," Arthur said.


"Morgana just texted saying that she will be coming over today to visit." Arthur sighed. "Which means no getting out of it because, well, there is no getting out of it. Although I usually give it a good go."

"Oh, okay," Merlin said, shrugging. He frowned. "Ehm. So do you want me to leave or something?"

Arthur sighed, scrubbing a hand over his face. "Yes? I mean, it -- I don't know how to explain you," he said, almost embarrassingly. "This is --"

"Complicated?" Merlin supplied. "It's fine, really. I don't mind. I don't want to cause you any trouble."

"I find that hard to believe," Arthur said, but he sounded grateful. "I appreciate it, Merlin, thank you."

"No problem," Merlin said, throwing the tea-towel into the sink and about to go quickly shower and get ready for his day out in the city.

Suddenly, Arthur's door buzzer went off. Arthur frowned but went into the little foyer to answer it. He returned a few seconds later, looking annoyed.

He said flatly, "Morgana's on her way up."

"What? She's here already?" Merlin asked, surprised.

"She did this on purpose," Arthur spat. "So that I wasn't the one who took off to avoid her visit, the harpy."

Merlin wanted to laugh but he was also unsure of what to do. He glanced down at himself -- he was in old yet extremely soft grey jogging bottoms that he wore as night clothes and had a threadbare baby blue shirt thrown on because Arthur insisted he not walk around the flat half naked. His hair was sticking up on end because he hadn't showered yet that morning. Merlin tried to pat it down and said, "I'm not ready to leave right now!"

"No time, she'd see you anyway, I'm sure of it," Arthur said. "Quick, what are we telling her?"

"You picked me up at the pub last night?"

"No," Arthur said, stricken look on his face. "God knows what she'd say about that!"

"Right, right," Merlin said. He should've known Arthur would be against that one. Merlin's face lit up when he thought of an idea. "I'm a business associate's son. He's gone out of town on business and, uh, something happened to our house and I can't stay there."

Arthur's fingers snapped. "Fumigation!"

"Right," Merlin said, grinning. "To spare my father hotel expenses you generously offered to put me up here until I can return home."

"Brilliant!" Arthur said enthusiastically. He smirked at Merlin. "You're smarter then you look."

"Gee, thanks," Merlin said sarcastically.

There was a sharp knock on the door and Arthur left to let his guest in. Merlin stood in the kitchen, suddenly feeling nervous for some reason. Arthur returned to the kitchen, followed by a petite woman with long, raven-black hair and pale skin. She looked to be Arthur's age, or perhaps a year or two older.

"Morgana, this is Merlin," Arthur said. "He's a business associate's son who's staying with me. Merlin, this is my sister Morgana."

Morgana smiled at Merlin. "Hello, Merlin. I'm sorry to hear you have to put up with Arthur for any length of time."

Arthur scowled. "Hey now!"

Merlin laughed, nervousness leaving him as he saw Morgana's smile. "It's a hardship," Merlin agreed. He extended a hand. "Nice to meet you."

"Likewise," Morgana said. Her small, manicured hand took his.

Merlin's arm twitched as a shock travelled up the entire length of it, starting where Morgana's hand clasped him. She released a small gasp as well and he could see a tremor move up her arm.

They both pulled their hands away from each other, as if shocked by electricity.

Arthur had noticed and frowned, looking at them both oddly. "What's the matter?" he asked.

"I'm sorry," Merlin said, trying to smile. He lied smoothly, hating it, but he knew he needed to, "I didn't mean to squeeze your hand so tightly."

Morgana smiled too. "It's quite all right."

"Yes, please forgive Merlin," Arthur said dryly, rolling his eyes. "He lacks simple social manners."

Merlin scowled at Arthur, but it was Morgana that came to his defense. "At least he seems genuinely kind," Morgana said, a mocking smile at Arthur. "Unlike some people around here."

Merlin answered, "Yes, he is rather a prat, isn't he?"

"Oh, I like you," Morgana said, smiling.

"Oi!" Arthur protested. It was likely he would've said more but then his mobile went off with an actual call.

"Work?" Merlin asked, grinning.

"Complete shocker," Morgana added, deadpan. "Must you answer it right now?"

"Yes," Arthur said, stepping away from the kitchen to take his call. "The two of you do me a favour and don't share stories about me, yeah?" He raised the mobile to his ear and barked, "Arthur Pendragon," as he left the kitchen.

Once alone, Merlin and Morgana stared at each other, both a bit shocked.

It had happened before, any time Merlin had met someone else who had magic in them too. That first touch, the little jolt that travelled through him. It was as if their magics were talking to each other, giving a friendly Hello, I'm here. It never happened again, but it always happened that first time.

But it had been different with Morgana to how it had been with most others that Merlin had known. With other Clipped, it was just a tiny spark, a little jolt. Nothing big and impressive; it hadn't travelled up Merlin's whole arm the way it had when Morgana touched him.

"You're a Druid," Merlin said, just as Morgana hissed, "You're Clipped."

They both answered, "Yes."

Merlin had known about the Druids for a long time. Or, as he liked to think of them, the Lucky Ones. The ones that the government didn't know about, or didn't deem dangerous, perhaps. The ones that could still reach their magic, still use it. They weren't controlled. They weren't clipped.

Merlin didn't know any of them personally. He'd only ever met one before, very briefly. The Druids kept quiet, kept their identities secret. They stayed away from the Clipped, too, to avoid suspicion. Merlin didn't blame them, he really didn't. If it meant having his magic back, he'd keep it secret too.

"You're one of Aredian's kids, aren't you?" Morgana asked.

Merlin had no idea how she knew, how she could've guessed that. He supposed it was pretty obvious, seeing some Clipped kid in a posh place such as Arthur's. It wouldn't happen any other way. He didn't answer and only winced.

"I knew it," she hissed. She looked incensed. "I can't believe -- Arthur. I thought he was better than this."

Merlin said flatly, "Yes, I must be a disappointment."

"Oh no, I didn't mean you," Morgana said instantly. "I know that you -- things are hard. But I didn't think Arthur would go and use someone for--"

"He didn't," Merlin said, defending Arthur. "He didn't know, Uther bought me." Merlin's hand twitched, heat of magic stinging it, but Merlin ignored it best he could. He sneered. "As a gift."

"Well, that doesn't surprise me. He's been doing it for years for himself," Morgana said angrily. "The way he talks about those with magic, it's disgusting. And the way he uses them! Hypocritical bastard."

Merlin was surprised, now that he knew about Morgana. "He's your father. How can he think that way? Do those things he does?"

"He doesn't know," Morgana said. "Neither Uther or Arthur do. I was adopted into the family, you see, after my father died. I've always kept it from them. Please don't tell them."

Merlin shook his head. "Your secret is safe with me, believe me. And Arthur doesn't know about me, okay? Don't tell him either."

"You have my word," Morgana said solemnly.

"I don't want him to look at me like--" Merlin trailed off, shaking his head. He added, "He's being decent. Nice, almost. We're not, well. You know," Merlin said, blushing. "He doesn't want to treat me that way and he doesn't even know. If he knew what I was. Where I'm from--" Merlin sighed. It was a new fear he'd developed in the past week, thinking of how things would change.

"Oh, honey," Morgana said, sympathetically. "I hate that this happens to our kind. I hate it. And I hate that Uther uses us like this."

"We're not an us," Merlin said. He was trying not to be angry, he really was, but Morgana had no right. She had a rich family and her magic and people like her with magic and she didn't know. "You have no idea what we go through."

"I have an idea. We're trying to help."

"There is no way to help," he said flatly. "Don't waste your time."

"Merlin, there's always a way--"

"Not for this," Merlin said. "So forget it."

Morgana looked as though she wanted to say more but in that moment Arthur walked back into the kitchen, and Merlin was incredibly grateful for it.

"So, Morgana," Arthur drawled. "Is there a point to this visit?"

"I thought we could go for lunch," Morgana answered.

"We already ate," Arthur mentioned, pointing to the dirty pancake pan in the sink.

Morgana's face genuinely lit up. "You used it! I knew you would!"

Even Merlin couldn't help but smile as Arthur laughed and launched into the story of how ridiculous it was. Though he couldn't quite get rid of the uneasy feeling that had settled in his stomach.

"What was your favourite colour when you were twelve?" Merlin asked.

Arthur was sitting on the couch and staring at the telly. Merlin could tell by the way his jaw clenched that he was getting annoyed with Merlin's questions.

Arthur answered, just holding back a scathing remark Merlin was quite sure, "Same colour as when I was eleven, Merlin."

"Red? It's always been red?"

Arthur sighed. "Yes. I like red."

Merlin was turned on the sofa, facing Arthur. His arm was resting across the back of it and he had leaned his head against the cushions. He watched Arthur intently, not really giving a damn about the match on the telly.

"I should've guessed," Merlin said. "With all the red ties you like to wear."

Arthur's hand went up to his stomach, absently rubbing where a tie would be hanging if he was still in his work clothes. But he was changed into his casual clothes now; jogging bottoms and a t-shirt. Arthur shrugged. "Guess I do."

"You do," Merlin stated. "Because you've always liked red." There was a moment of silence before Merlin asked, "Where was your favourite place to go when you were younger?"

Arthur threw his hands up in the air and pushed himself up off the couch. "I need a beer," he said flatly.

Merlin scrambled up, trailing him into the kitchen. "What did I do wrong?"

Arthur glared at him. "What's with the game of Twenty Questions?" He opened the fridge and pulled out two beers, then plucked the bottle opener off the stainless steel door and popped the caps off both. "You've been at it constantly for days."

"Not constantly," Merlin argued. He grinned cheekily. "It's not like I call you at work or email you or anything." He paused for a moment and tilted his head to the side, assessing Arthur. "Though, I could. I really could."

"No you really could not," Arthur said, rolling his eyes. He passed one of the beers to Merlin. "Don't even think about it."

Merlin grinned and slid into one of the island chairs, taking a swig of his beer. He tried not to make a face -- he didn't drink all that often, actually, but Arthur didn't seem to mind if Merlin joined him for one, and that was kind of nice. "Would be fun," Merlin suggested. "For me, anyways."

"Exactly. For you. You'd just drive me mad while I'm at work." Arthur put the opener back on the door and leaned against the counter, glaring playfully at Merlin.

"Well then you'd better answer my questions now," Merlin pointed out. "So where was your--"

"Merlin," Arthur interrupted, annoyed again. "Why do you care?"

Merlin shrugged. "I was bored today. Thought of some questions for you."

Arthur frowned. "Aren't you getting out? You're, you know." Arthur looked a bit uncomfortable. "Allowed to."

"I know. And I do," Merlin added, trying to reassure Arthur. He didn't want Arthur feeling bad for being away at work or anything. "It's just, you know." Merlin shrugged. "Only so much to do."

It was mid-week, and this week was already going better than the last. Merlin was getting out of the flat, going for walks or to the grocery shop with the lists that Arthur made and the money he left behind. Merlin knew that Arthur wasn't trying to use him like some sort of housekeeper, but to help keep Merlin busy, and Merlin appreciated it. And he always made sure he was home before Arthur -- who was starting to return earlier and earlier each day, which was sort of nice.

Though, if Merlin kept bugging him as much as he had been, that might change.

"Go and visit your friends or something," Arthur said.

Merlin shrugged, nonchalant. "That's not really a good idea right now."

That caused Arthur to pause and stare at him. Arthur asked carefully, "Why not?"

Merlin took another sip of his beer, stalling to figure out how he should answer that one. "Well, you want me to stay out of trouble, right? My friends are trouble." Merlin added on quickly, "By no fault of their own, really. It's just the way our life is."

It wasn't that he wasn't allowed to see them by the contract, but he knew Aredian and Uther would be very disappointed if they knew that Merlin was spending time with other Clipped while he was supposed to be working. If Merlin were to see Jonas and Catrina, he'd likely be asked to be the look-out for one of their heists -- which he didn't always mind because they gave him a share too. And Freya, sweet and kind, was likely selling her jewellery. It wasn't that she minded him there and she'd never tell Merlin to leave, but he knew she did better sales when she didn't have some guy hanging out at her blanket. It was a lot better if Merlin stayed away from them all right now.

Merlin was drawn from his thoughts of his friends when Arthur asked, "Why? Why is your life this way?"

Merlin looked up and saw that Arthur was staring at him intensely. It was the first time it had come up, and Merlin couldn't tell if Arthur genuinely wanted to know or if he was just trying to distract Merlin so he wouldn't be annoying anymore.

Merlin picked at the label of the beer bottle, feeling incredibly uncomfortable. "Because things happen, Arthur. Not everyone gets a perfect life."

"But what happened to you, Merlin?" Arthur repeated. "Why are you doing this? Do you live on the street?"

"Not exactly," Merlin said.

"What does that mean?"

"I live in a place with others like me." Merlin's hand twitched slightly, a reminder that he wasn't supposed to talk about Coven House.

"What do you mean, others like you?"

"What do you want me to say, Arthur?" Merlin asked, annoyed. "Poor people? Ones who can't get real jobs? People who used to live on the streets? Because, yes, to all of that."

"Why can't you get jobs?" Arthur asked.

"It's not easy for people like us," Merlin said. When he realised what he'd said, his mouth snapped shut. He glared at Arthur as he sipped his beer.

Arthur would not be deterred. "What do you mean, people like you?" he asked again. "I don't understand."

Merlin shook his head. "I can't talk about it."

"Can't talk about what? Your life?"

"Pretty much." There was a bitter taste in Merlin's mouth; hardship and poverty and difficulty. He'd lived with it for so long, and staying with Arthur had taken it away. But Arthur's questions brought it right back. It hit him so hard it made Merlin feel sick. He said, "Look, let's drop it, okay?"

"No," Arthur said stubbornly. "You want to ask so many questions, you can answer some too."

"My favourite colour is blue," Merlin said. "There. Are we done now?"

Merlin rose from his seat and made to leave the kitchen but Arthur rounded the island quickly and came to stand before him, cutting him off. "No, we're not done until I say we're done," Arthur said. "I want answers."

"I can't tell you everything," Merlin said.

"I want to know," Arthur said. "Why are you doing this? Why are you here?"

Merlin's nostrils flared but he answered. "I owe money." His hand twitched slightly and he brought it up to his chest.

"What for? Drugs?"

"No," Merlin said, scowling. "I don't -- it's for rent."

"Because you can't get a job."

Merlin nodded.

"Where do you live?"

"I really can't tell you that," Merlin said. "My boss, who is my landlord, forbids it."

Merlin gasped as a pain flared through his entire hand.

Arthur noticed that time and frowned at Merlin. "What's wrong?"

Merlin shook his head. "Nothing. I'm fine."

Arthur didn't look like he wasn't sure if he believed Merlin but he pressed on with his questions. "So you took this kind of job to pay off a debt?"

Merlin nodded. "But I don't usually. I never have before," Merlin said. He really wanted Arthur to know that. "And I didn't think I would, but." He shrugged and was suddenly embarrassed. He didn't want Arthur to think he was a stalker or something. "Things are hard, sometimes."

Arthur's features softened, just a bit. "Why are things hard?"

"Are--ow," Merlin yelped. He couldn't help it that time. A pain flared through his hand so hot that he couldn't even finish what he was going to say -- something he wasn't supposed to say.

Speaking about Aredian to the client, or the client's son -- or anyone for that matter -- was forbidden. The magic binding to his contract had just reminded Merlin of that.

He cradled his right hand to his chest. His left hand held it gingerly, fingers rubbing over the leather band Merlin always wore.

"What's wrong with your hand?" Arthur asked, reaching for Merlin's arm.

Merlin flinched away. "Nothing. Don't touch me."

"Something is obviously wrong," Arthur said.

"No," Merlin said. He left his hand drop back to his side and tried to smile at Arthur. "I'm fine. Really."

"Then you can answer more questions," Arthur said, testing him.

Merlin looked at him defiantly. "Yeah, guess I can."

"Great," Arthur said arrogantly. "Where do you live?"

"A place we call Coven House aaaargh."

Merlin was in intense pain, as if a shock of electricity had travelled up his entire arm. It was cradled to his chest again and Merlin could feel his own face twisted with how much it hurt.

Arthur looked at him in disbelief, entirely confused as to what had just happened. "Let me see your arm," Arthur said, stepping into Merlin's space.

Merlin tried to step away, but he backed up into the island with nowhere else to go. "No, Arthur, don't--"

But in his concern, Arthur hadn't heeded Merlin's words and had reached for Merlin's arm. There was a bit of a struggle as Merlin tried to flinch out of the way and, somehow, the leather band that was constantly on Merlin's right wrist unsnapped and fell away.

"Oh my god," Arthur said, staring at Merlin's wrist. He stepped back.

Arthur was staring right at Merlin's clip.

It looked like a bracelet that circled Merlin's wrist. It was made of entwined silver and gold with little runes on it, much like Aredian's pen. But it didn't sit on top of Merlin's skin – it was sunk in, as if it were Merlin's skin, a part of him forever. It was impossible to remove and any attempts would be life-threatening. The clip kept Merlin's magic at bay, suppressed it, prevented him from ever accessing it.

Somehow, though, Aredian had found a way to use the clip, and his pen that resembled one so closely, used the hibernating magic against whoever signed a contract with him. It was the only time that Merlin's magic was used.

And he hated that it was used against him.

He found he hated even more the look on Arthur's face -- fear, pity, contempt -- as he stared at Merlin's arm.

"You're one of them," Arthur accused.

Merlin wrapped his left hand around his wrist, covering up the clip so it couldn't be seen. As if somehow Arthur would forget it was there if he couldn't it.

"They told me not to tell you," Merlin said. "I'm sorry. I didn't --"

Arthur interrupted him and said flatly, "My father is going to hear about this."

Merlin barked out a hollow laugh. "Your father? You think your father doesn't know?"

Arthur blinked at Merlin. "Are you saying--"

"He knew," Merlin sneered. "He seems to think that my kind can repay society by being whored out."

Arthur flinched at Merlin's harsh words. "Merlin, don't--"

"What, call myself that?" Merlin snapped. "Why not? You think it now, don't you? I'm just that Clipped kid, selling his ass for something to eat."

"Stop," Arthur snapped at him, angry. "Stop talking like that."

"Why? Why bother? You know now. You know what I am. Hey, here's what my life is going to be, being passed around for sex so I don't have to sleep on the streets anymore."

"Stop it," Arthur hissed.

"You wanted to know, Arthur. Now you do."

"I don't want to hear you talk like that."

"Fine," Merlin said, disappointed. "Do you want me to leave?"

Arthur looked at him, surprised. "What?"

Merlin shrugged. "Do you want me to leave? You can ship me back to your father. He'll make use of me--"

Arthur's hand slammed against the worktop. "Shut it! Just… shut it already."

They both fell silent at that. It was as if the tension in the air crackled like electricity, making the little hairs on Merlin's neck stand on end. Arthur stared at Merlin and Merlin kept looking back defiantly. He probably should have been more worried or concerned right then, but mostly he was angry with the way it had gone down.

He really should've known better. He should've known he wouldn't have been able to keep it secret. Merlin should have just told Arthur from the start, so that the past week wouldn't have been building some fake rapport that was torn down in an instant.

Finally, Merlin said, "I can't hurt you. I don't have powers. I mean, I do, but I can't reach them anymore."

Arthur looked like he wanted to ignore the whole thing, but he hesitantly asked, "When did that happen?"

"When I was eight. Look, I really can't talk about some things. Or do other things."

"Because it hurts you."

Merlin nodded. "Yes."

"Then stop it. Stop talking about things that can hurt you."

"Okay." Merlin added awkwardly, "Uh. Thanks."

"Don't thank me for -- fuck!"

Arthur's hands rubbed over his face and one moved up to run through his hair. He looked at Merlin and sighed. Merlin thought that Arthur suddenly looked very tired.

Arthur said flatly, "I can't believe this sort of thing happens."

Merlin shrugged. "It does."

"It's not right."

"Lots of things in this world aren't right, Arthur. I'm just one of the many."

Arthur sighed. "Fuck."


Merlin grabbed his beer off the worktop and took a sip, more to busy himself in the awkwardness than for any other reason. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and saw Arthur staring at his clip. Merlin's hand dropped to his side, so that he could hide it behind his leg self-consciously.

For his part, Arthur looked a bit embarrassed to be caught staring. He turned away from Merlin, went to the freezer and opened it up, taking an ice pack from inside. He handed it to Merlin. "Here."

Merlin took it from him, surprised a bit at the thoughtfulness. "Thanks." He wrapped it around his wrist; the skin around the clip was an angry red from the shocks. The ice pack cooled the metal and soothed the pain.

Arthur leaned against the counter, both hands on it as he looked at Merlin. "You can stay," he said, awkwardly.

Merlin glanced up at him. "Yeah?"

"Yes," Arthur said, nodding. "It's … it's fine."

Merlin could tell that Arthur wasn't actually 'fine' with it, but he appreciated the effort. Merlin seriously doubted they'd be able to maintain their comfort levels now and that was a bit sad, really. But Merlin smiled, grateful. "Thanks."

Arthur just nodded. He hooked his thumb over his shoulder. "I'm going to turn in for the night. Just -- yes. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Right," Merlin said. "Goodnight."

"Night," Arthur said, and he quickly retreated to his own room.

Merlin sighed and nursed both his beer and his sore hand.

Chapter Text

Once again, things had become rather tense between Merlin and Arthur. Arthur had gone back to trying to ignore Merlin, or at least avoiding having to spend any time with him. At first, it bothered Merlin and he was hurt by it, thinking that Arthur was afraid of him or disgusted with the revelation that Merlin was clipped. But then that turned to anger, as it always did whenever anyone treated him that way once they knew.

There was little Merlin could do to get out of the situation -- well, nothing, actually -- and that was what bothered him the most. In the past, if he hadn't been thrown out by someone who thought about him like that, Merlin would have picked up and left. But he was stuck in this deal and had to stay in the home of a man who couldn't stand him. And so Merlin felt there was only one thing he could do to deal with it, to pass the uncomfortable time.

He was going to drive Arthur a bit mad, just for a little fun.

Arthur kept his flat immaculate. He had a housekeeper who came by once a week to do some cleaning, but Merlin didn't understand why, as between visits everything was impeccable. It was one of the main rules Arthur had had for Merlin since the beginning -- clean up after yourself. To annoy the bloody hell out of Arthur, all Merlin had to do was the opposite. It was simple enough: leaving dirty dishes on the worktop, placing a mug on the end table without a coaster, leaving his bedroom door ajar so Arthur would walk past and see dirty washing strewn about on the floor.

One morning, instead of using his own en-suite bath to get ready for the day, Merlin took his wash bag to the toilet that was used for Arthur's guests. Merlin shaved his stubble, and in the process, managed to get shaving foam and little hairs all over the sink. And when he brushed his teeth, the brush flicked a little too much, and toothpaste splattered in dots across the mirror.

Merlin had tried hard not to laugh as he sat on the sofa, pretending to watch telly, but really listening to Arthur putter around the flat, grumbling loudly under his breath and slamming cupboards as he cleaned up Merlin's mess. But he was so intent on ignoring Merlin that he didn't confront him once; therefore, Merlin had difficulty feeling badly about it at first.

Merlin enjoyed his game but he decided to up it a notch. He wanted to make Arthur mad with desire, too. Arthur was supposed to use Merlin, want him, be pleasured by him. Arthur had been noble before; it would drive him crazy to know what Merlin was but also want to have him, too.

Arthur came home late one night but Merlin had gone to bed early, purposefully. Merlin had left his door ajar, able to hear Arthur as he moved around the kitchen, preparing a late dinner. Arthur was nothing if not predictable in his routines and Merlin knew he'd sit at the dining room table, his paper spread out before him.

The guest room was just around the corner, within earshot of where Arthur would be.

While Arthur had been in the kitchen, Merlin had started touching himself. One hand had begun rubbing over his nipples, tugging and squeezing lightly. The other ran up and down his abdomen, feather-light touches that sent chills running up and down his arms.

By the time Arthur was sitting down to eat, Merlin had taken his cock in hand, lightly squeezing. He began to stroke himself, trying to slowly build up the desire. (Things at Coven House had always been different; rushed and quiet so no one would hear through paper-thin walls.) This needed to be different -- it needed to be prolonged. It needed to be loud and wanting.

Merlin thought about Arthur, boring businessman Arthur, still in his suit and tie while he ate dinner. But it didn't take long to begin to think of Arthur in a new light, to picture him very differently.

(Arthur down on his knees, looking up at Merlin through pale eyelashes. His mouth, usually smirking, now stretched wide around Merlin's cock. His golden blond hair ruffled because Merlin's fingers were carding through it, then taking a handful and tugging as Arthur deep-throated him.)

The fantasies played before Merlin's eyes. He panted, short of breath. His hips snapped up, his cock thrusting within the tunnel of his own hand. But in his mind, it was Arthur sucking him off, mouth warm and wet and moist around Merlin.

Merlin moaned deeply, "Arthur."

But it wasn't the only thing Merlin wanted. He wondered what it would be like to be the one sucking Arthur. (Arthur was lying on Merlin's bed, naked and beautiful. His cock - thick, warm, marvellous - arching up for Merlin's mouth.) Merlin shoved two fingers into his mouth, sucking them, tongue swirling around. They moved in and out, teasing his lips but then pressing to the back of his mouth. (Arthur's cock, fucking his mouth.) Merlin moaned more, muffled, as he soaked his fingers in his saliva.

Merlin's moved his slick fingers down, rubbing teasingly over his arsehole, applying just a bit of pressure. (Arthur's tongue, licking.) He continued to pull and tug on his cock, knowing exactly what he needed, twisting his wrist. Merlin pushed a finger into his hole, still slick with spit, just up to the first knuckle. (Arthur practically folding Merlin in half, smirking down at him as he teased with the head of his cock. Just a little in then pulling out, a little in then pulling out.)

The coil in Merlin's stomach had wound tight, ready to spring. His entire body was tense with the desire to release. Merlin removed his finger and brought his hand back up to a nipple, twisting hard, his other hand stroking frantically at his erection. He moaned, feet pressing into the mattress as his back arched up off the bed.

Merlin came with a shout -- "Arthur!" -- his come splattering across his stomach. He milked his way through, body shuddering as his orgasm moved through him, and it had him moaning again. When spent, his body relaxed into the bed, though sounds of his haggard breath filled the room as he tried to fill his lungs with air again. His entire body felt like it was on fire, the heat coming off of him even warming the metal around his wrist.

He had almost forgotten about Arthur -- the real Arthur -- until Merlin heard the pipes in the walls creak with Arthur's shower turning on.

Merlin stared up at the ceiling and thought, perhaps, his plan had backfired. Maybe it wasn't Arthur that wanted him, but the other way around.

This wasn't going to make anything easier, nor did he feel particularly vindicated at the moment.

Merlin had begun to feel guilty about his plans, especially the very morning after he knew Arthur had heard him wanking. He'd got up at his usual time, which was much after Arthur left for work -- or, rather, later than when Arthur usually left for work. But as Merlin was making his morning pot of coffee, he was startled when Arthur rushed into the kitchen. Arthur was dressed for work, but not nearly as flawless as usual, his shirt only partially buttoned and his tie looped around his neck but missing its perfect knot.

But it was the look on Arthur's face that made Merlin feel quite badly. There were dark circles under his eyes as if he hadn't slept all night, and he looked rather stressed.

"Arthur?" Merlin said, surprised.

Arthur greeted him gruffly. "Merlin." He didn't meet Merlin's eyes as he agitatedly shuffled together a number of papers that were on the kitchen island. "Have you seen my briefcase?"

"In the dining room," Merlin answered. When Arthur went to retrieve it, Merlin pulled out a travel mug. He knew Arthur much preferred tea, but he didn't have any prepared, so he filled it with coffee, adding a bit of milk, just as he knew Arthur liked it.

Arthur returned and slammed down the briefcase, clicking open the locks and shoving his papers in. Merlin put the mug down beside it and Arthur glanced up, looking surprised. "Thanks," he said, rushed but grateful.

"No problem," Merlin said, leaning back against the counter as he watched Arthur button his shirt and make quick work of his tie. "Look, Arthur, we need to talk--"

"No doubt," Arthur said, cutting him off. "Your passive-aggressive messes are driving me mad--"

"--and your silences are not fair!"

Arthur paused long enough to straightened his jacket and looked at Merlin, sighing. "I know," he admitted. "But now is not the time. I'm behind schedule, which means I'm going to have to work late, so it's not going to happen today."

"Oh," Merlin said, disappointed. "All right, then."

"Do you think you can get your lazy arse out of bed early tomorrow?"

"Oi!" Merlin protested.

Arthur ignored him, picking up his briefcase and giving Merlin a pointed look. "Get up and have breakfast with me before I go to work. We'll talk, yeah?"

Merlin nodded, satisfied. But he smirked playfully. "If you can even get out of bed that early, old man."

"Oh, shut it," Arthur said, but he didn't sound angry. He bid Merlin farewell and left for the day.

Merlin returned to Arthur's flat after a day walking in the light misty rain, trying to clear his head. He was surprised to find that Arthur was already home. It wasn't that Arthur greeted Merlin, or even called out to him at all, but Merlin knew because right inside the door were the shiny leather shoes, neatly placed on the little steel rack, and the expensive trenchcoat Arthur preferred to wear when the weather threatened was hung on one of the convenient pegs rather than being tucked away in the closet.

"Arthur?" Merlin called out as he toed off his wet Converse shoes.

Arthur called back, "In the dining room."

"Hi," Merlin said when he entered the room. He slid into the chair opposite Arthur. "I thought you were working tonight?"

"I was able to leave early," Arthur replied, stiffly.

Despite being home and changed into casual clothes, Arthur still seemed rather formal and too business-like. He was sitting at the table, back rigid against the chair, and his hands clasped in front of him. His expression was blank as he looked at Merlin.

Merlin frowned. "Is everything all right?"

"We need to talk," Arthur stated.

Merlin relaxed a little bit; perhaps Arthur was merely nervous and it would be like him to be standoffish, which is what he had been like for days. "Yes, we do," Merlin agreed. "I need to apologise, I think. I mean, I know. I didn't mean to keep secrets from you--"

"Like this one?" Arthur asked, cutting Merlin off. One of his hands disappeared under the table, taking something off the chair next to him.

He lifted up a little cardboard box and placed it on the table in front of him. It was Merlin's cardboard box, the one he'd kept for years and kept hidden away.

Merlin bristled. "That's mine."

"Yes, I found it in the bedroom."

"My bedroom."

"No, Merlin, my bedroom," Arthur said sharply. "As you are in my home and I thought I made my expectations clear to you."

Merlin was confused, yes, but mostly he was angry. "You have no right to go through my things!" He reached for the box but Arthur snatched it away.

"And you have no right to carry out your schemes here."

"My -- what?" Merlin asked, voice snarling. "I don't know what--"

"Oh, cut the bullshit," Arthur snapped. "What is it? Identity theft?"

"What? No!"

"I swear, if I find out you were using my internet connection to scam money--"

"I wasn't!"

"Get out," Arthur exclaimed, angrily. He pointed to the door. "Now."

Merlin stared at him, dumbstruck. "You're kicking me out?"

"Yes," Arthur said, voice hard as steel. "I don't want your kind here."

Arthur's words thrust into Merlin's gut like a sword, and the hurt of them seeped through him like an oozing wound. He tried to cover it up by being flippant. "Oh, I see," he said sardonically. "I know what this is about--"

"It's not what you think," Arthur hissed. "But you are a liar and a thief and there's no denying that."

Merlin said, almost desperately, "Let me explain, you don't understand--"

Arthur's fist hit the table top, right next to the cardboard box. "Out," he yelled. "Now."

Merlin slammed his own hands against the table and stood up with such force his chair toppled backwards. "Fine," he bit out, voice dripping with venom. "I don't want to be here anyway!"

Not waiting for a response, Merlin stalked out of the room. He didn't gather any of his other belongings, didn't even pause to put on his shoes but snatched them up in his hand to carry. He left Arthur's flat, slamming the door behind him.

Merlin walked all of four feet down the hall before his arm began twitching. "Oh, fuck that," he muttered under his breath, and continued to walk. But a few more feet and it began stinging him more painfully.

Merlin stopped, not wanting to go through that pain again. He sighed and leaning up against the wall, closing his eyes. Despite Arthur having a temper tantrum and wanting Merlin out of his sight and his home, it appeared Merlin wasn't allowed out of his contractual obligations.

With his luck, he was probably expected to go give Arthur a blowjob to make it all better. That was going to go over really well.

Merlin slid down and sat on the floor, knees drawn up, and he stared blankly at the wall across from him. He had no idea what to do next.

Merlin was shaken awake by a strong hand on his shoulder. A voice above him hissed, "Merlin! Merlin, wake up."

"Hmm?" Merlin mumbled. He didn't open his eyes, but tried to shrug the hand away from him. He mumbled, "Not ready."

"Get up and you can go to a real bed."

Groggily, Merlin opened his eyes and tried to blink the blurriness from them. Looking up, all he saw was Arthur's face. Arthur was pale and looked tired but his eyes were bright blue as they searched Merlin's.

In a sleepy daze, Merlin pouted up at him. "Go away," he mumbled. He rolled over, snuggling up against a wall.

"Oh for god's sake -- Merlin, get up," Arthur commanded, his voice now more firm and less concerned. Arthur tried shaking Merlin again but Merlin's arm reached back awkwardly, swatting at the air as he tried to bat Arthur away.

"No," Merlin answered, muffled, as he tried burrowing his face into his hoodie, which was pillowed under his head. "Don't wanna."

Everything went quiet and Merlin started to slip back into sleep when he was rudely jarred awake as Arthur took a firm hold on Merlin's bicep, nearly shoving his hand up into Merlin's armpit. Merlin yelped at Arthur yanked him up.

"You're not sleeping in the corridor outside my flat," Arthur said in an urgent whisper.

"I've nowhere else to go right now," Merlin said, scowling sleepily at Arthur. "In case you've forgotten."

Arthur sighed and his features softened. "I haven't," he said. "And I was going to -- Come on, let's get you inside."

Not yet awake, and in too much of a daze to argue, Merlin let himself be led back into Arthur's flat. Arthur practically dragged him into the kitchen, pushing him onto one of the stools up at the island. Arthur took a glass from the cupboard and asked, "Something to drink?"

Merlin smacked his lips and slowly nodded. "Yeah. Some water would be good."

Arthur handed Merlin a full glass and while Merlin took a deep swig, Arthur left the room. He returned seconds later, the little cardboard box in his hands.

Merlin froze, glass still up to his lips, as Arthur put the box down on the island and slid it across the surface.

Arthur said, "I believe this belongs to you."

Merlin's fingers gripped the corner of it, pulling it possessively towards himself. "It's not what you think."

"I know."

"These are people that I--"

"Pick-pocketed from," Arthur completed for him.

"I'm going to pay them all back," Merlin insisted. "I am. It might take me a while, but I'll do it."

"I know," Arthur repeated. "I found the little notebook."

Merlin blinked at him. "Oh."

Arthur nodded, and sighed. "I wish I'd found it before I jumped to conclusions."

"Because you did," Merlin accused without any real heat. "I wasn't doing anything illegal -- I mean, not since I've been here. I know that stealing is wrong and I don't want to have to but sometimes--"

Arthur held up a hand, cutting off Merlin's rambling. "It's okay, Merlin. Well, not okay," he said, backtracking. "But I get it. You don't have to explain."

"I will pay them back," Merlin insisted. "I'm going to try really hard."

Arthur's mouth quirked into a small smile. "Somehow, I believe that."

"Good," Merlin said. He gave a little smirk. "You would've been in this box, if I could have got away with it."

"Yes, well, it take a mastermind to pull one over on me," Arthur said smugly. "You, Merlin, are no mastermind."

"Oi!" Merlin said, with a grin. "I kept my magic from you."

Merlin realised too late it wasn't the best comparison he could've used. The little playful look dropped from Arthur's face as he looked at Merlin seriously. Quietly, he said, "Yes, you did."

"I'm sorry," Merlin said immediately. "I shouldn't have."

"My father told you to, didn't he?"

Merlin sighed and nodded. "Yeah. He doesn't like my kind that much, does he?"

"No, he doesn't," Arthur agreed. "And he knows I wouldn't have ever agreed to this if I'd known. Especially with someone like you."

Merlin shifted uncomfortably in his seat. His rested his hands on the worktop in front of him, sliding the empty water glass quickly between them. "Right," Merlin said, eyes down and focused on the counter in front of him. "Of course you wouldn't."

"Because it's wrong, Merlin, what's done to people like you. With -- magic," he added, though he seemed to struggle with the word.

Merlin glanced up, and when he looked at Arthur's face, he saw conviction backing up the words. But he still couldn't stop his surprise. "Really?"

Arthur nodded. "I love my father. I'm loyal to him and his company and I work my damndest to do what's right for it. But that doesn't always mean I see eye to eye with him on everything."

Merlin asked, bewildered, "Like the Clipped?"

"Yes, exactly." Arthur sighed. "And I guess my reaction to that," he pointed to Merlin's box, "was a knee-jerk reaction to listening to him for years. And that wasn't fair of me, Merlin."

"It's okay, Arthur, really."

Arthur shook his head. "It's not. But I'll make it up to you. I'm not that horrible a guy, you know."

"I know." Without meaning to, Merlin blurted out, "I knew it was you. When I took this job."

Arthur glanced at him, confused. "I don't follow."

"I've never done… this," Merlin said, waving his arm around, hoping to encompass the idea of signing the contract. "And I never really planned to. But I needed the money--" There was a slight tremor in his hand.

Arthur had noticed it, and frowned. "Merlin, stop."

Merlin ploughed on, "--and they showed me a picture. I knew it was you. I'm only here because it was you."

Arthur blinked at him for a moment but then a smirk morphed his face and Merlin couldn't believe such a look could still be beautiful. Arthur said pompously, "Because you think I'm so hot."

Merlin rolled his eyes but smiled genuinely. "Because I knew you were nice."

"I am? You did? I mean, of course I am and of course you did." Arthur paused and looked at Merlin dubiously. "How did you know that?"

"The very first day I met you, before I even had an offer," Merlin explained, smiling at the memory. "Not everyone would give someone money after they tried to lift their wallet."

"You looked like you needed to eat," Arthur said, clearly feeling uncomfortable with the praise. "You still do. You hungry?"

Merlin shook his head. "I'm good. And so are you. Good, I mean."

"I'm brilliant," Arthur said, arrogantly. "And don't you forget it."

"Actually, you're a bit of a prat," Merlin teased back. A little more seriously, he added, "You wouldn't talk to me for days. I thought it was because you hated me. Hated what I was."

"I don't," Arthur answered immediately. "I didn't know how to talk to you without hurting you."

One of Merlin's eyebrows rose. "I'm not a child," Merlin said dryly. "I've heard plenty of harsh things before you came along. Sticks and stones and all that."

"No, no, I mean." Arthur reached out. He didn't touch Merlin but tapped a finger on the worktop, right next to Merlin's wrist, drawing attention to the leather band covering Merlin's clip. "I didn't want to hurt you."

"Oh!" Merlin exclaimed, realisation dawning on him. "You didn't -- we spent a week together and I was fine! Just … listen to me when I say I can't talk to you about something."

Arthur nodded in agreement. "I will."

Merlin laughed. "And here I was, being such an arse to get back at you!"

"You most certainly were, you lazy sod."

"I didn't know! I thought you were being mean to me because I was one of the special little freaks."

"Don't say that, it's distasteful," Arthur immediately said.

Merlin only rolled his eyes. He couldn't fathom how someone who had a father like Uther could feel the way that Arthur did, but he was thankful for it. He wondered for a moment why Morgana didn't tell Arthur about herself. And though he wished he didn't have to keep secrets from Arthur he knew he would in this case, for it wasn't his to tell.

"Well, then," Arthur said, barely stifling a yawn. "It's very late. Or very early, depending how you look at it. And I have to go off to work soon." He groaned as he looked at the clock. "It's going to be a very long day."

"Is this our talk, then?" Merlin asked.

Arthur nodded. "Yes, this is our talk."

"Good," Merlin said, getting up. He grinned cheekily at Arthur. "Then I don't have to get up early."

"Little bugger," Arthur muttered under his breath but he didn't argue the point.

Merlin picked up the box, but seeing it, he was reminded of their argument. He frowned and glanced up at Arthur. "You don't trust me."

"I -- oh, that," Arthur said, having the decency to look a bit embarrassed. "I got home early and was going to do the washing. Yours was all over the place, you messy bastard--"

"That was on purpose," Merlin said, trying not to smile.

"I get that now," Arthur said, sarcastically. He added on, more serious, "I was collecting your clothes and I found that."

"It was under my bed."

"So were three of your socks."

Merlin barked out short laughter. "Fair enough," he said.

"I won't anymore," Arthur said, putting up his hands defensively. "I'll stay out of your room and your belongings."

"I thought it was your room," Merlin pointed out.

Arthur shook his head. "No. While you're a guest in my home, it's yours. I'll leave it to you."

At that, a smile bloomed across Merlin's face. "All right," he said happily. "Thank you."

Arthur smiled back. "No problem at all," he answered. Glancing at the clock again, he sighed. "I really should sleep."

Merlin nodded. "Yeah, of course. Good night."

"Good night," Arthur said. He started to take his leave but turned back to Merlin. "One more thing, Merlin," Arthur said. Merlin glanced at him and Arthur continued. "Private time? Means private. Close your bloody door."

"Promise," Merlin said, laughing.

Arthur shook his head and went down the hall, but when Merlin heard Arthur mumble something about hating cold showers, he laughed again, a warm feeling spreading throughout his body.

On Saturday morning, Merlin and Arthur had a bit of a late brunch, because Merlin liked to sleep in as much as possible. He'd only woken up when he had because Arthur was being noisy around the flat, which Merlin suspected was on purpose. While they were cleaning up, Arthur suggested they go to the shopping centre. Merlin was surprised. It wasn't that he minded, but it wasn't as if he could buy anything either. However, Arthur mentioned needing to pick up new jeans and Merlin didn't see any reason not to go. It was that or sit around the flat by himself, and he'd much rather spend time with Arthur.

As Arthur pulled into the carpark, Merlin made a soft sentimental sigh, jokingly. "How sweet. It's our shopping centre."

"Where you tried to steal from me," Arthur said dryly. "Perhaps I should've picked somewhere else to go." But Merlin only laughed and Arthur rolled his eyes, and they both grinned a little when they walked past the food court.

At first, Merlin didn't realise what Arthur was trying to do. They were nowhere near jeans, but in the shoe department, with Arthur trying to subtly ask Merlin his shoe size without being obvious, but it totally was. By the third shop, Merlin tried to put a stop to it.

"You're not buying me anything," Merlin said flatly.

"Your shoes have holes in them," Arthur pointed out. "I'm not going to have you walking around the rain, getting your feet wet, and then getting ill. Because then I'll get ill and if I miss work on your account, I am not going to be happy."

"Oh, I see, so this is for your benefit then, buying me shoes?"

"Precisely," Arthur said pompously. "Completely."

Merlin rolled his eyes. "You're full of it. And you're not buying me anything."

Arthur's face softened. "Come on, Merlin, it's nothing horrible. You need new shoes."

"And I'll get some - when I can," Merlin answered. "You're not my ... what do they say? Sugar daddy."

"I most certainly am not," Arthur replied immediately, sounding offended. "Don't call me that. It makes me sound old."

Merlin laughed at that. "That's your worry? That it makes you sound old? Not that some stupid kid is trying to be a gold digger?"

"That's the last thing I'd ever call you. The gold digger part," Arthur added. "The stupid kid is questionable sometimes."

"Oi!" Merlin protested, shoving Arthur lightly on the shoulder, and he got a shove back.

As they walked up the aisle, Arthur's fingers ran over the toes of the shoes, looking at each one intently, trying to find the right pair. Merlin continued protesting. "It's not part of the contract, you know. Food, some entertainment, yes. It's why I don't complain when we go to the cinema--"

"-- you always complain--"

"You always hog the popcorn," Merlin said. "That's different. I meant, fine. You're supposed to do those things. You're not supposed to buy me shoes."

"Does it say that?" Arthur asked.

Merlin paused. "Well, no."

"Then it's fine."

"No, it's not. It's not why I -- I mean, I don't expect --"

Arthur sighed. "I know it's not, I know you don't, but can't I do something nice?"

"Talk about questionable things," Merlin muttered under his breath.

"Very funny," Arthur said dryly. He assessed Merlin, head tilted to the side as he considered. "I'm a business man, I can strike up a deal. I'll buy them and you have to pay me back." Arthur waved his hand through the air. "You write it down in that little book of yours and you pay me back when you can."

"I hate being in debt," Merlin sighed, resigned. But he didn't say no any longer.

Arthur's face lit up. "Great," he said, clapping his hand on Merlin's shoulder and trying to lead him away. "This way, I saw a pair that--"

"No, you don't," Merlin said, stopping Arthur with a hand around his bicep. "This way," he said, leading Arthur to another section of the shop.

Arthur looked scandalised. "That's the sale section."

Merlin laughed. "And even if I did have money, that's where I'd be. If I'm paying you back, it's not going to be some outrageous amount, understood?"

"Fine," Arthur grumbled. But his mood changed when Merlin reluctantly agreed to let him buy one -- one -- pair of jeans and a couple of new t-shirts, and a new hoodie that wasn't coming apart at the seams.

The smile on Arthur's face was almost worth the debt Merlin would owe him.

Merlin and Arthur headed toward the exit of the shopping centre. Arthur was sipping on the clear straw of some horrible green wheatgrass smoothie, and Merlin was sucking on the yellow straw of his milkshake. It was really thick which made it difficult to swallow, so Merlin had to really try; his lips sealed around the straw and his cheeks caved in as he sucked with all his might.

Merlin glanced over and saw Arthur giving him an odd look, eyes wide as he stared at Merlin's mouth as the little suction noises escaped. For as many times as Merlin had wanted Arthur to look at him like that, Merlin felt a blush creep over his cheeks and, despite the liquid ice cream filling his mouth, heat swept down through him, right to the clip that hid beneath its leather band.

He swallowed and scowled. "What?"

"Nothing," Arthur said. He quickly added, "Don't you have any manners? That's hardly appropriate behaviour when you're in public."

"What, having a drink?"

"Your… slurping."

Merlin gave a Cheshire Cat grin. "But Arthur. It's so good. Wet and thick and …"

"Enough," Arthur snapped. Merlin laughed and took another hard suck at his milkshake, eying Arthur deliberately. Arthur just shook his head and turned away, but there was a small grin tugging at the corner of his lips.

Suddenly, Merlin coughed and winced as he released a strangled noise.

Arthur looked at him with surprise and concern, his hand immediately coming to rest between Merlin's shoulder blades. "Are you all right?" Arthur asked as Merlin gasped. "What's wrong? Is it--" Arthur glanced at Merlin's wrist with its band.

Merlin's hand came up to rub at his throat. He wheezed, "Brain freeze!"

Arthur's hand dropped as he let out a deep-belly laugh. "You idiot," he said, almost affectionately. "That's what you get for drinking a milkshake so fast. And filthily. It's like penance."

Merlin shot Arthur a scowl. "No one deserves to get their throat frozen! Ever!"

"Yes, it's the greatest tragedy that ever was," Arthur answered, rolling his eyes.

They continued walking, dodging around other patrons as they made their way through the shopping centre. They had finished shopping and didn't dawdle, passing by all the shops and stores. Merlin thought, fleetingly, that it was comfortable; the easy jabs, the occasion bump of shoulders, playful smirks and grins. It was probably one of the best Saturday afternoons he'd ever had.

Naturally, something had to foul it up.

They had just passed the centre's doors, going into the carpark to find Arthur's car, when a woman's voice called out, causing them to pause.

"Merlin? Merlin Balinson! Is that you?"

Merlin froze on the spot like a deer in headlights, though all he wanted to do was run away. No one currently in his life had any idea that was his full name, and he'd rather not speak to anyone who knew it.

"Balinson?" Arthur muttered under his breath. He frowned. "I didn't even know."

Merlin ignored him but turned to whomever it was that had called out to him, annoyed that this had happened while he was Arthur.

He was not all that surprised to see Gwen Smith coming his way.

She looked much the same as she had the last time he had seen her, just over two years before. She had been a fresh-faced social worker who was obviously right out of uni, with little actual experience in the field. She was bright, cheerful, and wanted nothing more than to help.

Merlin figured it would be six months before kids like him ate her alive and spat her out into something bitter and jaded. He'd seen it done before.

She looked a little different now; face more mature and eyes tired. She still had a bright smile for him, though, so that hadn't been erased by the years. Unless, of course, she'd quit her job, which wouldn't surprise him at all.

Merlin was uncomfortable with the situation; he felt boxed in, nervous, and hated that these two parts of his life were suddenly colliding. It was a bit embarrassing, really, and he didn't want Arthur to know about any of it. Not that he was trying to hide it from him, per se -- it was something he was probably allowed to talk about, his past. He just didn't want to. There was nothing there that would interest Arthur, and he had already made it clear that Merlin wasn't allowed to play the 'poor little me' street kid card.

Merlin took a deep breath, trying to calm himself, but he really didn't feel any more relaxed about it. He avoided looking at Arthur as he greeted Gwen.

"Hi, Gwen," Merlin said, false cheer all over his face. "How're you?"

"Oh, Merlin, it's great to see you," she replied. "It's been a couple of years. I've … kept you in my thoughts."

Arthur stepped forward then, the perfectly mannered man that he was, with a hand extended. "Arthur Pendragon," he said. "Nice to meet you -- Gwen, is it?"

"Yes, hello," she said, shaking his hand briefly. An eyebrow rose, "Pendragon? Really? I mean," she stuttered, blushing a bit. "It's—

"Yes, yes, one of those Pendragons," Merlin said. He didn't know much about the business world at all, but he had quickly learned that Arthur and his father were a rather big deal. Merlin added, cheerfully, "He's my sugar daddy."

Arthur hissed, "Merlin! I am not."

Gwen glanced at Merlin's clothing, worn and slightly ratty, to the shopping bags he carried in his hand. Merlin knew it would be obvious to Gwen that he couldn't afford those himself, so it would look like Arthur was his sugar daddy.

Gwen asked dryly, "Is that so?"

"I'm not," Arthur said. "We're …"

"What, Arthur?" Merlin asked, a bit amused. "Please explain."

Arthur supplied, "Mates."

Merlin snorted. "Yes, we're mates. Just like me and Gwen are too."

Gwen put in, looking a bit hurt, "We are friends."

Merlin rolled his eyes. "You're my social worker. Were my social worker. You were never my friend."

"Merlin!" Gwen hissed. She glanced at Arthur -- if he was shocked by that piece of info, he was doing a fantastic job of covering it up. Gwen continued, "I wasn't going to say, it's confidential. It's no one's business but ours."

Merlin shrugged. "I'm an adult now. Doesn't even matter anymore, right?"

"That doesn't mean I'm just going to throw that information around."

"Of course, of course," Merlin nodded sagely. "I'm sure you don't really want to bring up that last home you had me placed in."

Gwen looked crestfallen. "I didn't know -- they passed the requirements and they said they didn't mind kids like--" Gwen glanced at Arthur uncertainly.

"He knows," Merlin told her. "It's fine if you call me one of the special little freaks."

"Merlin," Arthur said, warningly. Merlin knew Arthur disliked the way Merlin threw those words around. He had asked Merlin more than once to stop.

"I would never," Gwen said, looking horrified. "I would never say that."

"Why not?" Merlin asked. "They did."

Arthur grabbed his elbow, lightly, enough to get Merlin's attention. "Enough, Merlin. You're being rude."

Merlin ripped his arm out of Arthur's grasp. "Don't treat me like a child."

Arthur snapped, "Then stop acting like one."

Merlin looked defiantly at Arthur, his chin up in the air. Arthur stared back, as if daring Merlin to continue acting this way. Merlin huffed, nostrils flaring, but it only took Arthur raising an expectant eyebrow to bleed all the rebellion out of him. It was a shock to the system, his brief conversation with Gwen, shoving the years of his life he didn't want to remember into his face.

Not that she meant to, he knew that, but it was hard for Merlin not to see it that way.

Merlin kept his gaze on Arthur and quietly said, "I don't want to do this."

"Fine," Arthur said, softening a little. Merlin looked down at his shoes, embarrassed, as Arthur turned to Gwen and said, "It's time for us to go, Gwen. It was nice to meet you."

"Yes. I -- all right. Merlin?" she said, softly.

Merlin glanced up at her and saw that, despite his behaviour, she was looking at him with concern.

Continuing, she said, "I found something out, after I saw you last. I always wanted to tell you."

"What?" he asked, a bit bluntly but not as harsh as before.

"There's a man... he targets kids like. Well, like you," she said, obviously trying to be respectful after his earlier harsh words. "You should watch out for him. I don't know exactly what he does but it's hard for them to get out of from under his control. None of them will talk about him."

Arthur was rapt with attention and Merlin cut him off before there could be any questions. "Thanks, Gwen," Merlin said. "I'll be careful."

He turned to walk away, hoping to all hell that Arthur would follow him. He stopped when Gwen said, "Don't you want to know his name?"

Merlin turned back to her, saw her frowning, and he didn't have the heart to lie out right. "No need," he said.

There was a slight tremor in his arm, nothing painful but like a gentle reminder. But Arthur, eyes like a hawk, had seen it. He placed a hand gently on Merlin's forearm, above the leather band, and squeezed lightly.

Merlin glanced at Gwen. Her face was crumpled with worry at Merlin's confession, but her eyes were on Arthur's hand too. To her, it probably looked like a sign of affection; maybe it was, in a way, but Merlin could only take it as pity. He pulled his arm away as inconspicuously as he could.

Gwen said, "Oh, Merlin."

"Bye, Gwen," he said, and turned away again.

"Merlin, wait."

He paused in spot, trying to take a deep breath and calm himself. He was starting to get annoyed with her again. Not even turning around, he asked, "What?"

"My card," she said. From the corner of Merlin's eye, he saw Arthur reach out to take it. Gwen said, hopefully, "I still have your books waiting for you."

Merlin glanced over his shoulder, confused. "Books?"

"For your course work? To finish school," she explained.

Merlin had forgotten about those too. It had been a stupid idea he'd had, trying to catch up to obtain his GCSEs, and maybe move on with A-Levels. He didn't pass all his courses, being shuffled around as much as he had been made it hard to keep up, and he'd thought maybe working on independent studies would help. But he'd run away two weeks after asking after them. It was a stupid idea to worry about now.

"No need," he repeated. "Bye, Gwen."

Thankfully, Arthur followed him and they walked silently to Arthur's car. But Arthur followed Merlin to the passenger side of the vehicle, reaching out and preventing Merlin from opening the door. Merlin turned to face him, and found Arthur was crowded into Merlin's personal space. For the first time, Merlin didn't want it. He backed into the car door, scowling at Arthur. "What?"

"That man she was talking about," Arthur said. "That's the man my father made a deal with, isn't it?"

Merlin spoke without thinking, "Yes." A sting travelled up his arm and he hissed.

Arthur sighed, letting his arm drop to his side. "I really wish you'd let her say his name."

"Why?" Merlin countered. "It's not like you can do anything about it. You can't."

"I want to know," Arthur said, more darkly than Merlin had ever seen him. "Someday, the bastard will pay. I'll make sure of it."

Merlin snorted disbelievingly. "You like to say that, don't you? Doesn't mean it's true."

"Of course it is," Arthur said, smugly. "I'm Arthur Pendragon. I'll make it happen."

The words sounded exactly as they had when Arthur tried to get them out of the contract. Merlin knew how that had gone, and given the previous experience, Merlin shouldn't have given Arthur's statements a second thought.

But Merlin looked directly into Arthur's eyes -- hard, determined, confident -- and for a moment, as brief as it was, Merlin believed it. Stupidly, he believed it, and he held on to some hope that Arthur would be able to do something. All with a little name; a little name which meant big things for Merlin. Merlin tilted his head to the side and said quickly, "His name is--"


"Aredian aahhh."

White-hot pain spiked through Merlin's arm, more than he'd ever felt before. It was as if his entire arm was on fire, and tears sprung to his eyes. Shopping bags dropped to the ground as he instinctively cradled his arm to his chest and he doubled over -- or, he would've, if Arthur wasn't standing right in front of him. Instead, Merlin's head thudded against Arthur's chest, which propped Merlin up and kept him from falling to the ground.

Arthur's hands had immediately gone to Merlin's shoulders, making sure he didn't fall. Arthur scolded, "You idiot." But he sounded more worried and concerned than angry.

Merlin gasped in his pain, "I'm sorry."

"Don't apologise for this," Arthur said. One hand had crept up to Merlin's neck, fingertips rubbing soothingly over heated skin. "You're never to apologise for this. It isn't you."

"I know better," Merlin said, wheezing. "I shouldn't. I can't speak that way."

Arthur didn't say anything, he just waited patiently as Merlin caught his breath. One of Arthur's hands rubbed soothingly over Merlin's arm while the other pressed firmly against his neck. Once Merlin had calmed down, and the pain subsided, he realised just what Arthur was doing.

It was too -- weird. Even with the guys he'd fucked around with before, nothing had felt so ... intimate. It wasn't supposed to be that way. That wasn't what they were supposed to be. He just wanted it to stop. He didn't need to be coddled.

Merlin went stiff and pulled away. Arthur's hands dropped away from him, which Merlin thought would be a relief, but his stomach twisted unexpectedly at the loss of touch. He kept his eyes down, not ready to look at Arthur. "Can we go now?"

"Of course," Arthur said. But Arthur didn't move and finally Merlin looked up at him from under his eyelashes. Arthur, being who he was, was trying not to look too worried. But with the twitch at the corner of his eye, he wasn't completely succeeding.

"I'm fine," Merlin said, trying to reassure him. "Really, it's all right."

"If you're sure?"

Merlin nodded. "I just really want to go home." Merlin couldn't help his eyes widening a little at that, and he stammered, "Back. I mean, go back. To your flat."

Arthur concern broke finally, a little smirk playing at his lips. But he didn't say anything as he nodded. "I think that's a good idea."

Merlin smiled, trying to regain some of the ease they had earlier. "I do have those."

Arthur snorted as he rounded the car. "Rarely."

But once settled into the car, they were both quiet, lost in their own thoughts. That, or neither of them knew what to say. Merlin stared out the window, finally speaking aloud what he was thinking. "I should've apologised to Gwen."

Arthur huffed. "You certainly should have. You were a brat."

"I didn't mean to be," Merlin said. He shrugged, not knowing if Arthur even saw, with his eyes on the traffic in front of them. "I just don't like ..." He tried to think of the best way to explain it. Finally, he said, "I like to live in the now. There's no sense remembering before."

"Remembering the past is a good thing," Arthur said. "It shapes who we are. We learn from it."

"Not me," Merlin said. "I don't want to."

"Why not?"

Merlin sighed. "I don't think I'd like who I'd be, if I did that. Too much ... bad. And hate. I'll just focus on right now." He looked over at Arthur. "Could be a lot worse."

Arthur glanced at him, a small smile on his face. "Not so bad, then."

"Yeah," Merlin said, and he looked out the window again. He echoed, "Not so bad."

The rest of the weekend had passed in a silent understanding. It hadn't been as easy and carefree, as comfortable, as it had been Saturday morning. There was nothing wrong with it; they lazed around the flat a bit watching telly, went to the park for a walk, caught a film at the cinema. But there was a feeling that followed them around, a silence that edged their time together, a wall that couldn't be broken.

Merlin didn't offer anything more about his past, or even his current living situation, and Arthur didn't seem willing to ask. But Merlin was fine with that, he didn't want to talk about it anyway.

Monday had Arthur back at work and Merlin was left to fill a void in his day. He was slowly starting to figure out the magic of the clip; what he was and wasn't allowed to do. He hadn't been able to stalk out that night, when Arthur threw him out in a tantrum, but that was breaking the contract as a whole, to permanently leave. He could still go out on his own during the day, as per Arthur's condition, but when it got too late in the afternoon he could feel a pull on him -- nothing that hurt or harmed him, but just a sense that it was time to return to Arthur's flat. But if he was with Arthur, he could go out as late as Arthur wanted.

It was the worst part of the whole situation, the boundaries Arthur had put on him. It didn't feel right, he didn't feel like his own person. Merlin didn't blame Arthur, not at all, but having lived so independently for so long, it was starting to eat away at Merlin. Part of him couldn't wait for the contract to be over; and yet, the other part of him was still grateful for the experience and worried what would happen afterward.

Late Monday afternoon, Merlin was sitting at the dining room table, flipping through the newspaper. He'd never get the chance once Arthur returned home. He was spooning some cereal out of his bowl when he heard the flat door open.

Merlin called out, muffled around his food, "Arthur?"

"Who else would it be?" Arthur's retort carried from the other room. Merlin rolled his eyes as he heard the sound of keys dropping into the little ceramic bowl on the table near the entrance, and the sound of the cupboard door sliding open for Arthur to hang his coat.

"Hey," Arthur greeted as he entered the dining room, carrying a large bag.

Merlin eyed it, interested. "Presents?"

"Sort of," Arthur said. He sat down and put the bag on the table but didn't bring it up further right then. "Good day?"

Merlin shrugged. "It was all right."

"Let me guess," Arthur said dryly. "You were bored."

Merlin grinned, cheekily. "A little, maybe."

"Please tell me you stayed out of trouble."

"Oi! I always stay out of trouble," Merlin protested mildly. He could tell by the look on Arthur's face that he didn't believe Merlin. Merlin grinned at him. He mentioned, "You're home early today. I didn't make any supper."

Arthur shrugged. "That's fine, maybe we'll get some takeaway later on."

"Sounds good," Merlin said. "I'd like some Thai."

"Deal," Arthur said. He added on, casually, "I got off work early. I went and saw Gwen."

Merlin's spoon froze mid-air, right in front of his open mouth. He glanced at Arthur and dropped it back down into the bowl, little droplets of milk splattering across the table. "What?"

"I should've told you first," Arthur said by way of apology. "Or asked. Whatever. It was a sudden idea, really."

Merlin asked, defensively. "Why?"

Arthur answered bluntly, "To ask her about this Aredian chap, since I can't ask you."

"Oh." Merlin's eyes dropped back down to his bowl, and he pushed the spoon around in the increasingly soggy mess. "What'd she say?"

"Not much more than what she did the other day. But I figured it out -- it's the contracts. It's how he keeps his so-called business under wraps; you're not allowed to talk about it, or him, to anyone."

Merlin didn't lift his eyes. His silence answered Arthur.

"And I bet he only deals with people he trusts not to give over the secrets," Arthur said. He added, a bit disappointed, "Like my father."

Merlin only gave a hapless shrug of a shoulder.

"Fuck," Arthur cursed loudly. "It's all so… wrong."

"It is what it is," Merlin answered. He finally looked at Arthur. "Can we talk about something else now?"

"Yeah, please let's," Arthur said, sighing. "I apologised to Gwen on your behalf, by the way."

"You did?"

Arthur nodded. "She's not angry or anything. She feels badly for catching you off-guard like that."

"La-di-da for her," Merlin said sarcastically.

"Merlin," Arthur warned. "You're still being rude."

"Fine, fine. Thanks, though, for telling her. " Merlin sighed, a bit defeated. "I wasn't exactly fair to her."

"No, you weren't, you brat. She's quite lovely, actually. A bit feisty about her work. That's needed to succeed."

Merlin shrugged. "I wouldn't know."

"Hmm," Arthur hummed noncommittally. He pushed the bag across the table to Merlin. "She gave this to me to pass on to you."

It made sense to Merlin suddenly and he shook his head. "Don't want it."

"Come on, Merlin," Arthur said. "It's a good idea."

"I don't want it," Merlin hissed.

He watched as Arthur dug through the bag and pulled out a textbook and placed it on the table before them. Maths. God, Merlin hated maths.

"You should work on it," Arthur encouraged. "Nothing wrong with having your education."

"Nothing wrong with it, no, but it's incredibly useless."

"Education is never useless." Arthur pushed the text to Merlin. "It'll help. You'll need it someday."

"For what?" Merlin asked rhetorically. "Lifting wallets? Selling my arse on the streets?"


"No, Arthur, no. You don't get to be all high and mighty about this one." Merlin tried to push the book back at Arthur but Arthur only pushed it back again.

Merlin's arm swept across the table, sending the book flying through the air and landing on the polished hardwood floors with a thud.

Arthur looked at the book then looked at Merlin. He asked drily, "Was that really necessary?"

"Was all this?" Merlin asked heatedly, arm gesturing to the bag. "I don't want this. You had no right to poke your nose into my business."

Arthur sighed. "I'm just trying to think of your future--"

"No, Arthur. Remember how we had this talk? I live in the now. There is no past. There is no future."

Arthur became angry. "Don't say that, you idiot, of course there is. How are you supposed to prepare for it if you don't think about it?"

"There's nothing to think about," Merlin said. He stood up, body tense and rigid with anger. "Keep your do-gooder humanitarian efforts to yourself. There is no saving this street kid from himself."


Merlin stalked away, going to his room, and slamming the door shut. Throwing himself onto the bed, he refused to come out for the rest of the evening, not even for Thai food.

Chapter Text

The books sat on the far end of the table for two days.

Arthur didn't bring it up again. Merlin could tell he was angry about it. Merlin certainly didn't apologise, but neither did Arthur, so they yet again reached a mutual silent agreement to just put the whole stupid argument behind them.

Still, they sat on the table taunting Merlin. Arthur didn't move them, and Merlin didn't have the heart to. They'd meant something to him, once, an idea he'd had. One that Arthur seemed to support. And Gwen too, obviously, if she'd held on to them all that time. Merlin didn't have a whole lot of that in his life and he felt hard pressed to let it go.

Plus, there were many hours during the day to fill while Arthur was gone.

Merlin hated himself the one evening Arthur came home to find Merlin sitting at the table doing his coursework -- trying to do his coursework, anyway. Merlin was angry and frustrated and for the first time in his life actually wanted to kill someone -- either the person who invented maths, or Arthur Pendragon.

And if Arthur didn't wipe that smug grin off his face, it was probably going to be him.

"What's this?" he asked pompously, sliding into the chair across from Merlin.

"I was bored," Merlin snapped. "And now I'm murderous, so get out of my sight."

Of course Arthur didn't leave. He just smirked, the bastard.

Arthur asked, "What's wrong?"

Merlin lifted his maths textbook up into the air and slammed it down onto the table. "This! It doesn't make sense! And why the flying fuck does anyone need to know this shit for anything ever? This is fucking crap."

"Oh, settle down, you big baby," Arthur said calmly, completely unaffected by Merlin's crass outburst. He reached over and grabbed the text. "Ah, algebra. It's not that hard."

He took about ninety seconds to explain what Merlin had been trying to figure out for ninety minutes. When he was done, Merlin blinked and said, "Oh."

And completed the equation with virtually no help at all.

Merlin asked, astonished, "How'd you know that? It must've been ages since you last did it!"

"Shut it," Arthur said, scowling at the reference to his age. Merlin only grinned. Arthur continued, with a shrug, "I always liked maths. Science, though, you're on your own. All I remember is there are two hundred and six bones in the human body but buggered if I remember what they're all called."

Merlin barked out laughter at that. "Noted," he said. "I'll figure that one out on my own. Maybe I'll even teach you a thing or two."

"Doubtful," Arthur said smugly, but he smiled. "I'm glad you decided to do this."

Merlin felt a blush spread through him but he refused to look up at Arthur. He chewed on the end of his pencil as he stared down at the textbook. "It's only because I'm bored, you know."

"Bored or not, when you're ready sit for exams, you should call Gwen. She'll help you." He pulled his wallet out of his trousers and flipped it open, pulling out a business card. He passed it to Merlin, and Merlin saw it said Gwen Smith in a cursive green font, with a phone number and business address on it. Arthur added, "At the very least, you can call her and apologise yourself."

Merlin shrugged. "Yeah, maybe," he said vaguely, finger rubbing along the edge of the card. He glanced up at Arthur with a grin. "Do you have a business card?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Arthur said dryly, already thumbing a second card out of his wallet. "Of course I do." It was much simpler than Gwen's, on thick white stock paper with ARTHUR PENDRAGON printed in bold red in the centre, with a minuscule business number in one bottom corner.

Merlin snorted. "Makes a statement."

"Makes the one it needs to," Arthur said, smirking. "And don't you dare call my number over anything stupid because my secretary will not put you through."

"What about a question about maths?"

Arthur laughed. "I can probably handle that."

"All right, then," Merlin said, grinning back. He glanced at the books sitting before him. "I don't know about exams. I'm just trying to occupy my time, yeah? So, you know, don't expect much."

"I still think you should, but I won't push," Arthur promised. "As long as you stay out of trouble, it's fine."

Merlin gave him winning grin. "What are you talking about? I always stay out of trouble."

Arthur snorted. "I'll believe that when I see it."

Merlin only laughed and turned back to his homework, but he was feeling mighty pleased. And by the look on Arthur's face, so was he.

It was kind of nice, in a way, Merlin thought.

Merlin was in so much trouble.

And Arthur was going to be angry.

Merlin was sitting in a small room in the back of a shop. It was empty, save for the single chair he sat in and a small square table. But he knew he couldn't leave because the staff would see him and they'd already threatened to call the police.

After what seemed like forever, the door to the room opened. The shop manager walked it, followed by one Mr. Arthur Pendragon.

Yes, Merlin had been quite right. Arthur looked positively furious.

Arthur was in one of his best business suits, perfectly pressed and tailored, with one of his many red ties hanging from around his neck, the little threads of gold in it shining under the florescent light. His hands settled on his hips, elbows sticking out to the sides, as he glared at Merlin.

"Here he is," said the store manager -- a thin, ridiculous looking man by the name of Cedric. "He claimed he was a son of a business associate. He did have your business card on him, sir."

Merlin raised an eyebrow at how Cedric called Arthur sir, and how he was clearly looking up to Arthur with respect and admiration. It was a bit creepy, really.

Cedric held up the card, as if to prove Merlin did indeed have it on his person at the time he was caught. Cedric added, "It was the only thing he had with him. No identification or a wallet or anything. Do you know him?"

"Oh, I know him," Arthur said, with one last glare at Merlin. But he turned to Cedric, a charming smile on his face. "I am so sorry for any inconvenience the boy has caused you." Merlin tired to shoot daggers with his eyes at Arthur for talking about him that way, but Arthur ignored him completely. "I will pay for any damages."

"Oh, no, sir. No damages at all," Cedric said. "He just tried to shoplift a bit of goods. I mean, of course we frown upon that and I was about to call the police but then he mentioned you--" Cedric trailed off.

Arthur nodded, seriously. "I appreciate that you called me first. If you would let me deal with him?" Arthur shot another smile at Cedric.

"Oh, yes, certainly," Cedric said, nodding. "It really isn't any trouble at all. But, perhaps..." Cedric smiled encouragingly.

Arthur asked, "Yes?"

"You could take a tour of my shop. I know your company often backs businesses and ours is a fine one that could use a little extra -- push, you can say?"

Arthur said smoothly, "Of course, of course. I don't usually deal with that directly, but since you're being so kind in letting this whole incident go, I'd be happy to look and pass the name of your shop on to the appropriate department. I only have a few minutes to spare -- important meeting, you see--"

Cedric said emphatically, "Oh, no, that's fine. Here, follow me, I'll give you a quick tour."

Arthur shot a glare toward Merlin. "You. You sit here, quietly, for five minutes and stay out of trouble."

"Yes, sir," Merlin said with a scowl. But before Arthur closed the door behind him, Merlin called out. "Arthur!" Arthur took a minute to pause and look at him, and Merlin said a bit sheepishly, "I need that stuff."


Merlin nodded. "That I was going to take."

Arthur raised an eyebrow at him but didn't say anything further. Merlin sighed, hating himself for having to ask, "Can I borrow some cash? I'll pay you back. I promise, I'll add it to my tab."

"Stay here, Merlin," was all Arthur said before he left Merlin alone in the tiny room.

Twenty-five minutes later, Arthur returned in a downright surly mood. Though he remained pleasant enough with Cedric, Merlin could tell Arthur was not happy, especially with Merlin. "Let's go," Arthur said briskly to Merlin, snapping his fingers unnecessarily. Merlin rolled his eyes but got up from his chair and followed Arthur out into the main part of the shop.

"A bloody craft shop, Merlin," Arthur growled under his breath.

Merlin tried not to laugh as he looked around and pictured Arthur on his tour around the shop. There were sequins and sparkles and a rainbow of all colours at every turn. Big wooden cut outs and banners and cheap fake beads and jewels. Even Merlin knew this was not somewhere Arthur Pendragon would ever have his name attached to.

Arthur handed Merlin a bag and when Merlin peeked inside, his face broke into a wide smile. Arthur rolled his eyes. "You will be explaining this to me. In detail. Only not right now because I have a meeting to attend that I had to postpone because of your ridiculous shoplifting habits. Which you promised me you wouldn't do."

"Arthur, I--"

Arthur cut him off and raised a finger in the air. "Not now, Merlin. I really am not in the mood to deal with you at the moment."

"All right. I'll see you later at the flat--"

"Oh, no," Arthur interrupted. "I am driving you there myself, to make sure you get there, and you will stay there until I return home."

"Don't treat me like--"

"Don't you dare say it. If you do, I will box your ears."

Merlin smirked. "Sounds kinky."

"Oh, shut up," Arthur snapped. "Let's go."

They didn't say anything while in Arthur's car. Merlin could tell Arthur was still furious with him, or perhaps with having had to spend time touring a craft shop -- no, it was with him. And Merlin was rather grateful that Arthur bought what he asked, even though he was so angry and he certainly didn't have to. To try to get back on Arthur's good side, Merlin remained quiet. Or did, at least, until they reached a certain section of the city, which was exactly where he needed to be.

"Turn right, here."

Arthur glanced at him, in disbelief. "Excuse me? You do not get to decide--"

"Just do it, Arthur. Five minutes." Merlin looked at him, almost pleadingly. "I need to see a friend but I won't be long."

"If this is more trouble--"

"It's not. I promise." Merlin sighed. "Arthur, I'm asking you to help me here. Please."

Arthur was quiet for a moment, but under his breath muttered, "Oh for God's sake," but he followed Merlin's directions.

Merlin practically jumped out of the car when it came to a stop. He saw just who he was looking for just up the way -- it was Tuesday, and he knew this was her favourite spot on Tuesday, because the shop owner didn't mind her sitting outside trying to sell her jewellery.

"Freya!" he called out. When she looked up at her name, he waved at her, and a big smile broke across her face. Her ratty little blanket was spread out on the pavement, and as he neared it, he saw that it was very nearly empty. Selling out of stock would be a good thing, under most circumstances, but he was well aware that it wasn't in this case.

"Merlin!" she greeted. She uncrossed her legs and jumped up.

Merlin could see how the last few weeks had been hard on her. She looked gaunt, and pale, and there were dark smudges under her eyes from exhaustion. He had known to come and look for her because he'd run into Jonas and Catrina earlier that morning while out exploring the city. They had already been hitting the drink, but they'd been sober enough to tell him his 'little friend' had been having harder times than usual.

When he approached her, she threw her arms around his waist. Merlin and Freya were never affectionate like that, but she looked so grateful to see him he couldn't help but give her a hug back.

"What are you doing here?" she asked as she pulled away. "Aren't you supposed to be... working?"

"I am, but I wanted to come and give you this." Merlin handed her the bag of craft supplies that he had been willing to get into trouble for. He would've got away with it, too, but just as he was about to exit through the door, his clip had stung him and he'd cried out in pain, drawing staff attention. He wasn't allowed to be shoplifting and his magic had reminded him of that.

Freya peeked inside. She looked up, grateful, but cautious. "Oh, Merlin, please tell me you didn't get into trouble for this."

"No trouble at all," he said reassuringly, with a cheerful smile. "It's been paid for and everything." He glanced down at her little blanket, maybe a handful of bracelets and necklaces left. "Looks like I delivered just in time. Are you doing all right?"

She glanced down at the ground, not answering him. Merlin sighed. "Freya, are you okay?"

Rather than look back up at Merlin, she took notice of someone standing off to the side. She asked, "Can I help you, sir? A bracelet, perhaps?"

Merlin looked over and saw Arthur standing a few feet away. He looked a bit out of place, with his smart suit and hands clasped in front of him. But he was keeping a respectful distance, though he was obviously curious as he observed the conversation. Again, it was a part of Merlin's life he hadn't intended to share with Arthur and he'd much rather Arthur not be standing right there, but there wasn't anything he could do about that now.

Arthur waved a hand through the air. "No, thank you, I'm waiting for Merlin."

"Don't mind him," Merlin said. "That's just Arthur. He's the bloke I'm, uh, staying with."

Freya's mouth formed a perfect small 'o' of surprise as she glanced between the two of them. "I don't mean to hold you up. You shouldn't have come here."

Arthur said, "It's perfectly fine ... Freya, is it? Merlin doesn't have the best manners."

Merlin rolled his eyes. "Right, right. Arthur, this is my friend Freya. Freya, this is Arthur, the chap I'm supposed to sleep with but he won't let me, the arse."

"Merlin," Arthur hissed.

"What?" He turned back to Freya, hooking a thumb in Arthur's direction. "Wouldn't you want a piece of that?"


Merlin laughed and even Freya smiled, though she kept glancing between the two men. Quietly, she said to Merlin, "So it's going well, then?"

"It's … yes, it is."

"That's good to hear," Freya said, mustering a smile. It didn't quite reach her eyes. "It's ... reassuring."

Merlin's voice dropped and he looked at her, serious. "Oh, Freya, you haven't. Not you."

She shook her head and her eyes dropped to the ground. "No, not me. Not ... yet."

Merlin gripped her shoulders lightly, bending down and trying to catch her eye. "You don't have to do that, okay? You shouldn't have to do that."

"Things are hard right now."

"I know," he agreed. He covered her hand, which was gripping tightly at the bag he'd given her. "That's why I got you this, all right? I'll get more. You just work on making more of your jewellery to sell."

Freya looked up at him. "It's going well for you, isn't it?"

"Well. Yes," he agreed. "But I think I'm one of the lucky ones. Arthur is -- well, he's a prat, really, a lot of the time," he said, with a small smile tug at the corner of his lips to show he didn't mean anything bad by it. And he refused to look at Arthur right then, if Arthur was still listening in. The last thing he needed was to see Arthur's gloating look. "But he's treating me decently, he really is. But we know they aren't all like that. I don't want -- you shouldn't do this, Freya. Please."

"I'll try not to," she said, and it broke Merlin's heart that she couldn't promise him she wouldn't.

"Freya?" Arthur said, drawing both their attention to them. He held out one of his business cards, a number sprawled in blue ink across the back. "This is my card. My home line is on the back. You can ring Merlin any time you want."

"Oh, I don't know," she said, but she shyly took the card from him. "I know he's not supposed to be talking to me while he's working."

"But it doesn't seem to be an issue," Merlin put in, and shook his hand to indicate he was fine. "Please, make sure you do."

"I will," Freya promised.

"And hold on a bit longer, yeah?" Merlin said. "I'll be back in three weeks, we'll figure something out."

"All right," she agreed, and she pushed lightly on his shoulder. "You need to go, you shouldn't be here."

Arthur stepped forward. "But what if you had a customer?" He looked down at the blanket, very seriously looking over the few bracelets that sat on it. "I think I'll purchase something. Which one do you think, Merlin?"

"The blue one," Merlin immediately quipped. "It goes with your eyes."

"No, not that one," Freya said. She tugged a bracelet off of her own wrist -- Merlin could see there were less there than usual, probably because she had to sell them. If Arthur noticed the clip the flashed beneath the few multi-coloured bands, he did well not to show it.

She slid the small knots down so that it made it bigger. Freya handed him one that was mostly red with just a bit of gold entwined through it. She said, smiling, "It goes with your tie."

"Perfect," Arthur said. He pulled a note out of his wallet and handed it to her. "Thank you."

She looked at it, shocked. "That's too much. I don't have change."

"I don't have anything smaller," he said smoothly as he slipped the bracelet over his knuckles and pushed it down to settle around his wrist. "It's quite all right."

"Oh, I don't know--"

"Well, Freya," Merlin said, cutting her off before she could argue more, "we really do need to be going. You'll give me a ring, yeah?"

She nodded. "I will. It was good to see you." Glancing shyly at Arthur, she said, "It was nice to meet you. Thank you for your business."

"It's not trouble at all," Arthur said.

Arthur and Merlin bid her farewell and left her to her blanket. As they walked back to the car, Merlin's jaw was set and he felt sick when he thought of the situation that Freya might put herself in. The clients weren't all like Arthur and he hated to think of who she might end up with. And he felt selfish in taking a six-week job away from her, leaving her to deal with all the harshness on her own. He wouldn't do that again; he couldn't do that again.

Beside him, Arthur broke his thoughts. "You're pretty decent yourself, Merlin."

Merlin glanced over, expecting to see a smug look on Arthur's face. But there was just a soft, honest one, and it set off a little spark in the Merlin's chest. It spread through him, heating him at the core, and reaching out to all parts of him.

"Nah," Merlin said, but he was grinning. He absently scratched at the leather band on his arm, feeling an itch under it. "I have one friend in this entire world. I need to do my best to look at for her."

"You do," Arthur said. He touched Merlin between the shoulder blades, light and fleeting, and quickly dropped his hand and unlocked his car door.

Merlin didn't say anything, but as he got into the car, he couldn't stop beaming.

Later that night, Merlin was sprawled out on the sofa watching some telly when Arthur came home late. "In here!" Merlin called out to him, not bothering to get up to greet him.

A couple minutes later, Arthur came in. His suit jacket was off, his tie hanging undone around his neck. He looked positively knackered. "Oi, move your feet," he growled at Merlin.

Merlin's arm waved through the air. "There is another sofa. And a chair!"

"I want this one, it's my favourite and this is my flat. At least move over."

Merlin huffed but complied, pulling his feet back so that Arthur could sit down. Though as soon as he did, Merlin plunked his feet onto Arthur's lap.

"What's this?" Arthur mildly protested. He pushed lazily at Merlin's feet, but Merlin didn't move them, and Arthur didn't make him. Instead, one of Arthur's hands settled warmly on Merlin's ankle. He asked, "Anything good on?"

"Not really," Merlin said. He handed the control over. "Watch whatever you want."

Automatically, Arthur turned it to the news, which did not surprise Merlin one bit. But, for once, he didn't complain and remained silent as images flashed before them.

Glancing over, Merlin saw Arthur's other hand rest on the arm of the sofa, and he smiled when he saw Arthur's wrist. He said, "You're still wearing your bracelet." It surprised Merlin, but brought a smile to his face.

"What?" Arthur glanced down. "Yes, I suppose I am."

"That was a really nice thing you did," Merlin said, looking back at the screen.

"I could say the same for you," Arthur said. "Only, next time? Don't do it illegally. Just tell me about it, okay?"

"All right, I will," Merlin agreed.

And that, it seemed, was the end of that. Their little talk had gone more smoothly than Merlin had originally pictured when he was sitting in the back of the shop, waiting for the great Arthur Pendragon to storm down on him.

Not for the first time that week, Merlin could feel his insides warming up. And, more specifically, the clip around his wrist. It itched, a little, but it didn't hurt at all. It was more like a slow building heat pushing gently at him. It had confused Merlin all week and he wasn't sure what it meant.

Glancing over at Arthur, he saw that Arthur was looking back at him. There was a small smile on his face, soft and affectionate, and his fingertips rubbed absently at Merlin's ankle. When he saw Merlin looking, Arthur quickly turned to look at the telly and Merlin swore that he could see a slight blush creep to Arthur's cheeks.

Merlin knew right then and there just what the heat of his clip meant.

It mean that Arthur wanted him.

Merlin turned back to the telly and wiggled his toes against Arthur's thigh, as if an absent gesture, and he could feel Arthur tense for just a moment before relaxing again.

Merlin smiled to himself and was already starting to consider the possibilities of this newfound discovery.

On Saturday morning, Merlin was dragged too quickly from sleep when he heard voices drifting not-so-quietly from Arthur's kitchen. That, along with the sweet wafting smell of coffee, had Merlin grumbling as he threw the covers off himself and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He lazily pushed himself up, trying to blink sleep from his eyes. He pulled on jogging bottoms and a t-shirt, made sure his leather wristband was securely in place, and stumbled out of his room.

In the kitchen, Arthur was talking animatedly to a man with shaggy hair and a goatee that sat on one of the stools at the island. Merlin scratched his head, feeling his hair sticking up on ends, and tried to pat it down. He knew it was a fruitless fight, so he dropped his hand with a huff.

Merlin announced himself with a scowl, "You're being loud."

Arthur looked over at him, rolled his eyes, but said, "Morning, Merlin."

Merlin grunted and slid into a seat beside the bloke he didn't know. "Who're you?"

"Manners, would you?" Arthur lightly scolded, like he always did. "Merlin, this is my mate Leon. Leon, this is Merlin, the kid I told you about. The business associate's son."

Merlin knew that last part was added on for his own benefit, a reminder not to blow their cover for explaining his presence in Arthur's life. Not that he would've forgotten, no matter how much of a sleep-induced fog he was in. He greeted Leon shortly, "Hi."

"Hello," Leon said. He assessed Merlin, and then glanced at Arthur. "He doesn't exactly look like a kid, Arthur."

"Thank you," Merlin said gratefully. "You, I like. You can stay. As for that guy," he said, nodding at Arthur. "He's a twat. He needs to go."

"Oi!" Arthur protested playfully. "Who helps you with your maths?"

"Point," Merlin conceded. He eyed Leon. "Do you know how many bones are in the human body?"

Leon looked a bit confused but answered with a correct, "Two hundred and six."

"Do you know what they're all called?"

"Erm, no."

Merlin waved a hand dismissively. "You're useless to me."

"Don't be a brat," Arthur said, affectionately. He handed Leon a cup of coffee he'd just poured and instructed, "Give this to him. He'll be your friend for life."

Leon continued to look confused but handed Merlin the cup of coffee. Merlin took it gratefully, hands wrapping around the warm, blue ceramic. He held it up to his face, closed his eyes, and took in a deep whiff of the sweet, soothing smell. He could feel himself waking up and smiled, saying brightly, "Thanks."

Leon smiled as Arthur gave him a smug, knowing look. Leon said, "So this is who's been occupying all your time recently?" He raised his eyebrows, almost suggestively.

"Don't get any ideas," Arthur said, rolling his eyes. He leaned against the counter and crossed his arms, shaking his head. "It's not like that."

Merlin quipped from behind his coffee cup, "Not for lack of trying."

"Enough, you," Arthur said, pointing a finger at him.

Leon laughed, deep and booming, comfortable in his mate's flat despite the stranger that was there. "Have your work cut out for you with this one, do you?"

"You have no idea," Arthur said dryly. He pushed himself off the counter, bounced a little bit, weight on the front of his feet. Merlin could tell that, even though it was Arthur's day off, he was restless to go and do something, which had Merlin kissing away his plans of going back to bed to sleep some more. Arthur clapped his hands together. "All right, then. Time for football."

"There's a match on?" Merlin asked. He was certain Arthur would've mentioned it at least six times the night before if there was, and Arthur had already been bemoaning the fact there wasn't a game on to go down to the pub to watch.

"Yes, but not on the telly," Arthur said. "Me and some of the boys go down to park sometimes, have a bit of a kickabout. You in?"

Merlin gave him a wry look. "Does it look like I do any sport?"

"Not so much," Arthur admitted with a grin. "You can't walk across the flat without bumping into three stationary objects."

"Oi!" Merlin's protest echoed Arthur's earlier one.

Leon laughed, clearly bemused with the two of them, and said, "Just come down and watch, yeah? You don't have to play if you don't want." He shrugged. "Or you can, if you want."

"I'll probably sit this one out," Merlin said. "But, yeah, give me a few minutes to shower. I'll come out."

"Excellent," Arthur said. He smugly added, "You can see how fantastic I am."

Merlin snorted. "I really won't be able to tell the difference, you know. " He pointed at Leon. "I'm cheering for this one. He gave me coffee."

"Why you..." Arthur said, picking up the tea-towel and snapping it in Merlin's direction. But Merlin was already up and ducking out of the way, laughing as he made his way back to his bedroom, coffee cup in hand.

Merlin should've been glad he'd brought the novel he was reading with him to the park. Not that he minded much watching a group of very lovely looking men running about chasing a football -- and Arthur really was quite fantastic, from what Merlin could tell -- but there really was only so many times he could watch them run up and down the little makeshift pitch.

Though, the book wasn't very exciting either; the prose thick and cumbersome, the characters boring and stuffy, and Merlin just wanted to throw it into the nearest bin. He felt like an idiot, at times like those, trying to do pointless homework that wasn't going to get him anywhere.

He slammed the book down on the bench next to him and crossed his arms, frustrated and bored. While he initially watched Arthur and his friends, Merlin's gaze started to stray around the park. There were families having picnics, people running down the paths, and a group playing some frisbee near by. It'd been a long time since he'd spent any time in a park; the last being when he was trying to sleep on a bench late one night. Despite the warmish day, a chill ran through his body.

Merlin found himself startled from his thoughts as a young man around his age approached his bench, frisbee in hand, and addressed him. "Merlin? Is that you?

Merlin looked at him and noticed there was something vaguely familiar about him, though Merlin couldn't place what it was. He was a short and stocky sort, with shaggy brown hair, and a lopsided confident grin as he looked down at Merlin.

"Erm, yeah?" Merlin said. He wasn't going to deny it -- there weren't a lot of people with his name out there.

The young man threw the Frisbee back at his friends and waved them off. Turning back to Merlin, he grinned. "I'm Will!" he said. "I think we knew each other when we were kids."

Merlin's mouth opened in shocked, but then a wide grin spread across his face. "Will! I remember you. You were the boy who lived in the same block of flats as me and my mum."

"Yeah, that's right," Will said, plopping down on the bench next to Merlin. He frowned and reached under his bottom, pulling up the book that had been sitting there. He looked at the cover and gave Merlin a wry look. "Is this yours?"

"Yeah," Merlin said, taking it from him. He sighed. "Trying to catch up with school work."


Merlin blushed. "Not quite. I mean, I'm behind a couple years because of …" Merlin waved his hand around. "Things."

Will was quiet for a moment as he looked at Merlin. "I always wondered what happened to you, after your mum died."

Merlin tensed up at that. It'd been a long time since it happened, about ten years, and he had done a very good job at leaving it in the past and not being affected by it any more. As it was, he barely remembered her. He didn't know anyone any more who would've even known her. Not until he saw Will again.

He shrugged. "Was shuffled around a bit. On my own now, mostly. Staying with a friend right now, though."

"Hm, yeah," Will said softly. He hesitated a bit, and then looked as if he couldn't hold his question in any longer. "And your little tricks?"

Merlin shook his head. "Don't have them anymore."

"Shit," Will breathed. He looked upset, annoyed, and Merlin knew it wasn't at him. It was at the world. Merlin could relate to that, but it felt weird to have anyone angry on his behalf. Will shook his head. "That's just … that's bloody awful. I've heard things, and it's not right, what they do."

Merlin really hadn't expected to get into that particular subject and he didn't want to talk about it. Whereas he would tell Arthur straight out, ‘I'm not talking about it,' he didn't think that would go over quite as well with his one-time friend, for it would take too much to explain. Merlin shrugged, feeling uncomfortable and at a loss as to what he should say. "It is what it is, yeah?"

"Yeah," Will agreed. They were quiet for a moment but then Will broke out into a grin. "Hey, do you remember the time you used your tricks to tip over Old Man Simmon's bicycle every time he tried to stand it up against the fence? He just kept bending over and picking it but you kept knocking it down. Ten times at least, he did it!"

Merlin laughed, brightly and unexpected. "I'd forgotten about that," Merlin said, memories floating in front of his eyes. "He was so mad and he thought it was us because we couldn't stop giggling but he didn't know why! I thought my mum was going to throw a fit when she found out."

"My dad too, though he didn't know how we'd done it," Will said. "But he never doubted that we did."

Merlin grinned wickedly. "We were trouble-makers, we were."

"Couldn't agree more with that, mate."

Will launched into stories about the old neighbourhood, what happened to some of the people that lived around there, some that had left, others who'd stayed, the few who had passed on. Merlin did what he could to nod and hum in all the right places, but had trouble remembering any of them, though Will seemed to expect he would. But after the initial awkwardness, Merlin and Will had a good chat for a few minutes. Will talked about himself (in uni to study computers) and didn't ask Merlin any more questions, but listened attentively when Merlin had something to offer. Merlin was really appreciative of that, and he relaxed into the conversation, feeling less defensive.

Will's friends were just calling him over when Merlin felt the clip under its leather band begin to heat up again. He'd only noticed it a handful of times before, a slow build when he knew Arthur was wanting him, and it'd only happened once or twice since Merlin realised what it was. (Arthur had been busy at work the past couple days.) While this didn't hurt Merlin, it was different -- it didn't feel nearly as soft and wanting, but had a bit of an edge to it.

Glancing up, Merlin saw Arthur looking over at him. There was an annoyed look on his face, and he did not look at all impressed with Will sitting there next to Merlin.

Merlin had to try very hard not to smirk. He knew exactly what Arthur's problem was. Though Arthur was so bloody thick in the head, he probably didn't even realise it himself.

Will stood up off the bench, "Well, Merlin, I think we're off."

"Yeah, of course," Merlin said. "Good to see you, Will."

"You too. Hey, what's your number? I'll give you a ring sometime."

Merlin shrugged. "Don't have one." He figured Arthur would be furious if he started handing out his home line.

Will raised an eyebrow but didn't comment. "Email?"

"Oh, sure," Merlin said, somewhat vaguely. He didn't expect to hear from Will but he supposed it was nice Will was making an effort. Merlin dug around in the rucksack Arthur had left at his feet and pulled out a pen. On the inside cover of his book he wrote out his email address neatly, and ripped it off. "Better use for it," he said with a grin as he handed it to Will.

Will laughed. "No doubt. Later, mate."

"Cheers," Merlin said as Will bounded off, back to his friends. Merlin stared after him for a few moments before looking down at the ripped book, the words of their conversation mulling around in his mind.

A couple of minutes later, Leon and Arthur headed over to where Merlin was sitting. Leon looked happy enough, with a pleasant smile on his face. However, Arthur continued to look annoyed.

"Who was that?" Arthur asked bluntly, not even giving Merlin a proper greeting.

Merlin peered up at him innocently. "Who?"

"Cut the bullshit," Arthur said impatiently.

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

Leon glanced between the two of them. "I think he means the bloke you were talking to a while ago."

Arthur snapped, "He knows who I'm talking about."

"Don't be an arse," Merlin said, lightly scolding Arthur the same way Arthur happened to call Merlin a brat. "Leon was just trying to be helpful." He turned to Leon and said with obvious politeness, "Thank you very much, Leon, for not being a twat, unlike some other people around here."

Leon's mouth twitch and his head ducked down. He coughed, obviously trying to hold in laughter. "It's no problem, really."

"Oh, both of you can stuff it," Arthur said grumpily, bending down to pick up his rucksack. He stalked off, calling over his shoulder. "You two coming or what?"

Leon looked at Merlin. "I thought he said it wasn't ... He's acting awfully ... like it's that."

"Apparently, it's not," Merlin said, with a grin. "He's just really good at being a prat. But, no, there's nothing going on between us."

Leon muttered under his breath, "Could've fooled me."

Merlin laughed, delighted at Leon's observation. At the sound of it, Arthur glanced over his shoulder to look at him. The heat at Merlin's wrist flared a little bit, and all he could do was smirk at Arthur. Arthur shook his head and looked away.

Merlin definitely planned on talking to Arthur later that night. Or, rather, doing his damnedest to seduce him.

Merlin had the feeling that Arthur really wanted to yell at him -- or at least scold in that very disapproving way that Arthur excelled at, in which he looked down his nose, his blue eyes blazing like fire, and his lips pressed into a thin line -- over Will but he hadn't the chance for most of the day. Leon hung about, not in an overbearing way, but as a best mate who hadn't seen his friend in a while. And having a row with Merlin did not take precedence over that, and Arthur seemed genuinely happy to have Leon around.

He came back to Arthur's place with them, using the spare bathroom that had become Merlin's to shower while Arthur did the same in his own. Merlin sat at the dinning room table with a cup of coffee in his hand, reheated from the morning and thick with cream and sugar to mask the strong bitter taste. As he waited for the other men to be finished, he flipped absently through his science text, not paying it any real attention other than to read captions on interesting pictures.

Leon and Arthur emerged nearly at the same time, the smell of warm water and soap filling the room from all directions. Both were out of their football kit; Leon had on a pair of well-worn and comfortable but expensive looking jeans with a black jumper, and Arthur was in dark denims with a white buttoned shirt. Despite the casualness, they both looked rather perfect, and Merlin had a fleeting thought that he was grateful he let Arthur talk him into getting new clothes. His own jeans and dark green t-shirt were simple and cheap, but at least they didn't have their usual frayed edges or rips at the seams.

"What now?" Merlin asked, flipping the text closed and pushing it away from him. If he were to be surrounded by such gorgeous looking men, the least they could do was go out for a bit.

"I was thinking we should go down to the pub, get some chips, play some pool, yeah?" Leon suggested.

"Sounds like a good plan to me," Arthur agreed. He took his jacket off the back of a kitchen chair, slipping it on. "That place down the road from here isn't bad, we can walk over."

"Sure," Merlin said, standing up and moving to take his mug to the dishwasher. "I warn you, though, I am rather good at pool."

Arthur snorted. "I doubt that."

Merlin just grinned and couldn't wait for the chance to show him.

The trio walked to the pub quickly, light conversation carrying them along the way. Settling into the comfortable atmosphere easily, Merlin was happy for a change. The places he occasionally went to were much different than this; darker, dank, everything shabby and poor. This pub was light and airy, with posters hanging on the walls and smooth wooden booths with green cushions lining them. The staff were friendly and bright, taking their order when they went up to the bar. The chips at the pub weren't too bad, deep brown and crisp and just right. Arthur made faces at Merlin for how much salt and vinegar he put on his, until they were literally soaked and dripping in it.

"You have a thing for condiments," Arthur said, wrinkling his nose as Merlin scooped up a number of chips. To Leon he said, "You should see how he eats his pancakes. Disgusting."

"Mmm nom nom," Merlin jested with a grin. He dropped his jaw wide and shoved in the whole handful.

Arthur's gaze dropped down to Merlin's mouth for a moment and licked his lips. Merlin didn't miss it and he grinned around the ends of the chips that stuck out of his mouth. Arthur glanced away and shook his head. "No manners at that age, really."

Merlin made a snorting noise, unable to respond back, and tried to chew his chips so he could speak again. Arthur laughed at him. "Actually, I like this look on you. It's rather ... quiet."

Merlin's eyes narrowed and he tried to scowl, tried to grunt in protest, but he ended up coughing, little bits of chips flying about.

Arthur rolled his eyes. "Nice," he said dryly, pounding lightly on Merlin's back. "Really classy there, mate."

"You know," Leon said thoughtfully, though he was grinning as he watched Merlin. "It's not all that different from when you and Percy had that hotdog eating contest back in school."

"Shut up," Arthur hushed quickly, but it was too late. Merlin's eyes bugged wide as he quickly chewed on his food to try to swallow, hands waving around frantically in indication that he most certainly had questions to ask about that.

Arthur said calmly, "You will take forever to eat that mouthful and by the time you can actually speak again, you'll have forgotten all about this. All about it. There's nothing of interest here."

"I know you've been trying to claim you've have Jedi powers since we were eleven, Arthur," Leon said, deadpan, "but you know that you actually don't, yeah?"

Merlin couldn't contain it anymore; he leaned over his basket of chips (so that he didn't send any flying into poor Leon's face) and snorted laughed, trying not to choke around the potato goodness.

Arthur muttered, "Oh, for god's sake, Merlin. I know perfectly well I'm not a Jedi Knight."

Merlin gave up and finally spit the rest out, and threw his body against the bench seat, loud laughter ringing out. Leon's booming laugh joined him.

Arthur looked right miffed. "It's not that funny." But there was a smile he couldn't quite contain tugging at his lips.

"You!" Merlin finally wheezed, pointing a finger at Leon. "Must have so many stories to tell me about this prat," he said eagerly, hooking a thumb in Arthur's direction. "Tell me. God, please tell me all of them."

"Don't you dare," Arthur threatened. "Do not give this little brat any fodder. I'll never hear the end of it."

Leon glanced between the two of them, mirth dancing in his eyes and the smile still present on his lips. Finally, his gaze fell on Merlin. "So, our friend Percy--"

Arthur groaned and Merlin clapped his hands with glee, eyes opened wide as he popped another chip (just one) into his mouth. He listened attentively to Leon's story, laughing at the way Leon described his and Arthur's mates, at his grandiose arm gestures over something as simple as a hot dog eating contest, but the stakes had been high (a week's worth of homework and the honour of being the winner.) Ultimately, it had been Arthur who had won.

"Damn right I did," Arthur said smugly. "Arthur Pendragon doesn't lose."

"Surely you must sometimes," Merlin said, rolling his eyes.

"Not that often," Leon admitted, shaking his head. "We used to joke about the lucky horseshoe he had up his arse, the bastard. But you should see him when he does. Throws a mighty fit. Losing gracefully is not his strong point."

"Yes, well, I have so little practice with it," Arthur said arrogantly. But he tilted his head thoughtfully. "Although, that contest -- I could've lost big. Thank god I didn't."

Leon clapped Arthur's shoulder. "Nah, mate. Most of us already knew."

Merlin looked quizzically between the two. "I'm not following?"

"It's my big coming out story too," Arthur said. "Damn that Gawain. His comment about my taking the hot dog whole, like taking a cock …" Arthur trailed off, shaking his head.

"His cheeks went bright red and he didn't deny it," Leon said. "It went sort of quiet, and then Gawain said, ‘You're the least subtle person ever when you want something, you know. Also, you don't know how to date girls at all'." Leon shrugged. "That was sort of that."

Merlin looked at Arthur curiously. "And they were all fine with it?"

"Not all of them, once I admitted it. And the last couple of months at school were … different." Arthur shrugged. "I don't know, I was ready to move on with my life and it was kind of freeing, in a way."

"And your family?"

"Morgana gloated that she already knew, of course," Arthur said, rolling his eyes. "My father … took a bit to come around, but he's fine with it now."

Merlin snorted, looking down at his empty basket of chips. Yeah, it got to the point where Uther Pendragon didn't have a problem with renting out clipped boys, so Merlin didn't doubt he no longer had problems with accepting his son's sexuality. If Merlin's opinion was asked, it was Uther who had the problems.

He could feel Arthur watching him, quiet and awkward. Leon, without a clue, asked, "And your story? I mean. If you're -- oh, god, maybe you're not even…"

Arthur laughed. "You noticed how subtle he is about it, right?"

Merlin looked up, grinning. "Don't worry about it. Yes, I am, and it wasn't a big deal." Merlin shrugged, thinking about it. He hadn't told anyone, though he hadn't kept it a secret either. Really, he had had no one to tell. No family to make a big deal about it, no constant friends in his life to worry about losing. By the time he'd met Freya, he was already fucking around with guys sometimes, and with everything else they'd seen and dealt with in their lives, she didn't even bat an eyelash. Merlin's life wasn't built the way Arthur's was, with people and expectations and the fear of disappointing anyone. Merlin only had to worry about himself, and he found liking blokes no trouble at all compared to other things he had to consider.

Merlin's hand absently rubbed at the leather band on his wrist. "I have other things to worry about," Merlin said. He glanced over, and he knew by the look in Arthur's eyes, the way his gaze quickly darted down to Merlin's wrist and back up again, that Arthur knew what he was talking about. Merlin turned back to Leon and shrugged. "The fact I like to suck cock and take it up the arse just isn't an issue to me."

Leon's cheeks went bright red and he coughed. Arthur smacked Merlin lightly across the back of the head, rolling his eyes. "Merlin, you're scaring the accepting straight bloke, here. Too much information."

"I thought he didn't mind!"

"He doesn't, but no one needs to hear that, myself included."

"Yeah, right," Merlin muttered. "You're gagging to hear about it."

"Shut up!"

"All right, all right!" Leon interjected, holding up his hands to cut them off, though he looked way too amused. "Enough talk about anyone's sex lives around me, yeah? How about a pint? Round's on me." He pushed back his chair and stood up. He glanced between the two of them, and said bluntly, "Yes, I'm leaving purposefully so you can talk this out, but when I return, no more sex talk at all. Got it?" He walked away, not given them a chance to reply.

When Leon was out of earshot, Merlin turned to Arthur with a smirk. "I don't think he realises that we need more than his fetching beers to talk about your repressed feelings for me."

"Oh, shut it, there's nothing repressed," Arthur snapped.

"You're quite right, it's pretty obvious, actually."

"Oh, it is not -- I don't want -- cut it out," Arthur glared at him.

"Right, we'll save this one for when we're back home later," Merlin said, grinning wickedly. "Maybe there can actually be some follow-through, because you're giving me blue balls here."

Arthur blinked at him, eyes wide but quickly narrowing. "This is not the place for this."

"Couldn't agree more," Merlin muttered. "Unless you want to bend me over the pool table in front of all these people--"

"--Enough," Arthur said, scowling.

Merlin tried not to laugh as he felt the heat flare at his wrist. "Fine, fine," he conceded. "We can go to the loo--"

"We're not going anywhere," Arthur said. He added on, quite coolly, "Besides, I thought you'd picked out your newest target for a boy toy."

"I was waiting for that one," Merlin said, smirking. He watched as Leon leaned over the bar, smiling happily at the pretty bartender as he placed his order. "There was nothing going on there, you know."

"You gave him your -- actually, probably my! -- phone number. I saw you. This goes against our whole --" Arthur waved his hand around "--situation."

Merlin turned to him, blinking slowly. "Contract," he said, trying to come across as being indifferent as he could, trying not to show the slight sting that had nothing to do with his clip. "It's called a contract. Let's not forget why I'm really here, right? I haven't. That boy isn't what you think."

"Merlin, don't," Arthur said, the heat and annoyance draining from his face, almost as if he felt ashamed for accusing Merlin the way he had. And it was enough to stop the shame that was starting to prickle at Merlin's insides; Arthur didn't look at it that way, he really didn't, and he'd felt badly the second he had. Goddamn Arthur Pendragon and Merlin's inability to resent him.

"I promise, I wasn't doing anything wrong. We'll talk later," Merlin said, casting a small forgiving smile at Arthur. "Trust me on this one."

Arthur sighed but nodded. "All right. I do."

It was enough to have a little blossom of peace burst in the pit of Merlin's stomach. "Good."

Arthur glanced over to where Leon was gathering up three pint glasses in his hands. "Trust me, then," Arthur said. He reached over and his fingers brushed against Merlin's leather wristband. "We can tell Leon about this. He won't mind, I swear--"

Merlin's hand jerked away, an involuntary reflex. His breath had quickened, his eyes glancing wildly at Arthur. "No. I -- No." Leon was a good bloke and maybe he accepted Arthur, his best mate, for what he was, but. He treated Merlin decently and laughed with him and told him stories, and there was no doubt or hate or distrust in any of it.

Arthur hissed quietly, Leon on his way back to them. "It won't be bad. This is -- it's your coming out story, yeah?"

"I don't need one," Merlin snapped at him. A bit of desperation around his voice, he knew he was very nearly pleading. "Please, no. Don't tell him. I don't want -- I don't want it."

Arthur sighed, sounding disappointed. "All right. I won't."

"Thank you," Merlin breathed gratefully. And when Leon returned to the table, a pleasant smile on his face, completely unaware of what had just happened, Merlin couldn't help but smile at him. He took the beer and drank back half of it, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. With a smile, he said, "Game of pool, then?"

Arthur was quiet as he watched him but Leon laughed jollily. "You're on."

"I'll warn you again, I'm very excellent at it," Merlin said, standing up. Leon stood up with him. "Prepare to have the floor wiped with you."

Arthur snorted. "We already determined today that your coordination factors are nonexistent, do you really expect us to believe you can hit a ball with the cue?"

"My talents are many and extraordinary. You know this," Merlin shot back arrogantly. He bent down to the floor, and standing back up, he had Leon's wallet in his hand. He grinned. "Think you dropped this, mate."

Leon looked at him in surprise, taking the wallet back. "Oh, thanks."

Merlin glanced over at Arthur, who was glaring at Merlin with narrow eyes. Merlin just grinned back cheekily, with purpose. It was a bit of a risk, but he never had any intent to actually take the wallet and had handed it back to Leon immediately, so the magic in his clip hadn't realised what he had done. No real rules broke, and he'd proven his point to Arthur.

Leon already headed to the pool table, Arthur brushed next to Merlin. "You did not just lift his wallet."

"I gave it back! Maybe you'll believe me now when I say I'm about to kick your arse at pool."

Arthur snorted. "Doubtful."

"Wager you a blow-job over it."

Arthur rolled his eyes. "I don't play those reindeer games."

"I hate Christmas," Merlin said absently, but he laughed at Arthur. "Fine, fine, but if I win you have to be a big boy and not throw any fits over it."

Arthur looked back at him, challenging. "Deal."

Merlin grinned. This was going to be fun.

Chapter Text

Merlin absolutely slaughtered Leon and Arthur at the pool table. ("We can't even get upset about it," Leon pointed out. "He warned us.") Arthur was steaming and in a state of disbelief, but he was good about it and didn't throw a fit. Well, a minor one perhaps, when he yelled out, "Are you shitting me?" when he'd only been able to take two shots the entire game, with Merlin cleaning the table. Merlin had shrugged, claiming he had a lot of spare time on his hands, which was true; he and Jonas often played pool to pass the days, and occasionally hustled, though that was getting increasingly dangerous. When the game was over, and Leon said goodbye with some stupid handshake with Arthur and a clap to Merlin's shoulder, the two headed back to Arthur's flat. Their walk back was a stark contrast to earlier, both lost in their own thoughts.

When they returned, Merlin trailed after Arthur into the kitchen. He slid onto one of the tall stools at the counter and watched as Arthur went to the refrigerator and took out two beers. It was familiar, the sight, Merlin having watched Arthur do this before. It always seemed to be when Arthur was trying to think, figure out what to say. He methodically took the magnetic bottle opener off the door and flipped off the two caps with the sound of little clinks as they hit the smooth counter top. He put it back on the door and handed a beer to Merlin. Arthur leaned back against the counter and assessed Merlin.

"It wasn't like that, with Will today," Merlin started. He figured he might as well, because Arthur was either going to stand there staring at him until he did, or else finally over think too much and blow up at Merlin, saying something snide and mean, even though he would look guilty about it thirty seconds later when Merlin explained. Merlin figured he'd save them from going through all that and just go for it. "He's someone I knew, once."

Arthur raised an eyebrow. "Once?"

Merlin nodded. "Yeah." Merlin smirked, decided to play with Arthur, who deserved it for being such a prat. "I've seen him naked, you know."

Arthur's hand shot up in the air, palm facing Merlin, and he scowled. "I don't want to know."

"Sure you do," Merlin said easily. "I bet you're dying of curiosity, really."

Arthur pulled a face and took a sip of his beer. He said flatly, "I'm really not."

"I was coming home once," Merlin started his story, ignoring Arthur's protest. "And the door to Will's flat flew open, and he ran out, just starkers." Merlin laughed as he pictured the image, years ago (though Arthur didn't know that) and it was something that had been lost to him, found again with Will's sudden reappearance in his life. Merlin grinned and continued. "There were bubbles flying after him in a trail, and his father ran out after him, towel in hand, yelling up a storm."

Arthur blinked at him, completely confused. Merlin laughed, finally giving in. "We were about seven, I think, and Will hated bath time. He tried to escape it whenever he could. Him and his dad lived in the flat across from me and my mum," Merlin explained, grinning.

Arthur let out a sigh, which Merlin thought was probably relief. "Oh," he said blandly.

"Yeah. Today was the first day I've seen him in a decade. He was the one who recognised me, actually," Merlin added, but then shrugged. "He mentioned maybe catching up sometime. I gave him my email address, not your phone number," he clarified.

Arthur blinked, and repeated, "Oh."

"Oh is correct," Merlin said, with a grin. "So you can drop your jealousy act now."

"I am not jealous," Arthur immediately protested, taking another sip of his drink. "I was just pointing out that -- look, it isn't what you think it is."

"If you say so," Merlin said, unconvinced. "But neither are Will and I. I swear, he's just some bloke I knew when I was a kid." Merlin couldn't help it, his fingers went to his wrist and he stroked at the band there, almost absently. His eyes were downcast, looking at the counter, but he was seeing a time long ago. "I think he might be the only person left that remembers me with my magic, actually."

"Really?" Arthur said. Merlin glanced up and saw the interest there, the curiosity.

Merlin nodded. "Only he and my mum knew. She's gone now, has been since I was eight years old. And I haven't seen Will since then, either." Merlin shrugged, trying to show that it wasn't a big deal. It wasn't something he was upset about. It was what it was, and always would be.

Arthur was quiet for a moment. "What happened to her?"

Arthur had mentioned, once, in a short tone that didn't allow for any more discussion, that he'd lost his mother when he was born. Merlin felt rather the same, not wanting to discuss it either. "Car accident," he replied. "She was hit by a car when we were crossing the road. I was clipped the next day."

Arthur was looking at him, hesitance on his handsome features, curious and trying to be respectful.

Part of Merlin wanted to tell him all about it. He wasn't one to dwell on the past; he buried images deep down inside himself, and they usually only reappeared in his dreams, and even that was incredibly rare. But he remembered enough to know his mum had pushed him out of the way. That she'd been the one hit instead of him. He hadn't seen any of it, pushed to the ground, but he knew to be frightened. He remembered he had yelled out, his magic had erupted in him, terrified and scared, and it knocked down the chainlink fence and shattered the glass in the shop windows, left little trails of black burns, as if there had been flames licking at the pavement.

There had been a little miniature crater left in the street, and in the middle of it had been a scared little boy with tears streaking down his face.

The authorities had picked him up when they arrived on the scene to take care of his mother, and he'd been picked up out of his little magically-made hole, taken somewhere to be cared for and fed and questioned and cleaned. It was the next day he had been clipped. A man came into the room, an older man with silver hair down to his shoulders and an eyebrow that raised all the way to the roof. Merlin hadn't known at the time what it had been, that spark that ran through his entire body when the old man patted his shoulder in an attempt to comfort, though years later he came to understand what a Druid was. A magic user who still had their magic; and he was one who used it to put a binding spell onto Merlin, to keep his magic at bay forever.

He'd been too young at the time to understand any of that. And even now, he couldn't make himself hate the man. He wished he could, he really did, but it was useless to even think about it. What was done was done, and that was that. He couldn't even remember the man's name.

Merlin looked at Arthur, saw the strong man with his pleasant upbringing and supportive father and sister and friends. Saw his bleeding heart and concern for Merlin.

"Will you -- what happened?" Arthur asked, tentatively, a reservation in his voice that wasn't usually there.

Part of Merlin wanted to tell him all about it. Tell Arthur his story, tell him it all. It was all there, on the tip of Merlin's tongue, waiting to tumble out in a litany of words and phrases, to build his story and share it.

Mostly, Merlin didn't want to drag it all up again. He'd told Arthur that, time and time again.

Merlin shrugged. "Life happened."

"Right," Arthur said, looking a bit disappointed in the answer. He didn't push it though, and Merlin was wondering if he was waiting for Merlin to offer it. He had a long time to wait, if that was so.

Merlin added, trying to lighten the mood they'd lost, or focus on something that actually mattered, "So, yeah, anyway. William. Drop the jealous act, there's nothing to worry about."

Arthur snorted, shaking his head. "You seem to have some misconception that there's something to be jealous about."

Merlin smirked at Arthur. He wasn't going to let him get away with it, not any more. It wasn't the past, you see, not the future either. It was here and now, and something they desperately needed to deal with. Merlin was intent on making Arthur see, making him realise -- make him give in.

Merlin got up from his chair, leaving the beer behind as he rounded the little island, closing in on Arthur. Arthur watched him, amusement in his eyes, and other than putting his beer down on the counter, he didn't move away.

"Oh, I know you want me, Arthur," Merlin said, stepping closer into Arthur's space.

Arthur frowned a bit, clearly thrown off by Merlin's forwardness. Merlin made jokes and comments all the time, but he'd never actually done anything about it, not until now. Arthur tried to play it off, rolling his eyes, and attempted to step around Merlin. Merlin cut him off, crowded him as Arthur backed up. Arthur let out a small puff of air when his back hit the silver door of the refrigerator.

"What's with you?" Arthur asked, frowning. He gestured between the two of them. "You know this isn't what we do, right? Not happening, Merlin."

"Even though you want it to," Merlin said, smirking. He stepped closer, his body aligned with Arthur's, though they weren't nearly touching yet. "You can't hide it from me, Arthur."

Arthur snorted. "You have no idea what you're talking about."

But Arthur's eyes drifted down, watching as Merlin reached to his leather band, pulling at the snap, and let if fall to the ground. Arthur's mouth formed a perfect o, surprised that Merlin would actually let his clip show; he hadn't, not since that day Arthur had found out about it.

Merlin raised his hand up, the one that had the clip around his wrist, and he placed his palm against the fridge door, right at Arthur's eye level. Arthur's head banged back against the door, but he was looking to the side, staring at Merlin's wrist, on obvious display for him.

Merlin's voice was low, barely above a whisper, when he said, "I can feel it. Anytime you want me, physically, I can feel a bit of heat in my clip. I know, Arthur, I know."

"Shit," Arthur breathed. "It's not -- you're not hurt, are you?"

Merlin couldn't help but smile at that, big and wide. Of course Arthur would be concerned he was hurting Merlin over it. "No, it doesn't hurt," Merlin reassured. "Not like the other stuff. I just feel it." Merlin couldn't stop himself, he started to reach out to touch Arthur; run his fingers through his hair, or maybe stroke a fingertip over the curve of his jaw. Just a little touch, to finally make it real, to make Arthur see Merlin was right there and he wouldn't be leaving.

Arthur's own hand came up, quick as lightning, catching Merlin's wrist. "Don't."

"We both know what I'm supposed to do," Merlin pointed out.

"No," Arthur said firmly.

Merlin tried not to pout, but he wasn't very good at stopping it. Arthur was being completely unreasonable, and even if he wasn't meaning to, a complete cocktease. He said, voice dropping low and husky, "You want me."

"No, I don't."

"You can't deny this!" Merlin argued. "It's happening a lot more, now." Merlin took a small step, inching forward, until his hips were just about in line to press up against Arthur's, and Arthur took in a stuttered breath. Merlin could feel the heat in his wrist, and Merlin glanced at it, snugly circled within Arthur's fingers. Arthur's eyes went wide for a moment, and he dropped Merlin's hand, and Merlin suspected he'd felt it too. Merlin looked at Arthur, grinning wickedly. "Like right now."

"No, Merlin," Arthur answered in a breath, sounding less resolved than before. "Well, yes, fine, you can tell," he spat, clearly annoyed. "But that doesn't mean anything is going to happen. I won't let it happen. Not like this."

Merlin finally pressed up again Arthur, releasing a happy sigh when Arthur closed his eyes, trying not to shudder. "I don't understand," Merlin said. "You want me, I want you, what the bloody hell are you going on about?"

Arthur's eyes flew open, and he placed a hand on Merlin's hip, pushing him away a little bit. The man had some resolve to him, Merlin thought.

Arthur shook his head. "You're not a whore, Merlin."

Merlin's body jerked at that, his eyes narrowing and he took his own step back, with no help but by Arthur's words. "What the fuck?" he asked, scowling.

"I won't treat you like one," Arthur said. He pushed off the fridge, stepping closer to Merlin but Merlin backed away. They danced that dance until Merlin's back bumped up against the edge of the island. Arthur's eyes were dark and intense as he looked right into Merlin's. "You're acting like this is just -- like part of the contract."

Merlin hissed, "It is, you idiot."

Arthur shook his head. "No, it's really not. Not to me. That was never really my choice, was it?"

"I'm not your boyfriend," Merlin snapped, the first words that came to his head, as stupid and obvious as they were.

Arthur snorted. "No, you're really not."

"And I'm not your lover." Merlin didn't even know what that word really meant, in the world of grown ups. He'd had a fuck buddy for a brief time, and a couple of one night stands. Nothing that was significant, nothing that was more, and he didn't even really understand what it was that Arthur meant.

Arthur shook his head again. "No, you're not." But Merlin swore he heard a lingering not yet lacing the words, and he didn't know what to do with that.

"This is only for three more weeks, you know that, right?" Merlin said, almost desperately. Making sure that Arthur understood before anything happened. "Tell me you know that."

"I know it."

"Well, that's all that's left, so if you're expecting some romance and roses--"

Arthur's laugh cut him off. "Do I really seem the type?"

Merlin shook his head. "No, you don't," he said. He frowned, trying to back away further as Arthur took his turn to inch closer to him, one hand still on his hip, his thumb having somehow found its way under Merlin's shirt, soft against his skin. He frowned. "So what is this, then?"

Arthur tilted his head, looking at Merlin. "I don't know," he said, which wasn't at all reassuring nor did it explain anything to Merlin. Arthur brought a hand up to Merlin face, very lightly cupping his cheek. Arthur's thumb rubbed soft and tickling, like the tip of a feather, over the ridge of Merlin's cheekbone.

Merlin tried to remain resolved, tried to match Arthur with sureness. But the touch was intimate, and weird, and it made Merlin's insides squirm. After a few moments, he flinched away.

Arthur's hand dropped and he stepped away from Merlin, and it felt like he took all the heat in the room with him. There was an infuriatingly knowing smirk on Arthur's face as he said, "But whatever it could be, you're not ready for it. Drop it, Merlin."

And with that, Arthur stalked out of the kitchen, going into the living room.

Merlin stood there, weight still leaned against the counter. He took in a shuddering breath; his stomach was doing funny little tumbles. "What the fuck?" he muttered to himself, running shaking hands over his face and through his hair. He bent down and picked the leather band off the floor, putting it back on his wrist. He glanced over his shoulder, and could see Arthur's silhouette as he stood in front of the telly, likely with the remote in his hand.

"Oh, sod it," Merlin muttered to himself, pushing himself off the counter. He walked towards the living room, announcing himself with a very loud, and confident, "Look here, Arthur Pendragon."

Arthur turned around, facing Merlin, a smirk on his face. "Yes?"

Merlin walked right up to him, again stepping into his space. He rested a hand on Arthur's shoulder; the other man just glanced at it, seemingly blasé about it. Merlin's lips were set in a very serious, determined line. "I will have you know, I can handle anything you're willing to give."

Arthur took in a deep breath, expelling it quickly and his shoulders sagged. He hissed out, "Oh, thank fuck," before surging forward, his lips crushing against Merlin's.

Merlin moaned a little as Arthur's lips pressed firmly against his. Merlin's hands moved up, settling on Arthur's strong shoulders, while Arthur's rested on Merlin's hips. Merlin sighed happily against Arthur's mouth, revelling in finally having its warmth against his own. There was a burst of pleasure there, of claiming, of finally having the physical touch what he had wanted for weeks.

Arthur's tongue darted forward, just a little, but confident as it swept against the seam of Merlin's lips and Merlin easily opened up to him. He moaned as Arthur's tongue slid against his own. Arthur pushed on Merlin's hips a little, stepping forward into him, and Merlin didn't seem to have a choice but to step back. Arthur walked him backwards until Merlin gave a little umph into Arthur's mouth as he bumped against the wall. Arthur's kisses were hard, with an urgent edge, something desperate in them, and Merlin responded in kind. He felt that way too.

When Arthur broke their kiss, finally releasing Merlin's lips from his own, Merlin gave a shaky puff of breath and gasped a little as Arthur's lips dragged down over his jaw. Merlin tilted his head back and Arthur gently latched on to a tender spot on Merlin's neck.

"Fuck," Merlin breathed out. Arthur made an affirmative noise but didn't stop the trail of kisses that peppered against the column of Merlin's throat.

Merlin's hands, shaking, started to undo the front buttons of Arthur's shirt, wanting to get at the skin he'd never even been allowed to glimpse before. Arthur pressed another kiss to Merlin's mouth, and let go of Merlin's hips so he could reach behind his back, grabbing at the cuffs of his shirt to pull down off his arms, letting it fall to the floor behind him. He kissed Merlin again, not even giving Merlin a chance to really look.

Merlin's hands immediately moved to roam over the smooth, hard muscles of Arthur's chest. But Arthur broke their kiss again, pulling back and grabbing the hem of Merlin's tee. He said, breathless, "Yours." Merlin tilted his back up off the wall and lifted his arms so that Arthur could drag the shirt up over his head.

"Jesus," Arthur whispered as he leaned back so that he could take in the sight of Merlin. Merlin knew he wasn't much, all pale skin and bones. But he could feel the heat of a blush rise beneath his skin at the look Arthur was giving him; the way his eyes gazed over his body, as if he could just devour Merlin, as if he was something maybe a bit beautiful.

Merlin couldn't take that look, didn't want to be faced with it head-on like that, but he didn't want to let go either.

Merlin reached out his hands, placing them on Arthur's strong arms, trying to pull him forward. "Arthur," he said, his fingertips flexing into Arthur's skin. Arthur came willingly, hands palming Merlin's ribs before slipping around to his back, pulling him close so that their chests were flush up against each other, hands rubbing over his spine. One of Merlin's hands tangled into the blond hair at the nape of Arthur's neck, tugging ever so slightly, trying to tilt his head back just so. Arthur allowed it, and moaned as Merlin's tongue glided into his mouth for the first time, tip flicking against the roof of it. But the noise that Arthur was making -- soft, wanting, almost inaudible from the back of his throat -- left Merlin feeling breathless, as if something had wrapped around his ribs and started to squeeze.

Merlin pulled away from Arthur, head thudding against the wall, trying to gasp for some air. But there wasn't relief for long, Arthur's lips chasing after his again. But it was softer now, less desperate, more exploring, and Merlin found he didn't mind. He didn't mind at all.

Merlin was quickly convinced he could kiss Arthur forever. Because as much as he liked the feel of hard muscle encased in soft skin under his hand, or the feel of that silky hair soft between his fingers, nothing compared to the feel of Arthur's mouth. The ever-so-subtle changes in pressure, the way his soft lips fit perfect between Merlin's, the light nip of the teeth that took Merlin's bottom lip between them. But, mostly, the way it made Merlin feel; dizzy and lightheaded, lost in a cloud of gentle pleasure that was building at his core. His hands had to hold on to Arthur, for if they didn't his shaky knees would give out under him and he'd be falling, falling, falling down. He thought, fleetingly, that maybe he already was.

Arthur finally released Merlin from the capture of his kisses, Arthur's forehead leaning down against Merlin's bony shoulder. "Fuck," Arthur huffed out, hot breath hitting Merlin's skin, causing a shiver to ripple through Merlin's entire body.

"Yes, that," Merlin agreed, pressing his lips against Arthur's temple. "We really need to get to that."

Arthur's shoulders shook with a small chuckle. "Oh, we will. There's a lot to do before we get there."

"Blow-jobs," Merlin agreed crassly. One hand cradled Arthur's head, the other ran slowly up and down Arthur's back. "You owe me a blow-job."

Arthur pulled back a bit, one eyebrow raised as he looked at Merlin. Merlin's breath caught in his throat; Arthur looked devastatingly gorgeous right then, blond hair mussed and cheeks flushed pink and lips swollen red. It didn't stop him from smirking, though. "Is that so?"

Merlin tried to smirk back, but he felt it was shaky and didn't do the trick, as it should've. "Yeah," he answered, voice rough. "I won the game, remember?"

"Hmm, I recall mentioning that I didn't accept that wager," Arthur said. But he leaned in, kissed Merlin's chin, then moved down to his collarbone, tonguing at the dip there, causing Merlin to gasp and squirm. "But I'm not exactly one to back out of anything, am I?"

Merlin couldn't breathe as Arthur's kisses started to trail down a bit, little licks and nips across his chest. Merlin moaned when Arthur took one of his nipples in his mouth, tongue laving at it lazily, finally biting down softly. Arthur's hands moved down to the waist of Merlin's jeans, thumbing open the button and pulling down the zip.

"Arthur," Merlin gasped quietly, hand tangling in the hair atop Arthur's head. "You don't -- I'm the one whose supposed to--"

"I want to," Arthur kissed into his stomach. "So shut up."

Merlin nodded, mind going so foggy with lust he almost forgot there were rules; rules and conditions that he and Arthur had to follow. There was a desperate thrumming through him, a longing and need to just let go, when Arthur's hands pulled down Merlin's jeans and boxers, his erection finally being freed. Arthur was on his knees, about to take Merlin's cock in his hand, when Merlin tugged a little too hard on his hair, remembering those rules.

"Arthur, wait," Merlin said, ripping the unwanted words from deep inside. "We have to -- condoms. The contract. You can't just--"

"Shit," Arthur said, forehead leaning against Merlin's hip.

"Yeah," Merlin agreed. "Mouths, dicks, arses. I'm sorry, but we have to--"

"No, no, it's. Good, yeah." Arthur took in a couple deep breaths before leaning back. "Right. My room, I'll go get--"

"My back pocket," Merlin instructed. Arthur looked up at him and raised an eyebrow, but reached behind Merlin and dug his hands into the jeans' pockets, pulling out two foil wrappers -- one purple and one red.

"You've been carrying these around?"

Merlin smirked down at him. "For weeks. I knew you'd give in eventually."

"I do believe it's you who gave in," Arthur said, returning to his pompous attitude. He was leaning back on his haunches and he eyed the condom wrappers. He gave Merlin a wry look. "Flavoured? Really?"

Merlin shrugged. "Well, if we have to suck on it, may as well have taste, yeah?"

"At least it doesn't glow in the dark," Arthur muttered, but he ripped open the purple pack. And, really, when he slid the condom onto Merlin's dick, that was the end of that conversation. There was no need for any more words, not with Merlin's head tilted back against the wall, eyes shut tight, and Arthur's warm mouth taking him in.

Arthur was slow at first, teasing, just tonguing around the crown of Merlin's prick. His hand took the base of Merlin's cock firmly, little tiny movements as he focussed on using his tongue to drive Merlin positively crazy. He licked up the shaft, nuzzled and kissed all along it. Merlin groaned, tugging ever so slightly at Arthur's hair, but he would not be persuaded to go any quicker, the bastard. Finally, he took Merlin's length in, moving his mouth down, forming a perfect seal around it. His tongue rubbed along the vein that throbbed along the underside, and twirled all around.

When Merlin looked down, his breath hitched and he knew he wouldn't last very much longer. It was like three weeks of wank fantasies rolled into one, but it was real now, so very real. Arthur's hair askew, sticking in every direction, especially with Merlin's hand buried into it. Arthur's red lips stretched around Merlin's cock, his head bobbing up and down. He glanced up at Merlin through pale eyelashes, pupils blown so wide with arousal there was barely any blue left to them.

"I'm gonna--" Merlin choked out. His hips stuttered a little, though he tried hard not to just thrust fully into Arthur's mouth.

Arthur's eyes closed and he moaned, fingernails digging into Merlin's hip, urging him forward. He took Merlin's length into his mouth, swallowing around him, hand on the base of him pumping faster. Merlin let out a gurgled gasp, the coil that had been tightening in his stomach springing, and he groaned as he jerked forward when he came.

Arthur milked him through it, and when he knew Merlin was spent, pulled off of him. Merlin looked down, saw his lips shiny with spit, and for half an instant imagined what those lips would look like with a streak of come across them. Though, that didn't matter really, because Arthur was gorgeous just the way he was.

Merlin's head fell back to the wall, his hands pressed up against it to prevent himself from sliding down. "God," he muttered.

Arthur had stood up, and grabbed a tissue from the box that always sat on the little table by the television. Returning to Merlin, he carefully took off the condom, did the little clean up necessary, and tucked Merlin back into his pants.

"Youth these days," Arthur mentioned, though his voice was rough and thick with lust. "No stamina."

Merlin's eyes flew open to glare at him, but all he saw was the want on Arthur's face. He opened his mouth to make a retort but Arthur didn't give him a chance, quickly swooping in to kiss him deeply again. Merlin made a bit of a noise -- not quite disappointed, but Arthur certainly didn't taste like grape and he definitely didn't taste like Arthur. Merlin's tongue delved into Arthur's mouth, trying to lick away the fake taste of the condom, wanting to clean him out thoroughly until he was Arthur again.

Arthur straddled one of Merlin's legs, the bulge in the front of his denims pressing urgently against Merlin's hip. Merlin broke away from the kiss, asking, "I want to -- what do you want?"

"Kissing," Arthur breathed against his mouth, eyes looking into Merlin's intensely. "Why the hell can't I stop kissing you?"

"I don't know--" Merlin's words were muffled by Arthur's lips again, and Merlin really couldn't bring himself to get Arthur to stop, because he was him again and he was delicious; warm and spicy and just what Merlin wanted.

Merlin hands scrabbled down to the zip of Arthur's jeans, pushing down his pants. Arthur's cock was freed and the sweet hot skin pressed against Merlin's hip.

Merlin pulled away from Arthur. "Wait," he said, and he brought his hand up to his mouth, licking at his palm. Arthur watched, transfixed, his breath hitching when Merlin sucked on his own fingers.

When satisfied he was slick enough, Merlin reached down and Arthur groaned as he took Arthur's cock into his hand. Arthur set up an easy rhythm then, tongue thrusting into Merlin's mouth, hips jerking in time while his cock slid through the tunnel of Merlin's hand. Merlin squeezed lightly, twisted his wrist, flicked his thumb over the leaking tip, finding out what Arthur liked, using the gasps and groans that vibrated through his lips and into Merlin to gauge it.

Finally, Arthur pulled away from Merlin, head coming down to rest on his shoulder, panting heavily against Merlin's skin. He'd lost his rhythm, his hips jerking more frantically, and Merlin moved his hand quicker to match the new pace.

Merlin said, mouth by Arthur's ear, "Come on, Arthur. Come for me." Arthur groaned, and with a grunt, he came all over Merlin's hand.

They stood like that for a few moments, Merlin sagging against the wall and only held up because Arthur's body pinned him there. Arthur was leaning against Merlin, forehead now against the wall next to Merlin's head. Merlin's free hand absently patted over the sweaty, cooling skin of Arthur's back, and they each took time to catch their breath.

Arthur hissed as Merlin let go of his softened cock. Merlin said, "You need to move off me a bit, yeah?" And although Arthur grunted, he did, just stepping away a fraction. Merlin leaned down and picked up Arthur's discarded shirt, to use it to clean himself.

"Oh, sure, dirty my clothes," Arthur said sarcastically, though he'd taken it from Merlin and was using it to carefully wipe the come off Merlin's hand.

"I think you threw mine somewhere over there," Merlin said, waving a hand in the direction of the far end of the living room. "Not my fault."

"Hmm." When Arthur finished cleaning off Merlin's hand, he used a clean edge of the shirt to wipe himself off, then tucked himself back in, zipping up his jeans. He threw the shirt over his shoulder, tossing it somewhere to join Merlin's, and Merlin grinned at that.

Arthur said, "Fuck, I need to sit down."

"That good, was it?" Merlin said cheekily. He let Arthur tug on his arm, leading him over to the sofa.

"You know it was, so don't get all smug," Arthur said, though there was a bit of fondness to his words. He flopped onto the couch, but rolled over to his side and pushed up against the cushion, leaving room from Merlin. He reached his hand, fingers gesturing through the air, beckoning Merlin to him. "Come on."

It was the part that Merlin wasn't sure about, didn't know how to navigate at all. But he pushed his shoulders back and took a deep breath; he told Arthur he would be able to handle it, and he would. He stretched out on the sofa next to Arthur, thin frame fitting just perfectly as he stared up at the ceiling.

Arthur didn't do anything, though, didn't even touch him. He had his head propped up and rested on his hand, the other stretched out and resting on the length of his own body.

Merlin glanced up at him, smirking suggestively. "You still need to fuck me, you know."

Arthur barked out laughter as he glanced down with a smile on his face. "It's definitely on my list of things to do tonight. Give me an hour, would you?"

"An hour?" Merlin said, with a playful pout. "I'll be ready in ten minutes."

"Ten minutes! Someone thinks quite highly of himself."

"Youth these days," Merlin said, mocking Arthur's own tone. "Exceptional recovery time."

"Why you--" Arthur said playfully, his hand coming down to push gently on Merlin's side. "I should roll you right off the sofa."

"But you won't," Merlin said confidently, catching Arthur's hand with his own.

"Nah, I won't," Arthur said, a little bit too gently for their playing. Merlin glanced up at him, unsure of what Arthur meant, unsure of what to say back. But when Arthur leaned down to press an almost-chaste kiss to Merlin's lips, Merlin couldn't stop the happy sigh from escaping him.

Really, this part wasn't all that bad. It might even be worth it all, if he could get used to it. But he was certain, with Arthur, he'd be able to. Merlin just hope he didn't get so lost he couldn't find his way back again. But he pushed the thought from his mind and focused on the here and now, and only thought about Arthur.

Merlin was rather convinced that Arthur was going to have a bit of an episode about what had happened between them, that they'd begun shagging. Arthur, who had been so determined not to use Merlin, not because of the contract or his father's intent, or even Merlin's horny behaviour. Merlin thought that the day after that first time, Arthur was going to feel guilty and renege on his actions, claim that he'd had a moment of weakness and swear off on it completely.

But he hadn't. If anything, Arthur became even more certain in his choice to move them to a new level. There was sureness in every look, confidence in every touch, eagerness in every kiss. He had made his decision and he was going to stand by it. And Merlin couldn't help but be swept up in it, in the thought that everything was fine, that they were doing this and it was natural and fun and, even though it was only for the short term, they'd both be able to handle it.

Merlin had been wrong.

It hadn't been after the first night, when they'd explored each other until they were exhausted. Or even the next, a lazy casual Sunday with some shopping and a film at the cinema, nothing that had been any different from previous weekends, not until they'd got home after the supper hour and had a repeat of the previous night. The next day had Arthur at work all day, and Merlin did what he usually did: some revision, gone for a walk, spoke to Freya on the phone, exchanged emails with Will for a bit. Arthur had worked late and when he'd returned home, it had a bit of a desperate edge to it, quick and dirty and positively delightful, causing Arthur to fall into an obviously much-needed deep sleep before he had to wake up and do it all over again.

But things were different the following night -- Arthur was different. And Merlin couldn't help but wonder if he had done something wrong, though he quickly learned what had happened.

Arthur had come in, as he always did from work, and made himself a cup of tea. Merlin had been watching some telly and called out a hello, with little but a grunt back. When Arthur didn't come to see Merlin, to squeeze his shoulder or even give him a peck on the cheek, Merlin wondered if something was wrong.

He went into the kitchen and saw Arthur leaning against the counter, holding his mug, but he looked like he was staring into space.


Arthur looked up at Merlin. "Oh, hello."

"Hi," Merlin said, and he stepped forward, leaning against the counter beside Arthur. He kept a bit of distance thought, gave Arthur some space -- he'd come to Merlin, if he wanted. But Merlin frowned. "Everything okay today?"

"A long day."

"So it seems. Can I -- can I do something?"

Arthur shook his head. "No, I'm just going to go to bed early."

"All right," Merlin said. He reached out to touch Arthur's shoulder, to give a comforting squeeze.

But as soon as Merlin touched him, Arthur shrugged his shoulder and said, a bit sharply, "Don't."

A sting bit into Merlin's wrist, from his clip, and it was so unexpected that Merlin couldn't help but jerk his hand away, a small hiss making its way past his lips.

Arthur noticed. "Oh god, Merlin, I didn't mean for that--" He put his mug down on the counter and reach out for Merlin's clipped hand, but Merlin jerked it away.

"I'm fine," Merlin said, trying to keep his voice even. It wasn't his wrist that hurt him the most; he was bothered by the fact that it happened at all. It hadn't done that, not with Arthur, for quite some time and it was a bit of a shock to have it happen again. He said, "Obviously, tonight isn't a good night. I'll leave you alone."

He turned to walk away when Arthur sighed and said, "My father and I had a conversation today."

That caused Merlin to pause, curious. Arthur didn't mention his father much to Merlin; Merlin knew Arthur saw Uther almost daily, at work. He knew that Arthur had tried to talk to his father to get them out of the contract at the beginning. And Arthur had told Merlin that his father was aware he knew about Merlin being clipped -- apparently, Arthur had quite a heated discussion about it, about treating someone like Merlin like that. (Merlin pointed out that treating anyone like that wasn't right, and that had promptly shut Arthur up, but Merlin knew that's what Arthur thought too.) Since then, there had barely been a word about Uther Pendragon.

Merlin asked, "What did you talk about?"

"You," Arthur said flatly.

"Oh?" Merlin couldn't tell if that was a good or a bad thing but he wanted to know what had been spoken about.

"Yes," Arthur said. "My father wanted to let me know how glad he was now that I seemed so -- happy. He's attributing that to you--" Arthur sounded a bit unimpressed "-- and he's happy he made such a wise investment on my behalf."


"Well -- you are happy, aren't you?" Merlin asked. "Because you told me you were fine with our arrangement. You didn't have to -- we really didn't have to, you know. If you didn't want. And we can stop--"

"-- No. That's. No, I don't want to stop." Arthur ran a hand through his hair, and for the first time, he looked to have a haunting of guilt in his eyes.

"Then I think it's okay to feel the way you do -- good, I mean -- if it's what you want," Merlin pointed out.

Arthur sighed. "It's not how I would -- he shouldn't talk about you like you're -- this isn't how I normally do things."

Merlin snorted. "Obviously."

"Hey, I'm trying to do the best I can, here."

Merlin smiled at him. "You are, and we talked about this, and you said you would be fine with it. You were convinced I was the one who wouldn't be able to handle it. Maybe you should have thought it through about yourself better--"

"-- I can handle it just fine," Arthur cut him off, scowling.

"Maybe we should talk about it, though," Merlin suggested. If it was what helped Arthur to become comfortable again after his father spooked him. "You and me. We're, you know."


"A lot," Merlin said. "And that's it. That's the contract."

"Right," Arthur said, a bit stiffly. "And we're -- what do you call us?"

"You're my client and I'm your companion."

Arthur made a face. "I hate that."

"It is what it is," Merlin said. "And how we act with each other -- well, we can keep going like we have been. Or it can be a bit more," Merlin searched for the right words, "business-like."

"Oh, god, no," Arthur said, shaking his head. "That's exactly what I don't want."

"Good. I thought we had it sorted pretty well," Merlin pointed out. "But if you want to change things, let me know."

"Why do I have to make these decisions?"

"You're the client--"

"-- stop," Arthur said, stepping towards Merlin. He reached out a hand, a little hesitant, but placed it on Merlin's hip. "Let's just forget that I said anything tonight, that my father said anything today, and we'll just keep this between you and me, yeah?"

Merlin nodded. "I can do that." He stepped closer to Arthur, grin slipping into something a bit more seductive. "Tonight, then, we'll be --"

"-- Sleeping," Arthur answered. He leaned in and softly kissed the smirk off Merlin's face. He pulled back a little and rested his forehead onto Merlin's shoulder. "I'm absolutely knackered. It's been a really long day."

"All right," Merlin said, and tried to carefully step away. "I'll leave you alone--"

"No," Arthur said, his hand gripping Merlin's hip a bit tighter, and the other one went around to Merlin's back, fingers gripping in Merlin's hoodie as he pulled him closer. Arthur breathed against Merlin's neck, "Stay in my room anyway?"

"I will," Merlin said, leaning his head against Arthur's. He wouldn't think of saying or doing otherwise, if it was what Arthur wanted.

But he wasn't a bit surprised, when in bed later, the clip around Merlin's wrist started to slowly heat, something that gave Merlin a bit of reassurance. It was then that Arthur curled around him, hand drifting low on Merlin's body. Merlin breath hitched and he turned his head, meeting soft kisses that became a lot more needier, and quickly.

And Merlin could admit to himself that that made him feel a lot more comfortable than if they gone straight to sleep. He probably would've been the one to start to have doubts about their arrangement if it started to become anything else.

Merlin was sitting at the kitchen table, little red netbook sitting out before him.

Arthur had brought the tiny computer home for him a couple days earlier, saying that it had been a promotional item he received at work but really didn't need. Merlin had been a bit skeptical of that, as he'd insisted many times that Arthur not gift him with anything, but it was red and if anyone knew Arthur even a little bit they knew he liked red ties so why wouldn't he want a red netbook? Therefore, it probably really had been given to Arthur first. But Merlin had, for the most part, tuned Arthur out when he went on about who had given it to him and why; Arthur's work was, really, quite boring and often went over Merlin's head but Arthur never minded that Merlin would much rather talk about anything else -- it seemed Arthur often felt that way too.

Instead of listening to Arthur, Merlin had pulled the little netbook out of the case Arthur had brought it home in, ran his fingers over the smooth, shiny top, and opened it up. With a press of the power button, Merlin could feel his own face lighting up with that of the screen, a bright smile across as it flickered blue. He glanced up and saw that Arthur had stopped nattering and had a smile that probably reflected Merlin's own.

"Thank you," Merlin had said, earnestly, "it really is quite fantastic. It'll help with my revision, I'm sure."

"Well, you're welcome," Arthur had answered, a dismissive wave of his hand, as if it had been nothing when, in truth, it was the nicest thing ever given to Merlin. "At least it will keep you and your coffee away from the one in my office."

"I didn't spill any!"

"Yes, but we both know you will."

With a small shake of his head, Merlin had rolled his eyes. He had tried to hide a playful smile when he said, "This is nice, but the screen is awfully small. Your computer is much bigger--" in addition to his own laptop, Arthur had a mammoth Apple computer screen sitting on the desk in his home office "-- and is much better for watching all the porn I downloaded onto your hard drive." Arthur had blinked slowly at him, hand frozen on the knot of the tie he was undoing, and Merlin smiled cheekily. "In fact, we should go watch some right now!"

Merlin had darted up from the table and dashed away, laughing when he heard Arthur in quick pursuit; though Merlin zoomed right passed the office and ran into Arthur's bedroom, taking a flying leap and landing right in the middle of the large bed.

There had been much thank-you shagging that night, with absolutely no porn watching necessary.

Now, he was so engrossed in the tiny screen that he barely grunted a hello when Arthur returned home from work that evening, vaguely aware as Arthur moved around the flat in his post-work routine; dropping his keys in the bowl, hanging his coat, and putting the kettle on.

Arthur came into the dining room, sliding into the chair right next to Merlin, placing his mug in front of him so that his tea could cool. He rested his arm across the back of Merlin's chair, his fingers brushed against Merlin's shoulder. "Someone is being rather studious."

"Hmm?" Merlin said, barely turning his head in Arthur's direction, eyes remaining on the screen. "Arthur, did you know that magic -- real, honest magic -- didn't manifest until about the fifth or sixth century? There were stories and legends and beliefs going back much further than that, of course, in ancient times and all that. But actual magic didn't happen until then, they think, but they don't know why."

Arthur's fingertips stilled on Merlin's shoulder. "I had heard something like that before."

"There aren't that many records back then but there had always been persecutions. We know more about it with all the witch hunts in the 16th and 17th century. God, what they did to those people, all the burnings and drownings." An involuntary shudder went through Merlin's entire body when he thought about it, when the sketches and paintings he'd found online flashed through his mind. Arthur squeezed Merlin's shoulder. Merlin continued, "And then clipping was discovered in the 19th century, so that part stopped. At least in Western countries; it's not everywhere, there's still modern day witch hunts in some places, people with magic still being killed, just because … Well, remind me not to go there, ever, even though I can't even do anything."

Arthur's hand had remained curled around Merlin's shoulder, somewhat possessively, but it was a reassuring weight that grounded Merlin the more impassioned he became. "And there isn't any information anywhere about clips -- like who created it, or why, or how the government decided that would be the way to deal with," Merlin's hands lifted from his computer so he could air quote, "society's genetic abnormalities." He gestured angrily at the computer screen. "It's just rubbish, how no one cares."

"What site are you on?" Arthur asked, leaning over. He snorted. "Wikipedia? Really? You know anyone can go on there and change any information they want, yeah?"

"I searched everywhere else, it's all the same information I've found, just put in one spot here," Merlin countered. "There's barely anything out there about people like me. I mean I heard a lot of this before because, you know, it's my life, but you know what I'm going to be when I grow up? A historian. I'm going to learn everything about everything ever and then go onto the internet and fix all the idiocy that's found there."

"You will be very busy for a very long time," Arthur said dryly.

"I blame you and Gwen," Merlin grumbled, Arthur raised his eyebrows and Merlin explained. "For pushing this whole education thing on me. Making me read things and learn and know and care. I can't unknow what I know now! It's ridiculous."

"You're ridiculous. There's nothing wrong with knowing."

"Not when all I know is that everything is rubbish!" Merlin said, throwing up his hands. But then he lowered them to the keyboard and opened a new tab for a new search. "I'll dig until I find out more and then I'll, I don't know, broadcast it or something."

"You should start a blog," Arthur suggested. "Merlin's Blatherings -- with the tagline, ‘somewhere in all the rambling, there is actual truth'."

Merlin snorted and elbowed Arthur lightly in the ribs. "Shut up, you."

They were quiet for a few minutes, Arthur watching as Merlin clicked through various links, coming up with nothing but sighs and back buttons. Finally, Arthur asked, "Have you ever tried finding a way?"

"A way?"

"To get rid of it. To get it back."

Merlin glanced over at Arthur. "To get rid of the clip? To get my magic back?" Arthur nodded. Merlin shook his head and looked back at the screen. "There is no way," he said curtly. "It's permanent."

"Come on, I know there's a forum, you can maybe ask--"

Merlin's laugh cut him off. "How'd you know that? Have you been looking around?"

Arthur coughed. "Might've done, a bit."

"Well, I've looked at it too. It's full of trolls and people trying to scam you with ‘cures.' There is no way, Arthur." Merlin sighed. "I mean, I used to hope -- but, there's really not." He reconsidered for a moment. "Well, there is that one--"

Arthur said firmly, "No."

One of Merlin's eyebrows raised. "Ah, so you've heard."

"No," Arthur said again. "That is -- it's stupid. And completely accidental. And dangerous. And you have to die, you idiot."

There were a couple of stories -- fables, Merlin had believed for the longest time, tall tales that just couldn't be real. But when he got older, he heard about them more, and they were believed amongst the Clipped to be truth, and he had even found a couple of mentions of them in the stupid forum Arthur had mentioned. The only way to break a clip was death, which tricked it to thinking that when the body died, that magic was gone too. In a couple of cases, if the clipped person was revived, they'd came back with their magic but the clip wouldn't work anymore.

Merlin really wasn't an idiot. The very thought had intrigued him the moment he heard the stories, but it frightened him in equal measure. He also heard the stories about people who tried and then didn't come back because, well, they were dead. And as much as life sucked sometimes, that wasn't what Merlin was looking for.

"You don't have to worry," Merlin said, looking back to his computer. He spoke casually, because to him it was, since this wasn't anything he'd ever seriously consider. "I mean, I'm pretty incomplete without my magic and I'd want it back more than anything except for doing that. But there is no one in the world I would trust enough to take me to the brink of death and back just so I can be the most powerful being on earth, because that's pretty much why they clipped me in the first place, yeah? That's what the man who did it said, anyway. Though, it'd be brilliant to have my powers," he added, almost as an afterthought. "I bet I could do some pretty cool things with them. Like be a superhero or something. Oh!" Merlin opened a new tab and type in a search. "We should catch a film tonight, yeah? There's the new superhero one out I wanted to see, you like action and saving the day and such, don't you?"

For a moment, Merlin scrolled through, trying to find the local cinema in his search, but he had received no reply about the film. "Arthur?" He glanced over, and he saw that Arthur looked frozen, and his eyes were wide as he gaped at Merlin. Merlin stared into them, and he couldn't tell what was there -- shock, awe, disgust, or ... Merlin just didn't know.

He replayed his words in his head. "Oh. Oh. I --" Merlin tried not to blush, realising that his rambling mouth had got away from him yet again. "I freaked you out, didn't I? I didn't mean -- look, it's not like I'm dangerous or anything, I--"

In the same movement, Arthur's hand slipped to the back of Merlin's neck and he pulled Merlin's head forward while Arthur ducked in. Merlin released a surprised noise when their lips clashed together, but he eagerly kissed Arthur back, a desperate edge to it all. When Arthur broke away, he rested his forehead against Merlin's and breathed hotly against his mouth, "I'm going to find a way to get your magic back. Not just you but all of you." He pressed a quick kiss against Merlin's cheekbone. "But especially you."

"You're sweet--"

"I am not sweet," Arthur protested, pulling back with a scowl on his face.

"You are," he said, bumping his knee against Arthur's. Merlin smiled at him, genuine, but tried to make sure it wasn't too sad. "But you shouldn't get your hopes up." Merlin had gone through all this before, a long time ago, but he was over it; he'd moved on. But it was new to Arthur, and while it was the thought that counted, Merlin couldn't go through it again. And he'd hate to see Arthur disappointed.

"Well, I'm going to try," Arthur said stubbornly, picking up his cooled tea to take a sip. His fingers on the back of Merlin's neck rubbed lightly.

"Hmm," Merlin hummed noncommittally, looking back at the computer. "So film, yeah?"

"Yeah," Arthur agreed, standing up with his mug in hand. "I'll just go shower then we'll go. Don't suppose you'll join me?"

"No thanks," Merlin said, declining the shower offer as he did every other time. "But, hurry, if we want to make the early showing."

"Good point," Arthur said, taking his leave. He called over his shoulder as he made his way to his room, "Give me five."

"Sure," Merlin called back. He tried to bite back the taste rising up in his throat; hope, or sadness, he just couldn't tell anymore when Arthur muddled it all up for him.

Merlin closed all the tabs that had to do with magic.

Chapter Text

It was later that night, when they were in Arthur's bed, with Merlin on his back and Arthur's starting to push slowly inside him, that Merlin had a bit of a panic.

Merlin had reached up to push back the fringe of hair that was plastered to Arthur's forehead with damp sweat when Merlin noticed that the leather band had fallen off his wrist. Likely the snap had been accidentally undone while he and Arthur had been touching each other; playfully struggling and rolling around in the bed, before Arthur had taken his time preparing him and then flipping Merlin over onto his back. Merlin hadn't noticed until he reached up to Arthur. He could tell that Arthur had seen too, Merlin's wrist at Arthur's eye level, the runes etched in the silver and gold of the Clip catching the dim light filtering in through the curtains.

"I--" Merlin breathed out, startled. His hand pulled back, and the other hand that had been scrabbling at Arthur's back, trying to pull with each of Arthur's shallow thrusts, dropped down to the sheets. "Find, we need to find--" Merlin tried to prop himself up on one elbow, which was difficult with Arthur's weight bearing down on him, and Merlin couldn't help but moan when his body twisted a bit, Arthur's cock slipping into him even further.

"Merlin, wait. It's okay, stop--" Arthur tried to soothe him, though his words came out quick and stuttered, though his body had stilled.

Merlin's hand moved across the top of the sheets, his eyes frantically sweeping over the top of the bed, trying to find the dark band against the white. "I need," he repeated, his hand patting quickly on the mattress.

"Stop, it's..." His hand tried to catch up with Merlin's. Finally, he grabbed Merlin's wrist, fingers around the metal clip, and Merlin's breath hitched audibly in his throat. But quickly his fingers laced with Merlin's, and firmly but carefully moved their clasped hands so that Merlin's arm bent up at the elbow, and he pressed Merlin's hand into the mattress, right beside his head.

Merlin clamped Arthur's hand tight, fingernails pressing into skin just below the knuckles, the ring on Arthur's forefinger pressed tightly between two of Merlin's fingers. Merlin's breath was laboured, but it wasn't solely because of the way Arthur filled him or the way Arthur had been making him feel so turned on; now, there was an embarrassment edging into him, a fear even, that Arthur could see it, could see Merlin lain bare. He had no clothes on, and Arthur was in the midst of fucking him, but Merlin had never felt more naked than when he realised the leather band was missing.

Arthur leaned down, which slowly pressed him even deeper into Merlin, causing Merlin to gasp with it. Arthur cut it off when he kissed Merlin. "It's okay," he said against Merlin's lips. "It's fine. You're fine, yeah?" He voice was soft, concerned, but soothing.

It was grounding, Arthur pinning Merlin's hand down like that, not letting him move it or try to flinch away; the clip was warm and comforting, familiar in the way it always was when Arthur wanted him, took him. Merlin nodded, side of his nose brushing alongside Arthur's. "Yes. I'm... yes. Please, Arthur, please," Merlin said, whimpering slightly, free hand grasping at Arthur's bicep, urging him to move.

"God, yes," Arthur said lowly. He started to move his hips slowly, Merlin keening, back arching under the pressure as Arthur filled him. Arthur rested his cheek against Merlin's, soft encouraging words whispered into Merlin's ear as he rocked them both to the brink. Merlin's cock rubbed against their stomachs, and Merlin's fingers squeezed Arthur's hand tight when he came, a warm mess between them.

Arthur moaned as Merlin clenched around him. His hand was still tight around Merlin's but he levered himself up a bit, the weight balanced on it pushing his hand down on it even more. It might've been a little painful, if Merlin hadn't been caught up in an orgasmic glow, and with Arthur's snapping his hips quicker, everything was feeling too good to notice. Arthur soon pushed in deep with one final low groan, Merlin's body shaking with it, riding his own aftershocks still.

After they had caught their breath, and Arthur disposed of his condom and had quickly wiped Merlin with a tissue, they lay on the bed next to each other. Merlin was on his stomach, pillow bunched up under his head. He pressed his face into it, mostly hidden, though he watched Arthur with one eye. Arthur was on his side, facing Merlin, though he was a few inches away, space enough between that he could just look at Merlin.

They didn't speak at first, didn't touch, only watched each other. Merlin was feeling a little vulnerable, from the way he'd reacted when he'd noticed the missing band, but also by the way Arthur had been able to calm him so quickly with a soft word and gentle kiss. He didn't know how to process it, and all he wanted to do was burrow beneath the covers and hide from Arthur, but Arthur was watching him so intently, waiting for the first move or perhaps first word, that Merlin didn't try. He knew Arthur wouldn't let him get away with it.

Merlin shifted a bit, to make himself more comfortable, and it ended up that his clipped wrist settled on the mattress between them. And, all right, perhaps it had been on purpose; Merlin wanted to see what Arthur would say or do.

Arthur's gaze had immediately gone to it, figuring out it was there for him. He was still for a moment, but he slowly reached out with his own hand, fingertips tapping on the mattress right beside Merlin's wrist. Merlin's entire body was tense, and he forced himself to breathe, but he didn't let himself jerk away. He could see red marks, like an erratic pattern of crescent moons, along the back of Arthur's hand where Merlin's fingernails had dug into him.

Arthur said, voice so soft Merlin could barely hear it, "It really is a part of you." He brushed his fingertips against Merlin's skin, over the clip, but there wasn't even a little bump or raise there. It was smooth, as though the metal was Merlin's skin.

"Yes," Merlin answered, muffled a bit with part of his mouth pushed into the pillow.

"No taking it off, then."


Arthur was quiet for a moment, eyes intense as his fingers continued to stroke over Merlin's wrist, as light as a feather. "Why you?" he finally asked. He dragged his gaze up to meet Merlin's. "Magic, I mean. Powers."

Merlin shrugged halfheartedly. He moved his head a bit, so he could speak more clearly, though he tore his eyes away from Arthur and rather watched the slight ripples in the muscle of Arthur's forearm with his movements as he gently rubbed over the clip. "They say sometimes it just happens, but mostly they think it's genetic. But I don't know because I don't know anything about my dad."

"Your mother didn't tell you anything?"

"Not really. Just that I have his name, sort of."

"Sort of?" Arthur asked. "His name was Merlin too?"

Merlin shook his head, though the gesture probably didn't have the same affect with the way he was lying. "No, that was after something else. She said something about his first name being my last name? Balinson. Hers was Emerson, so ..." Merlin could only smile a bit. "She had reasons, I was too young to understand. I think she wanted to honour him, somehow."

"Maybe you're the son of Balin," Arthur suggested, but he frowned. "Won't make it easy to find out who he is."

"I don't plan to," Merlin said. "Doesn't matter anymore."

"Sure it does," Arthur countered. "You'll want to ask him questions when you get your powers back."

"Arthur," Merlin said, trying hard not to scold, but he didn't think he had the strength to deal with that topic right then.

"Let me believe this for you," Arthur said, voice not allowing for argument, so Merlin didn't even bother to reply. He just reached up, about to finally push that stray fringe off Arthur's forehead, when Arthur caught Merlin's hand in his as it neared his face. He leaned forward, just a bit, nose nuzzling against the underside of Merlin's wrist, and he planted a light kiss against the smooth warm metal, mouthing at it slightly.

Merlin's breath caught in his throat; it was much more an intimate moment than any he'd experienced before, and it meant so much more than any of Arthur's words or promises. It sent something shooting thought him, heated and bewildered, and he couldn't help but flinch a bit, pull his hand back. Arthur let him, eyes flashing something so quickly that Merlin couldn't tell what it was.

But he didn't pull away completely, just letting his hand drop to Arthur's chest, brushing the back of his finger's over the light, coarse hair there. That elicited a smile from Arthur, at least, which was good because Merlin didn't think he could take an upset or disappointed look right then.

"Come here," Arthur said quietly, shifting to roll on his back and nodding a gesture for Merlin to move over to him. But Arthur paused as he made a surprised noise, and his hand reached behind him, and pulled back up with Merlin's leather band caught between his fingers. Arthur smiled brightly at Merlin. "Found it," he declared unnecessarily.

Merlin rolled his eyes as he propped his upper body up on an elbow. "Thank you, Mr. Obvious," he said dryly, and reached out to grab it.

"Here, let me," Arthur said, easily grabbing at Merlin's forearm. He lowered Merlin's hand so that it rested on his chest, and he used both hands to carefully put the band around Merlin's wrist, snapping it shut tight.

It was with the little audible 'click' that Merlin could feel the tension he hadn't realised he still had drain from his body. He felt more comfortable, at ease, with it back to where it belonged; Merlin couldn't remember a time since he was eight years old that something hadn't sat there, protecting him from others knowing what he was, what was done to him. And even though Arthur knew, it was still something Merlin needed.

"Thank you," Merlin said, relieved, and smiled happily at Arthur.

"Not a problem," Arthur said casually, but Merlin knew from his sharp look there was something on his mind. Still, Merlin sighed and shifted over, and Arthur didn't say anything else as he wrapped his arms around Merlin's shoulders. Merlin used Arthur's chest as a pillow, and his hand rested on Arthur's stomach, leather band rubbing slightly as Merlin's fingertips drummed a restless beat there, but they both soon drifted off to sleep.

In the morning, Arthur's alarm clock blared at the ungodly hour that it was set at when he had to get up to get ready for work. Arthur reached over Merlin's body, jostling him on purpose like he had become accustomed to every other morning, as he turned off the alarm. Arthur nuzzled his nose behind Merlin's ear, licking lightly at the shell of it.

"Hmm," Merlin grumbled unhappily, reaching up to bat at Arthur's face.

Arthur laughed, breath puffing against the side of Merlin's face. "Not getting up to shower with me then?" he asked. But he rolled the other way, getting out of bed before even waiting for an answer, for it was the same every morning -- no, you prat, I'm sleeping.

But it was after only a couple moments that Merlin could hear Arthur moving around and the light from the loo shone into the bedroom when Arthur turned it on. Merlin's eyes blinked open, trying to rid themselves of tiredness. He threw the covers off of himself, muttering as he pushed himself up, "Stupid, stupid git."

He entered the bathroom just as Arthur was about to get into the shower with its running water. He blinked at Merlin, surprised. "You're up."

Merlin nodded at him and hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "Today. Things to -- go. And stuff."

Arthur said wryly, "No wonder you sleep as much as possible. You make absolutely no sense this time of day."

Merlin scowled at him. "Shut up. Your offer?"

Arthur tilted his head to the side, eyebrows raised. "Still stands."

Merlin nodded. And then he reached down and unsnapped the band from his wrist, flinging it onto the counter. He looked at Arthur while he scrubbed a hand over his stubble. "Right. Yeah."

"Shower," Arthur said firmly, reaching out to Merlin, and Merlin was just grateful he didn't make a big deal out of it. Instead, Arthur smirked at him. "If I would've known you were joining me, I would've got us up twenty minutes earlier."

Merlin groaned. "Why am I doing this?" he muttered unhappily, though he stepped into the shower carefully. "Is there a coffee pot in here?"

Arthur's booming laughter bouncing off the ceramic tile walls woke Merlin up easier than the water did, and he even smiled at it.

The sky was overcast, but the clouds were a light gray, not threatening any rain to pour down on them quite yet. Merlin was sitting on the pavement, back against the brick wall of the shop, with his knees pulled up in front of him, chin rested on them as he spoke with Freya. Freya was sitting on the edge of her tattered little blanket, angled so that she could speak with Merlin but still keep an eye on her jewellery and any potential buyers who might walk by.

It had taken some convincing on the phone for her to agree to let him visit with her. She still rang every couple of days or so, though she never asked to see him -- they both knew that it would be frowned down upon if Aredian knew Merlin did so while he was 'working.' However, it was Arthur that consistently encouraged Merlin to see his friend, and Merlin had told her it would be all right, since Arthur approved. Not that Merlin put it that way, because Arthur would only scowl and scold him for it.

Freya was looking at him thoughtfully, head tilted to the side. "What?" he asked.

"You look ... different."

"Arthur bought me new clothes. I'm paying him back," Merlin added on quickly. "I mean, it's not like he has to or anything, and I don't want him doing it, but." Merlin shrugged. "I suppose it's not a bad thing, though."

"No, I don't suppose it is," Freya agreed. "But I mean, you look -- better. Not that you didn't look perfectly nice before," she said, a slight blushed creeping to her cheeks.

Merlin smirked playfully. "That's nice of you, but you know that I prefer men, yeah?"

"That's not what I meant." She batted her hand through the air at him, shaking her head. She tucked a strand of her dark brown hair behind her ear. "You look -- rested. And like you're actually having some decent meals."

"Arthur makes me eat all the time. It's like -- he seriously rings from work to make sure I've had breakfast for the day." Merlin rolled his eyes. "It's a bit ridiculous, actually."

"That's sweet. So he likes you then?"

"What? No. I mean -- we get on all right. We've come to an agreement that we're just -- going to follow the contract," Merlin said, and there was a slight blush threatening to crawl to his own face, which was just silly considering how blatant he'd been the last time he'd seen Freya about wanting it to be that way. And he'd already mentioned it on the phone. But it felt a little different, seeing her and talking about it, now that it was actually happening.

"And that's going -- well?" she asked tentatively, looking far more embarrassed than Merlin probably did.

He laughed a little and ducked his head, but he couldn't stop the smile from tugging at one corner of his mouth. "Yeah, that's -- there's no problems there, that's for sure."

"And he treats you well, otherwise? Buys you clothes and feeds you properly and all that."

Merlin nodded. "Yeah. It could've been a lot worse. I'm glad it's not."

"I'm glad it's not too," Freya agreed. Her hands picked at little pills of lint that clung to the blanket, and she looked at him with curious eyes. "Do you think he might want this again?"

"He's kind of against the idea as a whole, I think. So ... well, I'm not sure. We haven't talked about it."

"Do you want him too?"

Merlin sighed and shrugged one shoulder. "It'd -- well, it'd be nice."

"You do like him," Freya said. It wasn't an accusation, but gentle and a bit concerned.

"I don't not like him," Merlin said, closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the brick wall. "I don't mind him." Merlin had decided to not let himself think of the arrangement -- the contract -- as anything more than it was. It'd be easier that way, when it all came to an end.

Freya just gave a soft hmm under her breath.

Merlin scowled at her. "You don't believe me."

"It's not that," Freya said. "I just think that it might be more. Which is a good thing, because if he feels the same, then he'll want to have you again. And that would be really good for you."

"Yeah," Merlin said softly. "Guess we'll see."

"Would it upset you if he didn't?"

"I don't know," Merlin said, torn with how to think about it. Merlin would possibly want this again, if only with Arthur; but something that made Arthur Arthur was that he didn't want those circumstance. "Maybe we shouldn't talk about this."

"Right, of course," Freya said immediately. Merlin knew she wouldn't be one to press when he didn't want to. "Probably a good idea, especially since we're not supposed to."

"Yeah," Merlin said. He rubbed a couple of fingers over his leather band, frowning slightly when he realised that he hadn't been getting any warnings from his clip. He'd certainly been saying a lot more than he should've been.

Freya added, "And especially since Arthur is walking up right now."

"What?" Merlin said, head snapping up as he looked around. He saw Arthur walking toward them; he was in a work suit and red tie, and he had his black trench on over it, though it was undone and flapping a bit in the light wind. As Arthur approached, Merlin gave him a mock scowl. "Are you stalking me or something?"

"Don't be ridiculous, of course not," Arthur said by way of greeting. He nodded and offered Freya a softer smile. "Hello, Freya."

Freya stood up to greet him. "Hello, Arthur," Freya said quietly, head tilted down shyly but was looking up at him with big brown eyes.

"What are you doing here?" Merlin asked, not moving from where he was.

"Why, hello to you too, Merlin. What do you think of this weather? Looks like we might get a spot of rain, yeah?" Arthur said. "There are proper ways to greet people."

Merlin shoved himself up off the ground, rolling his eyes. "Yes, yes, I'm sure there are."

Arthur looked at Freya and pointed a thumb in Merlin's direction. "Just the rudest little git, isn't he?"

Freya looked torn between smiling at Arthur and needing to defend Merlin. Mostly, her lips were pursed to try to keep in a little laugh.

"Oi, this is my friend, don't try to get her on your side," Merlin protested mildly, coming over to stand next to Arthur. "That isn't a fair thing."

"Oh, really? So says the man who aligns himself with my best mate to take the piss out of me," Arthur said dryly, and Merlin had to try hard not to laugh. Arthur told Freya, "We went out to the pub with my mate Leon on the weekend, and they spent hours taking jabs at me, the pillocks."

Merlin had to laugh at the memory, because he and Leon really had done a number on Arthur. (And while Arthur had been in the loo, Merlin had to suffer Leon's, "It is that way, now, isn't it?" so Merlin didn't feel quite so bad.) Merlin said, joyfully, "It was a good time."

"For you, maybe," Arthur said, but his own eyes were lit with mirth and Merlin knew that he wasn't upset about it.

Freya was glancing between them, eyes like a hawk. She asked softly, "What does bring you down here? If it's not rude to ask."

"Oh, no, of course not. A meeting, actually, in that building over there--" he pointed down the street "-- and I remember that Merlin and I saw you here before. Thought I'd come and see if you were here again. Say hello, perhaps make a purchase."

"Oh, you don't have to," Freya said quickly, waving a hand through the air dismissively. "You already have one."

"Yes, I do," Arthur agreed, "but my sister does not. I'm meeting her for lunch tomorrow."

"Morgana?" Merlin asked sharply. Merlin wondered if Arthur thought it was a bit odd, that she hadn't been dropping in as Arthur said she tended to do; Merlin knew the exact reason why she'd want to stay away, and it was because Merlin was there. It bothered Merlin a bit, though he didn't blame the Druids for wanting to stay away from the Clipped, though he couldn't help but think of a dozen different questions he wished he could ask her. But perhaps it was better than he'd not get that chance -- he was likely to end up disappointed in it all anyway.

Arthur said, bemused, "I only have one sister. Yes, I mean Morgana. We're meeting for lunch tomorrow, so I thought it'd be nice to bring her a gift."

Merlin raised his eyebrows. He knew it wasn't about Morgana, but he wasn't about to discourage Freya receiving some help, either. She's been mentioning that things had been slowing down, which was probably why she'd been so curious as to how Merlin's contract was going. He wasn't going to lie to her, because it was going really well, but he'd do anything he could to make sure she was looked out for, so that she wouldn't have to take one either. It was probably the only reason he was looking forward to the end of his -- he'd have a bit more freedom again, and he'd be able to help her out.

"Of course, of course, there are plenty here." Freya gestured down to the blanket.

Arthur couched down and his eyes swept over the jewellery. He asked a couple questions, described Morgana and what she liked, and asked Freya her opinion. Together, they picked something out, and Arthur looked quite pleased with it. He held it out to Merlin. "What do you think?"

"It's ... nice."

Arthur frowned. "Nice? Just nice?"

"Pretty," Merlin amended, flashing a supportive smile at Freya. It was more for her than Arthur anyway. "It's pretty, and I hear girls like pretty things."

"I've heard something quite similar," Arthur said, with a quirk to his lips. He pulled notes out of his wallet to give to Freya, brushing aside her protests it was too much. He then slipped some money into Merlin's palm. "For the two of you. Go out for a bite, yeah?"

"Sure," he said easily enough, to avoid making Freya anymore uncomfortable either.

"Very good, then. I really must be off. I'll see you at home later?"

Merlin nodded. "Yeah, of course."

"Good," Arthur said. Arthur's hand come to rest lightly between Merlin's shoulder blades, then slid up to brush against the back of Merlin's neck. It was a brief touch, but there all the same. "See you later."

"Yeah," Merlin replied, unable to hide a smile.

"Cheers," Freya said to him in parting. Arthur smiled at her, and he made his way down the street. Merlin glanced over his shoulder, watching him go.

When he turned back to Freya, he saw her staring at him with eyes very wide. Merlin shifted uncomfortably on the spot. "What?"

"He does like you."

"Oh, get off it," Merlin said, waving a hand through the air. "It's just ... it's nothing."

"It's something," Freya said, smiling at him. "I'm certain now he'll want you for another contract! Wouldn't that be lovely?"

"It just might," Merlin said, and he couldn't help but grin. He nodded his head, gesturing for them to go. "Arthur's your first customer in over an hour. Perhaps a bit of a break, we'll go get something to eat?"

"Thanks to Arthur, I think I can be done for the day," she said as she slipped the notes into her pocket. She bent down and began to carefully pack her belongings. "He's quite the nice chap, isn't he?"

Merlin couldn't bring himself to disagree one bit.

The following afternoon, Merlin got home later than planned, for he'd been doing some research at the library. He'd got lost in the stacks of books, trying to find something, anything, on his people. It was to no avail, which was a bit frustrating, and he was glad to be back at Arthur's flat. When he shut the door behind him, he saw that Arthur's nice, expensive shoes were lined up neatly. Merlin dropped the key Arthur had given him into the little bowl on the table by the door. "Hello?" he called out. He toed off his shoes and wandered into the kitchen. "Hello?"

There was a reply from the direction of the bedroom. "In here!"

"All right!" From the water boiling in the kettle, Merlin assumed Arthur had just come home and was changing. He turned the kettle off. Merlin was just pulling two mugs out of the cupboard when Arthur came into the kitchen.

"Hi," Arthur said, coming up behind Merlin. He ran a hand from the small of Merlin's back, up over his spine, and curled his fingers around Merlin's shoulder. "How're you?"

"Good, thanks," Merlin said, dropping a tea bag into each mug and pouring the hot water. After he'd put the kettle back down, Arthur wrapped his arms around Merlin's waist so they were chest-to-back, hugging him tight. His arms were bare, which meant he'd changed out of his work suit and was in one of his t-shirts, and likely a pair of comfortable jogging bottoms. Arthur kissed behind his ear. Merlin laughed. "Well, hello to you too. Good day?"

"Great afternoon, yes. Lots of things clicking together at work."

"Well, that's good." Merlin reached over and opened the drawer beside them, pulling out a spoon. He dunked it in one mug, swirling the tea bag around a bit, then repeated it in the second mug.

"Want to hear about it?"

Merlin turned his head just enough so that Arthur could tell he was making a face. "Do you really want to tell me about it?"

"Well, I suppose I'll spare you all the boring details. But, mostly, it looks like everything for Sunday has come together and now I don't have to stress out about it for the next three days."

"Very good, you can be a right twat when you're stressed out."

"Oi!" Arthur protested, giving Merlin a playful squeeze.

Merlin huffed out laughter. "Well, it's true!" Merlin paused a moment. "What's Sunday?"

Arthur's arms dropped and Merlin took the opportunity to turn around. He saw Arthur looking at him with disbelief. "What's Sunday? What's Sunday? I've only been mentioning it for months now."

"I've only known you just over one month." It would be five weeks the very next day.

"Well, I know you've definitely heard," Arthur said, completely unimpressed.

Merlin searched his brain -- Arthur should know by now that Merlin tuned him out about work. But, he grasped onto something that must have sunk in. Merlin tried hopefully, "... a dinner of some sort?"

"Of some sort," Arthur spat, shaking his head. He sighed, and put a hand on each of Merlin's shoulders, shaking a bit. "The charity event?"

"Oh, yes!" Merlin said. He recalled this one, because it was one of the few times that Arthur had actually brought up his mother. She had been a bit of a philanthropist, and with the help of Uther's company, had set up a yearly charity dinner event, proceeds going to a pre-chosen local charity, which differed each year. It was a tradition Uther had kept up after her passing, and Arthur now seemed quite invested in it. "I'm sorry, of course I remember you mentioning. I just didn't realise -- that's this Sunday?"

"Yes, yes, that's why Morgana and I met today -- she really liked her bracelet, by the way -- and we were finalising some things. It looks all ready to go," Arthur said, eyes shining happily.

"That's great," Merlin said enthusiastically, trying to be supportive. "I hope you have a good time."

"We have a good time," Arthur said, looking at him quizzically. "Isn't that what you mean?"

"We? Oh, me? You want me to go?" Merlin asked, surprised.

Arthur's hands dropped from Merlin's shoulders and he frowned, looking uncertain. "Well, I thought -- since you're here and all."

"Oh, well. Of course, then. If you want me to," Merlin said. He turned back to the worktop to spoon the teabags out of the mugs. "That's why I'm here, right?"


"Your companion. I'm, right. You need someone to accompany you, yeah? So, how do we do that, though? Am I still the son of a business associate?"

"Wait," Arthur said, hand on Merlin's shoulder, gently urging him to turn around.

Merlin looked at Arthur, confused. "What?"

"That's not -- you don't have to come," Arthur said flatly.

Merlin shrugged. "Erm, all right, if you don't want me to."

"Not, it's not that I don't -- yes, I'd like you to come with me. But not as--" He waved his other than around, the first still gripping onto Merlin's shoulder. He sighed and asked, "What do you want?"

Merlin blinked. "Whatever you want, Arthur, is fine."

"No," Arthur said. He frowned. "That's not what I'm asking. I want to know what you want to do."

It really didn't matter what Merlin wanted to do -- he was there for Arthur, and what Arthur wanted. Especially when it came to this sort of thing. For the sex, yes, Merlin was all about making sure he held up that end of the bargain because he wanted it too. And he liked spending time with Arthur, when it was the two of them, watching the telly or going to dinner or to a film, or even meeting up with Leon at the pub. But what Arthur was asking, that was a little bit beyond what Merlin was comfortable with. He wouldn't even know what to do or how to act and it was a bit more -- well, Merlin didn't even know what to think about it.

But when he looked at Arthur's hopeful face, heard Arthur's words in his mind -- yes, I'd like you to come with me -- well then. Merlin smiled at him, dazzled, like he was supposed to. "I want to come if you want me to come. No, really," Merlin said when it looked like Arthur was about to cut him off. Merlin continued, "For you, I want to. For me, I want to wear my converse shoes."

"I -- what?"

"You already have a suit picked out for me, don't you?" Merlin laughed when Arthur shrugged, not denying it. "Well, if I'm going to this big fancy thing and wearing a suit for the first time in my life, I need something to make me feel comfortable."

"You're not the Doctor, Merlin," Arthur said with a roll of his eyes. But he put his hands on Merlin's hips and stepped a bit closer to Merlin, pushing him back against counter. Merlin brought his hands to rest on Arthur's biceps.

"No, I'm really not. But I do like my shoes. Some nice bloke bought them for me."

"Glad to know you think so highly of him." Arthur leaned in and placed a soft kiss on Merlin's lips. "All right, deal."

Merlin laughed. "Really?"

"Yes, really" Arthur answered, returning the smile. "And, thank you."

"Sure, no problem." And when Arthur kissed him again, Merlin thought that maybe it wouldn't be such a bad evening after all.

Merlin chuckled under his breath. "Oh my god, did you see that woman's hair?"

"Merlin!" Arthur hissed at him.

"What? It's just so -- big. And tall. And fluffy! Does it look frosted to you?"

"Would you stop it?" Arthur scolded. "That is the wife of one of our biggest donors."

"It's not my fault you brought her in from the 1980s to give you money!"

"Merlin!" Arthur hissed again. But Merlin laughed as he watched Arthur bring his champagne glass to his lips, trying to hide his smile.

They were at the charity dinner event that Arthur had been so excited about for the past three days. Arthur looked rather dashing in his very nice and undoubtedly very expensive suit, complete with stunning red tie.

Merlin felt out of place in his own suit, though he looked like he could fit in perfectly fine -- minus the shoes -- he just wasn't used to having to be so posh. He kept tugging at his collar. He was wearing a blue tie -- and while he thought it had been ridiculously adorable the way Arthur's eyes had excitedly lit up when he presented it to Merlin, bought especially for him -- it felt a bit like a noose and he wondered how Arthur wore one of these every day.

It wasn't just the suit that was making Merlin uncomfortable -- it was the entire atmosphere that was a bother. The big room with classy decorations filled with several round tables with fancy settings; the quiet classical music playing in the background; all the well-dressed people milling about with drinks in their hand while they mingled before dinner; the waiters going around with huge plates of hors d'oeuvre, making sure everyone had their fill. But, mostly, it was the very reason for the charity that had Merlin feeling out of place.

They were here to support local soup kitchens and homeless shelters.

Merlin was usually on the receiving end of that sort of charity, or had been before he signed his contract to live at Coven House, not in a place where he was trying to support those who donated to it. But it had explained so much about Arthur's attitudes; how he gave some street kid who tried to steal his wallet money to buy a meal, constantly making sure Merlin was eating, buying bracelets from Freya so she had some money.

It was just in Arthur's nature to try to help those less fortunate, to try to look out for them, to make sure -- in Arthur's own words -- that they had access to basic human necessities like food. And that made him all the more endearing to Merlin, because most people didn't think so consciously about it, or put in the effort. But, to Merlin's dismay, Arthur hadn't even thought of the fact that Merlin would feel so very out of place there. However, so as not to ruin Arthur's night, Merlin kept his mouth shut about it.

So instead he focused on doing what he did best -- rambling about random things and trying to get Arthur to smile.

And he was doing a rather smashing job of it.

"Also, did you see that man's belt? Is he from a western film--"

"Oh for Christ's sake," Arthur said, rolling his eyes. "I didn't realise you were such a fashion forward thinker, what with your Converse shoes and all."

"Hey, don't knock the shoes!" Merlin said, looking down at his feet. He wiggled his toes, the thin canvas rippling as he did. "I am way more stylish than most blokes here."

Arthur snorted. "If that's what you want to believe, Merlin." Arthur reached over, patting his hand condescendingly on Merlin's shoulder. "I'm sure not a single person is making a snide remark to their date about it at all, much like yourself, yeah?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" Merlin didn't sound quite as annoyed as he had wanted; Arthur's hand had moved down and settled on the small of Merlin's back and Merlin couldn't help but smile at it.

"It means that perhaps you should hold your tongue," Arthur said. He smirked at Merlin, rubbing his thumb in small circles, and of course the bastard knew that Merlin wasn't really angry with him. Arthur added, with an arch to one eyebrow, "Don't you think?" He started to take another sip of his drink.

"No," Merlin said. He decided he could play that game too. "Besides, holding my tongue takes a lot of effort. Effort I was using to stop myself from dragging you to the cloakroom and snogging you senseless." Arthur's eyes widened a little and he nearly spit out his sip of champagne; instead, he swallowed it back rather ungracefully. Merlin leered at him playfully, "So unless you want that to happen--"

A voice from behind them said, "Probably not the best idea tonight."

Merlin and Arthur both looked over and they saw Uther Pendragon standing right there; at the sight of his father, Arthur's hand immediately dropped from where it was rested on Merlin's back and Arthur's relaxed looked faded away as he drew up his shoulders. Merlin couldn't help but glance at Arthur with his eyebrows raised, unimpressed with how formal he'd become, but Arthur wasn't even looking at him.

"Father," Arthur greeted. Merlin chose not to say anything; this was the first time he'd seen Uther in over a month, and while he was certainly expecting to be there this evening, it still threw him for a loop. He did not and could not like the man, and would prefer not be in his presence.

"As reassuring as it is to see that you're both -- enjoying yourselves," Uther said, and the way he looked significantly at Merlin made Merlin's inside squirm unpleasantly, "save it for a more appropriate time."

"Of course, Father, Merlin was only joking."

Under his breath, Merlin said, "Like hell I was."

Arthur cast Merlin a sharp glance but Merlin just shrugged, unapologetic. When he glanced at Uther, he saw the older man looking at him with a smirk, and it made Merlin feel uneasy, knowing the way that Uther was looking down on him right that moment -- as if he was glad and unsurprised that Merlin was fulfilling his contract. Merlin swallowed hard and wished he hadn't said anything at all.

Uther turned his gaze from Merlin, looking at his son. "I'm glad you're having a good evening, Arthur, but please do remember that we're here for business reasons. It would be good for you to socialise with some of our associates. It's a great opportunity for networking."

"Yes, of course," Arthur said, a slight incline to his head.

"You do have other responsibilities tonight," Uther added.

"I know, Father," Arthur said. Merlin knew him well enough to recognise there was slight exasperation under his words.

Uther didn't seem to take notice, though he gave Arthur a hard look. "I'll leave you to it, then." With that, he turned on his heel. Merlin watched as Uther took careful and calculated steps, and greeted a tall elderly man with a charming toothy smile, a drastic change from when he speaking to his son only moments before.

Merlin glanced over at Arthur and saw he was still watching his father, his jaw set tensely.

While Merlin was no fan of Uther Pendragon, all he wanted was for the ice to be broken, for things to be as they were moments before Arthur's father had joined them.

Merlin reached over and slowly poked his finger at Arthur's cheek.

Arthur's tense look broke into something more annoyed as he batted at Merlin's hand. "What are you doing?" he asked, glancing at Merlin.

Merlin tried to poke Arthur's cheek again but Arthur ducked out of the way, again swatting at Merlin's hand. Merlin asked, as innocently and with as much faux astonishment as he could, "Are you ... a robot?"

Arthur snorted in spite of himself, but then scowled at Merlin. "What?"

"It's like you're a robot around him. Oh, wait, maybe you're like some sort of half-robot, half-human hybrid thing. Are you an android? Is your father king of the androids, because that makes all sorts of sense. And that would mean you're prince and holy shit I'm sleeping with royalty."

Arthur's eyebrows were raised and his lip was curled up, as if he didn't know if Merlin was being serious or trying to be funny, but absolutely thinking that Merlin was one hundred percent ridiculous. Merlin had seen that look more than once before, usually followed with a "You're ridiculous," so he was quite certain that was what Arthur was thinking.

"What are you going on about?" Arthur asked. "I'm certain amongst all that prattle you are trying to say something to me but damned if I've figured it out. It's like you're speaking in Latin or something."

"I'm pretty sure there isn't a Latin word for robot or android," Merlin countered. He continued before Arthur could interrupt him; "What I mean is, you act differently around him. Just so stiff and -- well, less of a prat, which would be nice except it's weird to see."

"It's called giving respect, Merlin," Arthur said dryly. "You might consider it once in a while."

Merlin muttered under his breath, "To him? Not likely." The words had left his mouth quicker than he could think and he immediately grimaced. He glanced up at Arthur. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't've--"

"It's fine. Well, not fine, but--" Arthur sighed. "You've no reason to like him--"

"-- no kidding," Merlin muttered again, unable to help himself.

Arthur continued, as if Merlin hadn't said anything, "But he is my father. And I love and respect him. Understand?"

"Not really," Merlin admitted. He never understood loving fathers unconditionally because he never really had the chance. For Arthur's sake, because he truly believed it of Arthur and his father, he said, "But I'll try to keep my mouth shut about it."

"We both know how that'll go," Arthur said dryly. Merlin could only smile brightly at him and Arthur's face relaxed again into a soft smile. He hand came to rest on Merlin's back again. He said, rather reluctantly, "I really should do as my father suggested."

Merlin ignored pointing out it wasn't exactly a suggestion -- see, he really was trying -- and nodded in agreement. "Sure, of course."

"Do you want to join--"

"Oh, god no, please don't make me," Merlin pleaded, trying his best to give Arthur the wide puppy-dog eyes that seemed to work on him now.

Arthur snorted but he grinned. "That was a quick answer."

"I don't want to talk to people!"

"You love talking."

"Yes, to you and Freya and Leon and Will and people I know and--"

"Random people on the street--"

"And random people on the street!" Merlin agreed wholeheartedly. "But them?" Merlin flailed his arms a little, gesturing to all the rich people in their fancy clothes. "I wouldn't know what to say, you know I'd just stick my foot in my mouth, or make myself look like an idiot--"

"That is highly likely," Arthur agreed, trying to hide a grin.

"See!" Merlin exclaimed. Normally, he would argue that point, but it was working for him so he wasn't going against it. "You really don't need me at your side right now."

Arthur looked like he was going to protest that last point, which was a little bit sweet, but Merlin only shook his head vehemently. "Okay, okay," Arthur said, putting his hand up to stop Merlin's slight panic. "If you'd rather stand here by yourself--"

"I would, I really would. I might hide in the shadows--" Merlin pointed to a dark corner of the large room "-- so you can find me there when you need me."

Arthur shook his head but he looked amused and as though he wasn't going to push it. He handed his champagne glass to Merlin, who took it gratefully and sipped on it. "Fine, but don't get too drunk, yeah? I have a feeling that even shadows won't hide that sort of affair." Merlin snorted but nodded his head. Arthur added, "And I'll only be a few minutes, okay?"

"Deal," Merlin added.

"Great," Arthur said. He glanced around the room, and then his eyes landed on someone. "Actually, I should go and say hello to Nimueh."

It was Merlin's turn to nearly spit out his champagne, and he tried to cover up his sputtering. When Arthur gave him a quizzical look, Merlin answered weakly, "Unusual name. Who?"

Arthur gestured across the room. "The woman over there with my father. It's been a couple months since I've seen her."

Merlin's eyes immediately sought out Arthur's father and indeed he saw Nimueh, fellow resident at Coven House, on Uther Pendragon's arm.

It had been over a month since Merlin had seen her. And while she was always one of the most well-off of the Clipped that lived at Coven House, she looked rather exceptional that evening. Her hair still had the unusual twists to them, though some were pulled back, and her make up was done glamorously. She wore a long elegant scarlet dress with blue accents, straps off the shoulders with a deep v-neck. And there was a beautiful wide sparkling bracelet around her wrist. Merlin knew exactly what it was covering but those who didn't know what they were looking for would never think of it.

And, suddenly, things clicked into place. Merlin recalled his last conversation with her, when she warned him against Uther Pendragon when she didn't realise that it was actually Arthur that he was going to be a 'companion' for.

"Who is she?" Merlin asked. Given that, when Merlin met him, Arthur hadn't realised the Clipped were contracted out as companions, he doubted Arthur knew that's what Nimueh was.

"She was his girlfriend once, I think, when she worked at our company. But I think they just see each other casually now. Or maybe they're just friends," Arthur added with a small shrug. "My father doesn't really talk to me about that sort of thing, which is fine by me."

Merlin wasn't even sure were to start with all that; he highly doubted Uther Pendragon would date someone who was clipped -- or hire them as staff, for that matter. Curious, he asked, "She worked at your company?"

"Yes, years ago, started there when I was still in uni."

"How long ago did she stop?"

Arthur glanced at him. "Five years, maybe."

"Oh yeah," Merlin said, trying to act casually. "Why'd she leave?"

"For a new job. She ended up travelling a lot so she wasn't around for a long time. I think they reconnected a couple years ago."

"Was your father upset about it? When she left?" That was probably when her secret came out, but why bother with her again? Then the thought struck him; it was probably to make sure she 'paid her dues' to society, just like he believed Merlin was supposed to do.

Merlin closed his eyes for a second, and tried to hold in a grimace. It was sickening, really.

Arthur was oblivious to Merlin's internal dilemma. He frowned, thinking, and answered Merlin's question. "Actually, yes, I think I remember him being -- Why the sudden interest in my father?" Arthur asked suspiciously.

"Hey now," Merlin said, putting up his hands defensively. This was definitely not something that he should be getting into with Arthur right now. Or, ever, as Merlin had to play by the unofficial rules. "I was just trying to be nice. Didn't we just go over this?"

"Right, I -- right."

Merlin shook his head and smiled, trying to set Arthur at ease. "Don't you have important people to talk to?"

"Right I do," Arthur said. His hand rubbed over Merlin's back in a small circle before it dropped, and he took a small step away. "I'll be back soon, before dinner starts."

Merlin smiled at him and shrugged. "I'll be here."

Arthur gave a small apologetic smile, but then turned and walked away from Merlin.

Merlin's own smile quickly faded and he sighed deeply. He glanced over at where Nimueh and Uther had been standing and talking to another couple, but they were gone now.

A waiter was walking by with a tray with of tall wine glasses. Merlin stopped him, "I'll take one of those." The waiter smiled and paused, and Merlin handed over his empty one and carefully picked a full glass off the tray.

He took a deep sip and thought to himself, This is going to be a long night.

Merlin didn't go and hide in the shadowy corner, but he did keep to the edges of the room. He didn't drink much, but kept a champagne glass in hand, thinking that it would help him blend in the crowd. A couple of people stopped briefly to say hello, and while it didn't bother him that they did, it had a superficial feeling to it and they quickly moved on to speak to others.

Merlin watched as Arthur moved comfortably through the crowds, charming smile on his face as he shook hands. He'd stopped and spoke to different people, all businessmen collegues Merlin assumed, but seemed fully engaged in the conversations; they clearly all held respect for him. Arthur held himself with confidence, as if this was exactly where he belonged.

To be quite honest with himself, Merlin found he couldn't keep his eyes off Arthur. This was a side of Arthur that he didn't see very often -- the businessman -- and not really since that day in the shopping centre, when Merlin had no idea who he was, but this was exactly who he'd seen.

But Arthur would glance over to where Merlin was standing, a kind look in his eyes he often had at home, and that was the Arthur that Merlin got to see most the time. Merlin decided this was how he liked Arthur best; he couldn't help but send a beaming smile back, and Arthur would smile more broadly, but shake his head affectionately and turn back to work.

Merlin heard a female voice he recognised from behind him, and it drew him from his thoughts. "You two are positively smitten with each other."

He glanced behind him. "Morgana!" He'd also expected to see her at some point that evening but he wasn't sure if he should approach her or not. He had the feeling she'd been avoiding him, because even though they both had magic, her kind chose to avoid his. He hated that, but he was going to respect it if that's how she wanted to be. But it seemed as though he didn't have to worry about it that evening. "Uh, hi. How're you?"

"Hello, Merlin. I'm quite well, thank you." She took a little sip of her champagne and her eyes moved to look across the room. "I have to say, I now realise why Arthur has been in such a good mood lately."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Merlin said, feigning innocence.

"Like hell you don't," Morgana said, a sly smile. "I've been watching you two and you can't keep your eyes off each other. And then there was all of Arthur's touching earlier--"

"We're not being inappropriate!" Merlin said. Under his breath, he added, "Unfortunately."

Morgana's eyebrows rose. "Last time we talked, you told me that you two weren't doing ... that."

"Yes, well, things change," Merlin said, willing the blush to stay away from his cheeks. "And if he didn't already tell you, I'm pretty sure Arthur doesn't want his sister knowing, so I'm just going to shut my mouth now."

"But it would drive him mad, which is always fun," Morgana said, amused. "But it's rather obvious anyway."

"It is not," Merlin protested weakly.

"It is. And it's -- well, kind of nice to see, really. Surprising, but nice."

"What's the mean?" Merlin asked, curious. "Why surprising? Or nice? Or whatever."

"Well, he hasn't been serious about someone in a very long time, and it's been a few years since he's even brought a date to this event. It's very important to him, you see, and as he brought you -- well. I can only surmise that you've become important to him too."

"That's -- well, that's -- but it's just -- business," Merlin stumbled on his words.

"Is it?" Morgana queried.

"Yes! We've talked about it. Being his companion," Merlin said, trying to keep that sounding as unbiased as possible, despite his distaste for the contract on a whole, "is why I'm here." He added quickly, "Although he did give me the choice to attend." He certainly didn't mean to make Arthur look bad, because he really was treating their situation as respectfully as he could, given the circumstances.

"I know Arthur's business look well, and he does not look at you like you're business."

"Please don't," Merlin said, sighing. "I go home in less than a week and that's the end of that."

"I doubt that," Morgana said. She frowned slightly, though. "Although, it'd be a pity if he found out what you really were--"

"He knows," Merlin said, cutting her off.

Surprised, she asked, "He does?"

Merlin nodded. "Yes, he does. He's known for weeks."

"I -- now that's surprising."

"What, that he hasn't turned me to the streets?" Merlin asked, a bit sarcastically. "That he hasn't tried to burn me on a pyre? That he's actually nice to me?"

"Well, yes," Morgana answered frankly. "I wouldn't think he'd be very accepting of it, given our father's views."

"He is not his father," Merlin stressed. "Arthur hates that this has been done to me," Merlin said. He gave a little wistful smile. "He wants to find me a cure."

"Oh, Merlin," Morgana said, and her voice was dripping with sympathy. She laid a hand on his forearm. Even though there wasn't the jolt that ran through him the last time she touched him with the meeting of their magics, he jerked his arm away from her.

"I know he can't," Merlin snapped. But he sighed. "I've told him not to get his hopes up, but ..." He shrugged. "He's rather determined about it."

"He's always been rather idealistic about some things," Morgana said. "He likes to be the hero."

"Oh. That's. Right..." Merlin trailed off as he thought about her statement.

He looked across the room, where he saw Arthur watching him with a quizzical look on his face. Merlin tried to smile reassuringly at him, but Arthur started to walk over to them. He was cut off when someone he knew came up to him and he stopped to talk to them, though he cast Merlin a quick look.

Morgana was quiet, so Merlin said what he was sure Morgana was thinking. "I'm exactly his type, right? Someone to save. That must've been what your father thought," Merlin added when he thought back to his very first conversation with Uther, in Aredian's office, "and why I was picked for him."

Uther was a better businessman than Merlin realised. And it cut Merlin, a little bit, but he had to keep in mind: this was only business. And he'd have to remember to make going back to his real life easier.

"I'm sure that is not it," Morgana instantly said. "He must genuinely like you. For you."

Merlin looked at her, tilting his head to the side. "Maybe you're right," he said slowly. "You could tell him about yourself, you know."

"No, absolutely not." Her eyes widened, fearful. "You didn't--"

"--Of course not," Merlin cut her off. He stood by their rules, those with magic, about keeping each other's secrets. Even though he hated all the things he had to keep from Arthur, he wouldn't do that to her. He added gently, "But he would be okay with it. I know he would."

"Maybe, but he does not like secrets and would feel obliged to tell our father," Morgana pointed out. She shook her head, and added bitterly, "And Uther would not be fine with it."

"You don't know that," Merlin said, though he didn't think he sounded very confident. But he tried. "You're his family, he cares for you. It might not be as bad as you think--"

"You don't know Uther like I do," Morgana said, voice hard, though it was quiet. "He would not approve. He's likely to turn me in, have me clipped."

"He wouldn't do that," Merlin said, whispering. He was horrified with the idea. "He wouldn't."

"He would," Morgana said. But she was looking across the room and Merlin followed her gaze; she was looking at Uther, who had Nimueh at his side. Nimueh looked like she belonged, hand rested in the crook of Uther's arm, participating in conversation. She was doing much better at her contract as a companion (which Merlin knew could be the only reason she was there) than he was.

And then the weight of Morgana's words hit him, and why she had been so bitter about Uther the very first time Merlin had spoken to her about magic. He looked at her, surprised. "He turned her in? She used to be a--"

Morgana hissed, "Would you be quiet?"

"Sorry," Merlin said, dropping his voice. His eyes darted back across the crowd and he saw Nimueh looking at them. She smirked a little, as if she knew they were talking about her, but it was like she was shooting daggers with her eyes. Merlin looked away, feeling awkward, and suddenly very sad for her.

"I can't say anything," Morgana said to him. "I've said too much. If you want her story, you'll have to hear it from her."

"But you know it?" Merlin asked.


"And Arthur?"

"Remains wonderfully oblivious to his father's deeds," Morgana answered darkly.

Merlin shook his head. "If he just knew, he would--"

"What, Merlin? Arthur would do what?" Morgana shook her head. "Despite Uther's faults, or what Arthur knows of them, he loves our father."

"I guess so," Merlin said, worrying his bottom lip.

"It's better he doesn't know any of it," Morgana said softly. "He's stronger for it."

Merlin frowned, not sure what she even meant by that. Arthur would be able to handle it, he was certain. And Merlin really shouldn't care; there wasn't any reason to. Merlin was on a job and it would be over soon enough. But as he caught a glance of Arthur, making his way over to them, Merlin realised he wished he could tell Arthur all the truths as he knew them.

Morgana caught a glance of Arthur too. She said lowly, "This is to remain between us. We have to protect our own."

Merlin sighed deeply. "I know," Merlin said, nodding. "You can trust me." He turned to Arthur, as he was only a few feet away, and smiled brightly. "Hey, you."

"Hey yourself," Arthur answered, placing a light hand on Merlin's elbow. He looked between the two of them. "And what are you two up to?"

"Just catching up," Morgana answered, smiling pleasantly at Arthur.

"Exactly," Merlin said. As a little dig, because he was feeling a bit angry and frustrated at feeling so helpless at the moment, he added, "It does seem as though your sister has been avoiding me, hasn't it?"

Arthur snorted. "Why would she do that?"

"Yes, Merlin," Morgana said, giving him a sharp look, though she smiled. "Why ever would I do that?"

Merlin shrugged. "Don't know, but you haven't come around Arthur's, have you?"

"It's a blessing, Merlin, really," Arthur said. "Please don't be giving her any ideas."

"Arthur!" Morgana said, playfully swatting his arm. "It's just we've spent so much time together at work on all this," she said, splaying her arms to the side and looking around the room, "that I thought I'd given him some personal space."

"And I'm grateful for it," Arthur reassured her. "No, really, I am."

"Besides," she said, giving Merlin a sly look that made him wish he would've kept his mouth shut, "you've been rather busy on the personal front, haven't you?"

"Morgana," Arthur said warningly. Merlin expected Arthur to drop his hand but he only squeezed Merlin's elbow a bit more.

She laughed. "What? I'm not blind. As I was saying to Merlin, you're positively smitten."

"I am not! That's just ridiculous!" Arthur sputtered. "I'm not a schoolgirl!"

"Is that so?" Morgana asked, arching a manicured eyebrow. "I'm not convinced otherwise."

"I am not smitten!" he protested again.

Merlin shifted over, just a little, his arm hand coming to rest on Arthur's lower back, his body up against Arthur's. Arthur looked at him in surprise and Merlin took the opportunity to press a quick, chaste kiss to Arthur's lips. When he pulled back, Arthur was staring into his eyes, a bit of pink coming to his cheeks. Merlin gave him a wide smile.

Morgana repeated, "Smitten."

"You," Arthur said, still looking at Merlin, "are such a brat."

Merlin laughed, and he only broke eye contact when he looked up because the lights began to flicker.

Arthur groaned and stepped away from Merlin. "I told them not to do that!"

"It's like the opera!" Morgana said, just as cranky.

Merlin was confused. "What's going on?"

"Come on," Arthur said. "Time to take our seats. There will be speeches, a mock auction to raise more money, and then dinner."

"You're both seated at a table with me!" Morgana exclaimed, and Arthur groaned again. Morgana continued, amusement in her eyes, "And you," she said, pointing to Merlin, "can continue to prove me right when it comes to Arthur. There's so much I want to know--"

"No," Arthur cut in, rolling his eyes. "Absolutely not."

"Sounds fun," Merlin said, and laughed when Arthur muttered brat again.

But Arthur was smiling, and at least there was that.

Chapter Text

Merlin tried very hard not to appear completely bored out of his mind, but that was difficult to do. He sat through some speeches, different members of the community that came up to the podium and stated why exactly the members of the audience should be donating to their charities. Several times, Merlin had to keep from rolling his eyes at their earnest looks and cheesy words. He caught Arthur watching him more than once, and he did what he could to smile and act as though he was paying attention, as if he truly believed in all the falseness of the good will going on.

Merlin was a bit more entertained when the little auction came up, with prizes being raffled off for ridiculous amounts. Arthur was the 'auctioneer' and he was brilliant and engaging and charismatic. Merlin laughed out loud more than once, and he could see Arthur glance in the direction of their table, small grin on his face.

Morgana had leaned over and whispered in Merlin's ear, "Smitten."

"Leave it out," Merlin said with a shake of his head. "He is not."

"Oh, he certainly is," she said, "but I meant you."

He glanced at her sharply, surprised. "Me?" He shook his head. "Nah, not me."

"Yes, you," she said, giving him a light poke in the ribs. "It's so obvious."

"I am not smitten," Merlin said, echoing Arthur's words while casting her an annoyed glance.

She smirked and clearly didn't believe him. "What would you call it, then?"

He looked back at the stage, where Arthur was in all his glory, centre of attention and clearly respected. "Fond," Merlin answered. "I suppose I'm rather fond of him."

He glanced at Morgana and saw her nodding. She said, "Yes, I can accept that."

Merlin said sarcastically, "Well, as long as you approve."

It unsettled him that she didn't have a remark to that.

Merlin smiled as Arthur made his way back to their table, taking his seat next to Merlin. Everyone around the table -- Merlin had forgotten most of their names already, save for Morgana beside him and Leon who sat across from him and Arthur -- congratulated Arthur on a job well done. Arthur thanked then each in turn, but glanced at Merlin.

"What'd you think?"

Merlin said playfully, "You could be a game show host. Become ridiculously famous for asking people questions and whatnot."

Arthur rolled his eyes and said dryly, "Yes, that is my goal in life."

"Why not?" Merlin countered. "You have the blond hair, toothy smile, all the women would swoon for you--"

"--Yes, exactly what I want," Arthur grumbled.

Merlin laughed at him, but reached over and laid a hand lightly on his arm. He said, sincere this time, "You were fantastic."

Arthur's features softened a little bit. "Yeah?"

Merlin smiled. "Absolutely."

Beside him, Morgana gave a not-so-subtle cough. Merlin sent her a fake, annoyed look, and scolded, "Enough out of you."

And then something happened that really shouldn't have happened around Merlin, where there wasn't supposed to be any magic.

It all went rather quick; and yet, the movement felt so slow. Merlin turned to face Morgana, but as he did, his elbow knocked her champagne glass off the table. It was an instant reflex, to reach out to grab it. But it was if the room tilted a little bit, and there was a slight tremor through Merlin's body, unlike anything he'd ever remembered feeling but sweet and natural, like a breath of fresh air.

Everything paused, but only for the shortest of seconds.

By the law of gravity, the glass should have fallen to the floor, but Merlin's hand caught it in time. In a blink of an eye, the world was correct right again, the way it was meant to be. Merlin's movements were fluid, arm through the air with not a drop of drink hitting the floor, and he placed the righted glass on the table.

Arthur clapped him on the shoulder. "Nice catch," he said, and by the look of it, completely unaware of what had just happened.

"Yeah, thanks," Merlin muttered, puzzled. He glanced up at Morgana, to see if she noticed anything; she looked surprised, but she was glancing around curiously, as if looking for someone. Looking for the person who cast the magic, perhaps.

Because it couldn't have been Merlin and they both knew it.

And, well. Merlin looked around too. Because, even with the feeling in his stomach, like something was caged deep trying to get out, it couldn't have been him. Merlin had to swallow deeply and remind himself of it. It might've been his magic reacting to someone else’s just knowing it was happening around him; it had been an awfully long time since he'd been around someone actively using magic, he couldn't remember if that was the way it went.

He asked in a low voice, "Morgana?"

"I'm not sure," she said, not even needing clarification.

Arthur asked, "Not sure what?"

Morgana looked at him, appearing calm and natural. "If the caterers know it's time to serve yet." She pushed back her chair and stood, running a hand down her thigh, smoothing out her green satin dress. She said with a smile, "I'll go and check on it so there are no lulls in the evening."

"Great idea," Arthur said. "Thank you."

She gave a small nod, and headed away from the table. Merlin watched after her, frowning slightly.

"Hey," Arthur said, elbowing him lightly. Merlin turned to him, saw Arthur frowning. With concern, he asked, "Are you all right?"

Merlin forced a smile. "Of course," he said. "Just a little anxious for dinner, I suppose."

"You sure? You look a little pale."

"You always tell me I look pale," Merlin reminded.

"Well, yes, but this is different."

"I'm fine, Arthur," Merlin said. He smiled reassuringly, despite the way his stomach was twisting and turning and that he felt a little out of breath. "Really."

"All right, then," Arthur said. He paused a moment, looking at Merlin. He opened his mouth, as if to say something, but then promptly snapped it shut. But he did lean over, and nodding to a man two tables down, he said lowly, "Think it's a toupee?"

Merlin barked out laughter. "Arthur Pendragon!" he scolded playfully, but keeping his voice down so no one heard him. "Are you making fun of one of your donors?"


"Yeah, right," Merlin said sarcastically.

"I wouldn't," Arthur huffed. But he looked rather amused as he asked, "Are you going to?"

"Absolutely not," Merlin said, lifting his chin. "That's beneath me."

Arthur snorted.

"What?" Merlin asked innocently. "I would never say it looked like he was wearing a litter of kittens on top of his head."

Arthur laughed, though he immediately shut his mouth, looking slightly abashed. But he glanced at Merlin, eyes dancing with amusement, and Merlin smiled at him, feeling much more settled himself.

Merlin was relieved when the evening was over and it was finally time to leave.

Merlin wasn't sure what to make of the fancy dinner that was served to him, and he poked at the little ... hen? Really, they served individual hens? Bloody ridiculous, he had thought.

As was the rest of the fancy food Merlin hadn't had an opportunity to eat before in his entire life, and he started to feel a little guilty about being there. It felt odd; he knew it must've been expensive, likely to cost a small fortune, and all he could think of was his kind, his friends back at Coven House, who struggled just to get scraps for a meal.

He had lost a bit of his appetite at the thought of it but had forced himself to eat it, as he would've felt just as guilty to let the food go to waste.

After their dessert was eaten, there was one last thank-you speech from Uther Pendragon, and the event was concluded for the evening.

They bid goodbye to Morgana (without a single word from her about the magic, which left Merlin curious), and she took her leave of them. They chatted a bit with Leon as well, as they hadn't had a real chance to that evening with the seating arrangements. Leon suggested they all meet at the pub the following Saturday, and Arthur enthusiastically agreed. Merlin smiled and nodded along, but it seemed as though Arthur had forgotten that the contract ended on the Friday, and he didn't think it was a good time to point it out. But, as they said goodbye to Leon, Merlin realised that was likely the last time he'd see Arthur's big, burly friend and that was somewhat depressing.

Arthur and Merlin were about to make their way to the cloakroom when they heard a call from across the room. "Arthur!"

Looking over, they saw Uther gesturing to his son.

"I really should go and say goodbye," Arthur said, almost apologetically.

"Um, right," Merlin said. He really wasn't in the mood to join him for that. "I'll just go get our coats?"

"I'll meet you on the steps outside?" Arthur said, looking around at the throng of people who were making their way to the exits as well. "In a few minutes?"

"Sure," Merlin agreed. Arthur smiled and worked his way against the crowd to make it to the other side of the room.

It was all very civil and efficient, and Merlin didn't have to wait long to get their cloaks from the clerk. He had borrowed a black overcoat from Arthur, as Arthur had told him his hoodie was not appropriate, and it wasn't too bad even though it was a little big on him. He wrapped it around him tighter against the night air, and Merlin smiled when he could smell Arthur's favourite cologne.

He stood at the bottom of the stairs that lead out of the old, elegant building. He leaned against a short pillar as he waited, suddenly feeling very tired.

For the second time that night, he was greeted by a familiar female voice. "Fancy meeting you here, Merlin."

He turned and saw Nimueh. She was wearing a long black cloak that was clasped at the hallow of her neck with a shining pendant. It swished about her, and bits of scarlet dress peeked out from the bottom as she took steps down. She paused to stand beside him.

"A bit of a surprise, I must admit," Merlin said.

"Is it?" Nimueh asked rhetorically. "I wasn't entirely sure, but I thought I might see you."

"Hmm," Merlin hummed lowly, frowning. As always, she looked entirely poised and put together, but cold and frigid, and he had never felt comfortable around her. "I suppose you're here for ..."

"The same reasons as you?" she supplied. Her icy eyes bore into his. "You would suppose correctly. It's not my regular weekend, but special events call for special companions, don't they?"

He didn't answer her; he hadn't known that, but it made a bit of sense. "And you're usually with--"

"Now, now, Merlin," she chastised lightly. "You know we're not supposed to talk about it."

He opened his mouth, snapped it shut, and repeated the motion twice more before sighing, his shoulders slumping.

Nimueh's lips twisted and it wasn't quite a smile. "I'm going to wager a guess that the Pendragon siblings said something about me to you, didn't they?"

"No," Merlin said instantly. She didn't look like she believed him and he sighed. "Not intentionally. Arthur said he remembered you from years ago?"

"I'm sure he does."

"When you used to work for Uther. And then Morgana said--"

"She, of all people, has no right," Nimueh said, a bit of emotion finally wavering her voice.

"-- that I'd have to ask you," Merlin quickly said. If Morgana had known what Nimueh was, he had assumed Nimueh knew about her, and now that'd been confirmed. "She wouldn't tell me."

Nimueh was quiet for a moment. "Good."

Merlin took a step toward her, his voice very quiet to prevent anyone from overhearing. "And you haven't told Uther about her?"

"Of course not," Nimueh said. "I'm obligated to him in many ways, but I keep our secrets."

Merlin nodded, and he believed her. Even though he didn't think much of her personality, and he didn't know her particularly well, Merlin knew Nimueh was fiercely protective of the magical society. Now he had a better understanding why, but he doubted he'd even scratched the surface.

He opened his mouth, but snapped it shut again, and Nimueh rolled her eyes. "Oh, out with it, Merlin."

"How can you -- if he did what I think -- why are you--"

"It's complicated in ways you don't understand," Nimueh answered.

"Obviously," Merlin snorted.

Nimueh asked, "Why did you do it?"

"Why did I do what?"

"Take a contract," she clarified.

He sighed but there was no pause before he answered, "Life can be hard."

"Precisely," she said. "Now, imagine how hard it would've been, having a normal, fulfilling life, and then suddenly not."

"Because of him," Merlin said. "I wouldn't be able to -- not after that."

"Don't be so sure. Our options are so very few," Nimueh said. "We take advantage of what we can, as you are well aware."

He thought about that, for a moment. He didn't remember what it was like to live a good life, and he certainly wouldn't know what it would be like to go from that to being such an outcast in society and having no other options other than Coven House and contracts, or life on the streets.

He just didn't know, so he didn't understand what could be so horrible in a clipped life that would tip the scales to accept being with the one who turned you in. Even though he didn't know the story behind it -- who betrayed who, how it was discovered, Uther's reaction -- it was so hard to grasp.

And he thought his life, his decisions, were complicated. Nimueh definitely trumped him there.

Still. "I wouldn't do that."

"You don't know the whole story, now do you?"

Merlin shook his head, because he knew he really didn't, but he didn't expect he was about to hear it any time soon.

"Then you've no right to judge," she said. Smiling slightly, "Especially after what I've seen tonight. I must admit, I didn't think you had it in you. I'm impressed."

"I -- what --" he sputtered.

"You have young Pendragon wrapped around your finger," she said. "And this is your first time with him. Mind you, you've had weeks, which is more time than most, but it's still a stunning piece of seduction."

"I -- what," he repeated, flabbergasted. That offended him. "I'm not trying to do anything!"

"Of course you're not," she said, sarcasm underlying her tone. "I'm sure you have no interest whatsoever in seeing him again after your contract is up."

Merlin tried very hard to keep calm. Answering in as even a tone as he could, he said, "It isn't about that. And I probably won't be."

By the smirk on her face, he didn't think she believed him.

That angered him. He snapped, "We're not supposed to talk about it."

Rather than being upset as he expected, she laughed as he turned the tables on her. "You are a quick study. I'm sure you'll do very well in this business."

"I don't plan on making it a business," he said to her, determined.

"I'm sure you'll have a change of heart after a few days back home," she told him.

As a limo pulled up in front of the steps, she gestured to it, not giving him time to respond. She announced, "That's me." After she took a couple steps towards it, she paused and turned back to him. "It gets easier they more they trust you, the more they care," she said, and her voice was surprisingly gently. "Don't be upset you're doing a good job, Merlin. It's better for everyone when you do."

With that, she turned away from and got into the back of the limo. She closed the door, and the window remained up, but the limo didn't go anywhere. It stayed there, waiting.

Merlin found he had to look away. He rubbed at his temples; on top of everything else, he had a terrible headache developing.

A couple minutes later, mind troubled with his conversation and all that was revealed (or not revealed) to him, Merlin was startled when someone grabbed his elbow. Instinctively, he jerked away. He immediately felt guilty when he saw it was Arthur. "Oh, hi. Sorry, didn't realise it was you."

"Right," Arthur said shortly. He didn't look nearly as relaxed or happy as he had earlier. Glancing over Arthur's shoulder, Merlin saw Uther walk down the steps and go into the waiting limo without a look in their direction. Arthur said, "Let's go."

"Yeah, of course," Merlin said, and he followed Arthur to where there were some taxis waiting. After a silent moment, Merlin asked, "Hey, are you all right?"

"Fine," Arthur answered briskly.

Merlin frowned. It was as if Prince Arthur of the Android Robots had returned. Hesitantly, Merlin asked, "Are you sure?"

"Yes, Merlin," Arthur said, not looking back at him. "It's been a long day and I'm tired, if that's all right with you?"

"Perfectly fine," Merlin snapped back, finding Arthur as irritating as his headache was. Arthur glanced at him, lips pursed together. Merlin sighed and echoed, "Sorry, long day."

Arthur nodded. "Let's get back to mine, yeah?"

"Right," Merlin answered quietly.

They were both quiet on the way back, staring out their windows and lost in their own thoughts.

By the time they arrived back at Arthur's flat, Merlin had a splitting headache. Arthur was being quiet and Merlin didn't have much energy to engage him in conversation anyway, but he thought he should try to smooth things over as best he could. He didn't doubt that Arthur was tired too, having had a long day, probably feeling drained now that the anticipation was over and the event had passed.

Merlin slipped off his shoes and removed his overcoat, hanging it in the front cupboard. Merlin immediately unbuttoned his suit coat and loosened his tie, the two ends hanging down.

He walked to the kitchen. "Tea?"

"No," Arthur answered shortly from where he was in the corridor, still hanging up his coat.

"Okay," Merlin said absently, not really listening through the pounding in his head. He put on the kettle anyway.

Merlin busied himself in the kitchen, taking down mugs and starting to prepare tea for two.

Arthur entered the kitchen. "I said," Arthur interrupted, voice flat, "I don't want tea."

"Oh," Merlin said. He blinked, looking down and taking full consideration of what he was doing. "Right. Sorry, just a habit." He picked up the mug and intended to put the second one away.

"Yes, you've got quite used to being domestic, haven't you?"

That caught Merlin's attention. He frowned and glanced at Arthur. Arthur was standing at the other side of the kitchen, a hard look on his face and his hands clenched in balls at his side.

Merlin replied, "What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means exactly what I said."

"What is your problem tonight?" Merlin asked, suddenly irritated. As much as a mood Arthur was in, he didn't need to take it out on Merlin. "You've been a right git since we left."

"And here I thought I was handling my anger so well," Arthur said sarcastically.

"Anger?" Merlin asked. He was concerned now; while Arthur hadn't wanted to discuss anything in the taxi, he obviously had something he needed to get out now. More gently, he asked, "What're you angry at?"

Arthur slammed his hands down on the top of the island, the smacking ringing loudly and catching Merlin so off guard he jumped a little. "You bloody know what!”

"No, I don't," Merlin said, surprised. He flailed his arm around, mug still gripped in his hand. "You're not making any sense!" Merlin tried to prepare himself; maybe he knew something about Morgana, or even Nimueh, but Merlin had to be careful about those secrets, they weren't his to give. He needed Arthur to tell him what was wrong.

Arthur caught Merlin completely by surprise.

"You, Merlin. This whole... thing." Arthur lifted up one hand and vigorously pointed a finger through the air at Merlin. "You and your -- you made me -- you and your seduction."

Merlin slammed the mug down on the worktop. That was the second time that evening he'd been accused of it and it had never been his intention. "I did not seduce you!"

"Oh, really?" Arthur said sarcastically. "What was that at the beginning? All your flirtation and throwing yourself at me? That really meant nothing?"

Oh. Right. That.

"That was -- you're hot. And I was bored!" And, oh, by the look on Arthur's face that was not at all the best thing to say. Merlin tried to amend, "I didn't actually think you would really -- it was just a bit of fun -- you could've kept saying no. I thought you would. Say no, I mean. But then you didn't and you were interested and -- well, that was fun too. If you're starting to feel guilty, there is no reason to, but don't you dare put all this on me."

"I do put this all on you!" Arthur said, sounding very frustrated. "You couldn't just leave it be."

"Why is this such a problem now?" Merlin yelled, unable to contain it anymore. It really wasn't fair and he had no idea where it was coming from. "I've been nothing but honest--"

Arthur snorted. "That isn't the truth and you know it."

"I've told you everything I could!"

"No. No, you haven’t."

Merlin sighed. "I don't know what you're talking about. You're upset about something--"


"So just tell me!" Merlin snapped, throwing his hands up in the air, exasperated. He rubbed his temples and desperately wished for some medication. The fight drained from him, he said tiredly, "I can't defend myself if I have no idea what you're talking about."

"There is no defence for this--"


"Fine," Arthur snapped. "I had a nice little chat with my father--"

"Oh, bloody fantastic," Merlin muttered.

"Don't start, Merlin," Arthur warned. "At least my father has been truthful with me." Merlin opened his mouth to protest that he hadn't done anything to be untruthful, not exactly, but Arthur pushed on. "And he was asking me about how our -- arrangement was going. I told him fine, because I thought it was--"

"So did I," Merlin chimed in.

Arthur ignored him. "And my father said, great, that was just great and that was the plan for the whole contract, of course. And then he asked me what I had planned for afterward. If I wanted to see you again. I told the truth. I said yes."

There was a little flutter in Merlin's stomach; it was unexpected, but it was like a little spark of fire that started to grow warmer. With a very tentative and small smile, Merlin said, "You -- said that?"

"Yes," Arthur answered. But his demeanour hadn't changed and he looked stone cold. "And then he told me he's glad to hear that and he'd help me get set up with your boss directly so he didn't have to be a third wheel, and I would be responsible for arranging and compensating any further contracts. And then I said that wasn't what I meant, that I have absolutely no intention of setting up a demeaning contract ever again."

And the flame extinguished. Merlin's heart sank. "Oh. So we won't be seeing each other."

Arthur slammed his hands down on the worktop again, and said accusingly, "You knew!"

"Knew what?"

"That because of this contract I'm considered a client now and can only--" Arthur waved his hand around and didn't say anything else.

Oh. Oh. Merlin started at him; at least he understood what Arthur's problem was now, though he had always thought Arthur had known that they would never be able to see each other socially, that they could never be anything without a piece of paper existing between them.

Merlin supplied, "You can only see me through contracts."

"Yes," Arthur said, sounding angry. "That's why -- all of this -- you came on so strong so I'd pay to be with you again."

Merlin's jaw dropped. "That's what this is? You think that I purposely played around with you to make you like me so I could get more money!"

"That's exactly what I think!"

"You are a bloody idiot!"

"Don't you talk to me like that," Arthur growled.

"It's not my fault! It's in the damned contract," Merlin retorted. "You read it and signed it, you prat!"

Arthur's features finally gave a little and there was hesitance in his eyes. "That's what my father said."

"Then why are you so angry at me?" Merlin spat. "You're supposed to be the savvy businessman here."

"Well, I was sort of thrown off that night by the fact my father had rented me a person," Arthur snapped at him. "It was a lot to take in at once! You should've mentioned something to me."

"I did," Merlin said. "Before we -- that night we first -- I said it's only the contract. You told me you could handle it. And then when you freaked out--"

"I never freaked out."

"You doubted," Merlin said. "Don't say you never doubted because you did. We worked it out again and I know I said it: this is just for the contract, you're the client and I'm the companion. Did I or didn't I?"

"That's not--"

"Did I or didn't I?" Merlin interrupted, repeating his question.

Arthur's jaw was set tensely, but he said, "You did."

"Right, there you go, then," Merlin said. "As far as I'm concerned, we were on the same page the whole time. I didn't know!"

"Fine, I will give you that," Arthur said, but he didn't look any more forgiving. "But tell me this -- did you want me to see you again? With a contract?"

Merlin swallowed hard. But he sighed and nodded. "I -- thought maybe you--"

"You thought wrong," Arthur interrupted. He shook his head firmly and he crossed his arms over his chest, stoic and unmoving. "I will not be a part of this and that is that."

"Fine," Merlin snapped at him. He splayed his arms to the side. "So we won't be seeing each other again, then. Fantastic. Once I'm gone you can put this whole bloody degrading thing behind you, and I'll go back to my life, and that is that."

Arthur's arms drop. "Merlin, wait." He took a step forward.

"No," Merlin said, his hands coming up to a halting motion, taking a step back. "You don't want me like this, right? Let's just stop it now, okay?" He started stepping away completely, heading for the other end of the kitchen, to exit into the hall where the bedrooms were. "I'll stay out of your way and you don't have to feel dirty and disgusting for getting involved with someone like me."

He turned away fully and only took two steps before Arthur said, "Merlin, stop."

Merlin's whole arm twitched as a shooting pain travelled up it, a harsh sting he hadn't felt in weeks. He couldn't contain the audible hiss.

"Right," Merlin said, his voice a little rough from the pain, his hand clenched to his chest. He turned back and looked at Arthur, whose eyes were wide and at least he had the decency to look abashed. Merlin said, trying to sound as dull and uninterested as he could, "We wouldn't want to waste your father's money."

"That's not--"

"How do you want it?" Merlin asked. He started to shrug off his suit jacket. "Do you want me to suck you off? Or should I get down on the floor on all fours so you can fuck me?

"Don't," Arthur said, voice wavering slightly, less cold than before.

Merlin knew this wasn't what Arthur wanted; he couldn't feel the comforting warmth at his wrist like all the other times. But the pain from the sting lingered -- he was still embarrassed, still feeling vulnerable, and as irrational as maybe it was, he was angry at Arthur. For not believing him, for losing trust; Merlin was hurt and it wasn't just physically and he hated that even more.

He couldn't help himself from lashing out. Pointing at the wall, in the direction of the dining room, he suggested, "Or maybe you can bend me over the table? Or do you want to sit on a chair and I'll ride you hard?"

"Enough," Arthur said. "Obviously now is not the time to talk."

"Do I even get a say? Does it even matter? You won't believe me."

"I will," Arthur replied.

"Or you'll just stop me and I'll have no choice."

"That's not what I want, Merlin," Arthur said. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "I didn't mean for that to happen."

"Well, it did," Merlin said flatly.

Arthur sighed. "You should go do what you were planning to do. Please."

"Sleep," Merlin said instantly. He remained guarded, closed off. "Alone."

Arthur nodded. "All right," he said, sounding resigned. "Go and get some sleep."

"Why, thank you, Arthur," Merlin said sarcastically, "for giving me permission to do so."

"Don't. Just ... don't, all right?"

"Right," Merlin muttered. "Don't want to anger my client any further."

Merlin scooped his discarded clothes off the floor and left the kitchen, not saying another word. He went to his room -- the guest room, it wasn't really his, he had to remember -- where he hadn't slept in weeks, and slammed the door after him. He didn't have many of his belongings left there, but he wasn't about to go to Arthur's room to get them. He stripped down, crawled under the blankets, burrowing deep, and tried to block everything else out.

Merlin did not sleep well, tossing and turning under the covers. His row with Arthur plagued his thoughts, keeping his mind from settling and giving in to rest. In the last hours of the night -- or the very early hours of the morning, depending on how one was to look at it -- he finally managed to sleep a little. He was woken up by the noises from the kitchen and he knew it was Arthur, going about his usual early morning routine before leaving for work. Merlin remained where he was, avoiding Arthur, and waiting until the noises died down before willing himself to fall asleep again for a couple of hours.

Merlin dozed on and off, and although he felt exhausted, he gave up when he figured sleep was eluding him completely. After staring up at the ceiling for too long, he finally dragged himself out of bed, and it was late into the morning. His eyelids were heavy and blinking felt like a chore. To try to revive himself more, he slipped into the shower, taking much longer than usual but revelling in the heat, feeling his tense muscles relax a little.

He stumbled into the kitchen in nothing but a towel wrapped around his waist, and his tired limbs fumbled around while he prepared a pot of coffee. Cupboard doors shut with a bang and he put his mug down on the worktop with too much force, the lack of grace causing the sound to bounce off the walls.

He jumped, startled, when a voice from behind him said, "Some of us are trying to sleep, you know."

Merlin whirled around, heart beating fast with the surprise. "Arthur!" he exclaimed, seeing the other man standing against the doorframe, ghost of a smirk on his handsome face at Merlin's reaction. "You arse!"

"Good morning to you too, Merlin," Arthur said dryly, rolling his eyes.

Insulting him the morning after an argument probably wasn't the best of ideas, Merlin realised, but Arthur didn't seem tense and uptight. He was nothing like the evening before, and that made Merlin relax a little.

Merlin said, "I thought you were gone for the day. I heard you getting ready for work."

"I had intended to," Arthur said as he walked into the kitchen. "But I thought -- we need to talk, Merlin."

Merlin nodded. "Probably a good idea."

"I didn't want to leave it all day," Arthur said. He pulled out a stool at the island and took a seat. "I called work, took the morning off. I must've fallen asleep on the sofa, waiting for you to get up."

"Sorry, didn't know," Merlin said, but Arthur shook his head, not seeming at all bothered with Merlin having a bit of a lie-in.

Merlin took a good look at Arthur; he appeared tired and had dark circles under his eyes. His tie knot was loosened and his usually impeccable suit was a bit creased, probably from stretching out on the sofa. And while he honestly wouldn't wish a poor sleep on Arthur, it was a little reassuring to know that Merlin wasn't the only one who had been bothered by their argument.

Merlin offered, "I didn't mean for you to miss work."

Arthur waved a dismissive hand. "Morning after our event, no one will think twice about it. I doubt Morgana is going in at all, but I had already arranged a meeting I can't miss later on today."

"Okay," Merlin said. "We should, you know, get this over with."

"Agreed," Arthur said. One of his eyebrows rose. "Would you mind?"

Merlin blinked. "What?"

Arthur gestured to him, and looking down Merlin remembered that he was, essentially, rather naked. Aside for the towel, of course. "Lovely view," Arthur said, a faint trace of humour in his voice, "but utterly distracting and will not at all help with productivity."

"Depends what kind of productivity," Merlin pointed out, feeling the atmosphere was relaxed enough he could tease back. In his sleepless wondering, he hadn't been sure what to expect when he next saw Arthur, knowing that his ridiculous claim the night before to stay out of the way for the remainder of the week wasn't exactly going to work, nor did he particularly want it once his anger had waned, but he was relieved to find Arthur didn't hate him. Or, at least, it appeared he didn't. Perhaps their talk would prove otherwise.

"Very funny," Arthur said dryly. He nodded his head over to the kitchen door. "Go get dressed, will you? Then we'll talk."

Merlin agreed and he hurried to Arthur's room, where all of his clothes were now. He pulled on a pair of jogging bottoms and a t-shirt. He used the towel to give his hair one more quick scrub to dry before he dropped it into the laundry basket. As he walked back down the corridor, he tried to pat down his hair so it wasn't sticking up all over the place.

Arthur was seated right where Merlin had left him, and Merlin was suddenly nervous. Talking things out meant -- well, talking. Merlin liked to ramble but he knew he wasn't very good when it came to serious stuff; there was also the fact he wasn't allowed to talk about a lot either, given his contracts with both Arthur and Aredian.

Arthur seemed to remember that. "I know you can't exactly divulge everything," Arthur said after he turned down a cup of coffee Merlin offered to prepare for him. "And if you can't say something, then don't. But. We need to figure this out."

"What exactly do you want to figure out?" Merlin asked as he poured a cup for himself, still not looking at Arthur. He picked up his mug and turned around, forcing himself to look at Arthur. He leaned against the counter, his fingers wrapped around the heated ceramic, the warmth somewhat comforting to him as he held it in front of himself like a shield. "I mean -- I thought it was figured out. I'm done Friday night and that's that."

Arthur shook his head. "You know it isn't. I don't want it to be the end of this."

Something flared in Merlin, hot and hungry and frantic. He did his best to push it down, to not let himself get disappointed. Instead, he asked, "So, you believe me? That I didn't mean -- I wasn't trying to use you--"

"I believe you," Arthur said, looking him straight in the eyes. "I shouldn't have accused you the way I did. It was just ... it caught me off guard."

"It's okay." Merlin shrugged.

"No, it's not. I shouldn't have let you think for a second that I don't want you."

Merlin's breath caught in his throat and he tried to bite back a smile. "You want me, eh?"

"Don't be an idiot, Merlin," was all Arthur said.

That got a smile from Merlin. But it quickly dropped and he sighed. "But you don't want me like this."

"No, I don't," Arthur agreed. "It's not right. I'm not going to pay for you. You shouldn't -- it's not exactly real this way, is it?"

"It's real enough. Whatever it is, I agreed to it. We both did. Those are the conditions."

"No. No, I refuse to believe it," Arthur said, shaking his head more vehemently now. "This isn't even legal! There is no way it can be! There has to be a way around this, and I am going to find it."

Merlin closed his eyes. Not this again. Not Arthur with all his hopes and determination that will just get them nowhere. At least it was on a smaller scale this time; maybe Arthur would focus on this and give up his dream of finding Merlin's magic again.

But Merlin knew. He knew neither was a reality.

"Legal or not, these contracts are binding, in their own way," Merlin said. "As long as I have one with, well. There will be no changing the conditions. There are consequences for not following them, and we both know I will be the one to suffer them."

Arthur's eyes dropped to Merlin's wrist. Merlin hadn't thought to put a band on that morning, and he often didn't around Arthur anymore, when they were tucked away in his flat. The gold and silver clip shone in the light that filtered through the window and into the kitchen, a reminder that Merlin had a physical price to pay if he didn't follow the agreement he signed.

Arthur asked, softly, "Would it be very terrible?"

"I've heard it can be," Merlin answered truthfully.


Merlin shook his head, not answering; it was something the Clipped whispered amongst themselves but none of them would dare share it with an outsider.

Arthur decided it wasn't the point he would push. "All right," he said, eyes meeting Merlin's again. "How long?"

"How long what?"

"You said, 'as long as I have one.' You don't mean with just me, or any other clients, do you? You meant about your boss landlord guy. Aredian. As long as your contract is binding to him, anything we have in ours stands. Am I right about that, at least?"

Merlin didn't answer as this wasn't something he was allowed to say. But he kept Arthur's gaze and there was the smallest of twitches to Merlin's mouth. Arthur was right, and Merlin hoped he understood that.

"Okay," Arthur said, nodding to himself. "Okay. So we'll have to wait that out, and you just don't renew your contract with him. Then we'd be free to do as we wished, correct?"

"In theory," Merlin agreed. It seemed that was within his limits to say, but he didn't expand on it; he was certain there were still limits as to what he would be able to say even once the contract was done. And even though the contract with the Pendragons put Merlin ahead of the game, if there was any debt to Aredian accumulated again, then Merlin wouldn't be released from it, that he knew but couldn't say.

"I'll take it," Arthur said. "How long?" Merlin didn't answer but that didn't seem to deter him. "Right. Well, apparently our having several weeks together is something a little ... special," he said, trying to find the right word for it. If it were any other time, Merlin would make either a smart remark, or a flirtatious one. But he left it alone and let Arthur concentrate on his train of thought. "So I'm thinking most are a few days, week at most, and they work inside Aredian's contract. Like he's renting you out. I'm sure he'd want to hold on to you for a while," Arthur said, sounding disgusted with that. He glanced up at Merlin, seeking reassurance.

Merlin didn't speak and his face betrayed nothing. He set his mug down on the worktop, and looked back at Arthur, neutral.

Arthur sighed but continued. "He rents you a room, so I'm thinking he probably sets something up like a lease, some of which occasionally run monthly but probably not in this case, so... yearly?" He looked at Merlin hopefully. "You signed a year contract but you're already into it so it's up soon?" Merlin smiled sadly and Arthur's shoulders sagged. "More than that?"

Merlin sighed. He hated not being able to talk to Arthur about it, so he did, with as little words as possible.

"Two left fuck!"

Merlin clutched his clipped wrist to his chest, the pain stinging through his arm. Arthur had jumped off his stool, looking as though he was ready to come to Merlin, but Merlin shook his head. "I'm fine," he said, though he sounded a bit winded. "Really, please. Sit."

He hated when Arthur had to care after him because of this; it made Merlin feel weak and vulnerable, and if there was anything he hated, it was that. Especially in front of Arthur.

Arthur seemed to understand. He sat down, albeit slowly, while keeping his eyes on Merlin. Merlin shook his wrist out, but gave Arthur a reassuring smile, as wobbly as it might've been. He insisted, "I'm fine."

"Okay," Arthur said. Then he scrubbed a hand over his face, intent eyes on Merlin. "Fuck," he breathed out. "Two years."

Merlin nodded. "I can't ask you to wait that long just for a date."

"Well, that won't be a problem," Arthur said confidently, "because I'm finding us a way out of this sooner than that."


"No, Merlin, listen to me. Let me believe this. I will do this. And you need to believe it too."

"I believe you really want it," Merlin conceded. "I believe you're that honourable and kind and that you're going to try. But you have to listen to me now, okay?"

"All right," Arthur said, waving his hand as if giving Merlin the floor. "I'm listening."

"You have to be realistic--"

"I am."

"No, Arthur, listen," Merlin said, throwing his hands out to the side, exasperated.

"Okay, okay."

"You have to prepare yourself," Merlin said, "that you might not succeed."

"But I will."

"You might not!"

"You don't believe in me," Arthur said heatedly.

"It's not that," Merlin tried to explain, but it felt an awful like the beginning of their argument the night before.

"Then tell me!"

Merlin yelled, "I don't want you to give up!"

Merlin clamped his mouth shut, the words that slipped out stunning him to silence. Arthur stared at him, blinking. "I won't," Arthur said. "I won't give up."

Merlin sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. "It's just a really long time. We're not allowed to communicate with each other--"

"We're not? Not at all?"

"It'll all have to go through my boss," Merlin explained. "So, no talking or anything. Definitely no seeing each other. And for that long?" Merlin shrugged helplessly, watching his own toe scuff at the floor. "You might want to just ... move on."

"I won't," Arthur insisted.

Merlin wanted to believe that, he really did. But since his mother passed and he'd been clipped, there hadn't been anyone who stuck by him that long. And while Arthur's intentions were the most genuine he'd ever come across -- it just didn't happen for him. He wasn't going to expect it.

Merlin said, "I know you'll try to stick it out. But if two years comes and you're not there." He shrugged, still unable to look at Arthur. "I understand that, I do. It's okay."

"Give me four months," Arthur said.

Merlin's eyes snapped up. "What?"

"Four months to figure this out," Arthur said. "And if I can't yet? Well."

Merlin blinked. "Well what?"

"I'll make sure we see each other."

"But you can only through--"

"A contract. I know."

"You'll set up one up?" Merlin asked. He winced at how hopefully he sounded, but he really needed Arthur to say it.

But Arthur's look softened. "Yes," he said quietly. "And even that feels like too long."

"I'd wait for you," Merlin said. Because he would, even if he didn't end up seeing Arthur on the other side. And despite the awful subject they had to discuss, he couldn't stop the smile from spreading across his face. "And I will not be setting up any other contracts with anyone else, I promise."

Arthur smirked confidently. "That's actually the least of my concerns. I never doubted that."

Merlin rolled his eyes. "So smug," he muttered as he pushed himself off from leaning against the counter. But, he smiled as he walked around the island, coming to stand right beside Arthur. He asked, "So we've a plan?"

Arthur swivelled in his seat, turning to face Merlin. "Sounds like."

"Good," Merlin said, stepping between Arthur's knees. But Merlin frowned as he looked down at Arthur. He reached out and lightly cupped Arthur's cheek. Arthur's eyes fluttered close and Merlin could hear Arthur's breath audibly catch in his throat. He rubbed his cheek against Merlin's palm.

Merlin's thumb rubbed lightly along the ridge of cheekbone under Arthur's eye. "You look tired."

Arthur murmured, "Didn't sleep well last night."

"I'm sorry," Merlin said, bringing his other hand up to Arthur's other cheek. And then, suddenly, the weight of it all crashed in on him, and it felt as if his ribs were being squeezed and all the air in his lungs were being pushed out of him in one big rush with the words, "I'm so sorry. For everything. For this mess. For putting you through this--"

"Merlin, don't. Don't be sorry. I'm not."

"Why?" Merlin asked, voice a bit strangled with emotion.

"Why what?"

"Why are you going through all this trouble?"

"Don't be stupid, Merlin," Arthur repeated. "You know why."

"Maybe I don't," Merlin said. He brushed down a strand of Arthur's hair that was ruffled. "Maybe you should tell me." He grinned, trying to bring light to the situation. "Is it because you're so smitten with me?"

"I am not smitten," Arthur protested. He rolled his eyes when he saw Merlin's playful grin. Arthur's smile softened a bit. "Though I can't deny, I suppose I am rather fond of you."

Arthur sounded so genuine that Merlin found it hard to swallow, his throat tightening with Merlin's own words from just the night before echoed back at him.

Arthur looked at him, eyebrow arched. "All right, brat. Your turn."

"Haven't the foggiest what you're going on about," Merlin responded playfully.

Arthur smirked. "Must be because you are so smitten with me and we both know it--"

Merlin cut Arthur off by leaning down and pressing his lips against Arthur's. Arthur gave a little startled noise, but he quickly relaxed into it.

Merlin had always kept in mind the words from the meeting when he signed the contract, Arthur likes control, and after that night he had tried to take the lead, comfort Arthur, only to get a sting to his wrist, and so Merlin kept it that way. Let Arthur take the lead with the first touches or the wanting looks, or use the warmth around his wrist to guide him, and it seemed to make Arthur happy enough.

But this was Merlin wanting Arthur, and desperately. His hand tangled into the hair at the back of Arthur's head, tugging back lightly, and Arthur tilted back for Merlin. Arthur's opened easily for him, shuddering as Merlin's tongue slipped in, caressing against Arthur's.

He could feel Arthur melt into it, the kisses and touches, and for a brief moment, he wondered if maybe Arthur had been waiting for him.

And Merlin thought, for the first time and truly, mine, just as surely as he now knew he was Arthur's.

When Merlin pulled away, breathless, he rested his cheek against the top of Arthur's head, his arms resting on Arthur's shoulders, wrapped around his neck. He inhaled deep, the smell of Arthur's hair filling his nostrils. He was a little more aware now, conscious of Arthur's hands rested on the back of his thighs, fingers curled in the loose fitting jogging bottoms.

Arthur rested his head against Merlin's torso. He said, voice shaky, "Hold that thought, yeah?"

Merlin pulled back, looking down at him and pouting.

Arthur said, apologetically, "Duty calls. I have to go into work."

Merlin stepped back a bit as Arthur moved to stand up, but didn't let go of his shoulders. Arthur seemed rather reluctant to let go too, his hands moving to settle on Merlin's hips. Merlin sighed, "Not fair."

"I know, I know, I'm a horrible man who keeps to his responsibilities," he said dryly, but he was grinning a bit.

"Completely horrible," Merlin agreed lightly. But he felt elated, and good, and a strange feeling was settling over him. Hope, maybe. He found he couldn't look at Arthur without wanting to just kiss him -- so, he did. He leaned in and gave Arthur a firm kiss, and delighted in the disappointed noise Arthur made when Merlin pulled away.

"Stupid work," Arthur grumbled, pulling away from Merlin all together, making it look like the most difficult task in the entire world.

Merlin couldn't help but smile.

"Enough out of you," Arthur grumbled, but he smiled too. He straightened his tie and smoothed his hands over the arms of his suit coat, trying to rid it off its wrinkles. He sighed, giving up. "I need to go change -- stay right there!" he warned Merlin, pointing a finger at him when Merlin grinned.

"What?" Merlin asked innocently, but laughed when Arthur gave him a 'you know what' look and ducked out of the kitchen.

When Arthur returned a few minutes later, Merlin was sitting at the island with his coffee cup in hand, flipping through the newspaper.

"That thing," he said to Arthur while pointing at Arthur's mobile, which was sitting on the worktop, "has vibrated at least four times in the last four minutes."

"I don't doubt. Next year, I'm just booking the day off ahead of time." He picking it up and thumbing through the messages. "All can wait until I get to the office," he said, shoving the mobile into his pocket. He picked up his briefcase and walked over to Merlin. In a falsetto voice, he said, "Goodbye, dear."

"Leave it out,” Merlin said with a roll of his eyes, but he laughed. Arthur grinned at him and pecked a quick kiss to Merlin's cheek.

"I might be a bit late," Arthur said. "But I'll pick us up takeaway, yes?"

"Sure," Merlin said. "Now, go, before I ravish you."

Arthur blinked at him once, held up a finger and said, "You better hold that thought."

Merlin laughed, and with that, Arthur was gone, but Merlin was feeling much, much better.

The front door shutting tight woke Merlin from his nap with a start. He was in the living room, stretched out on the sofa. He was disorientated for a moment, but as he blinked and looked around the room, he remembered. He had been trying to do some reading for his coursework but must've fallen asleep.


"In here!" Merlin called out groggily. He heard the familiar sound of keys dropping into the little ceramic bowl near the front door and Arthur open the front cupboard, hanging up his coat.

"All right. I brought food," Arthur called back to him.

"Be right there," Merlin replied. He swung his legs over the couch, arching his back as he stretched his arms up in the air, trying to loosen muscles. He picked up his book and closed it, placing it on the table, and stood up.

"Hey," he said as he went into the kitchen. Arthur was making fast work of setting out the takeaway, removing lids from little aluminum bowls, a number off them spread out on the island. There were going to be leftovers for days.

"Should still be warm," Arthur said. "Grab us some plates?"

"Yeah, sure," Merlin said. He walked past, brushing his hand lightly on Arthur's back. When he rounded the island and glanced over, he saw a small smile on Arthur's face as he dug through the paper bag to get out some sauces. Merlin smiled to himself as he took plates down out of the cupboard, but thought of a much better plan than eating dinner right then.

"Let's eat," Arthur said, sliding into one of the tall stools.

Merlin hummed noncommittally under his breath, rounded back around the island, and put the plates down on the worktop. Arthur immediately grabbed one, and started to spoon some Pad Thai onto his plate. "Looks good," he commented.

Merlin kept his eyes on Arthur's profile. "Sure does."
But instead of sitting down next to Arthur, Merlin tailed one hand on Arthur's shoulder and then came to stand right behind him.

Arthur's movements froze mid-air, but only for a brief moment. "Merlin," he said. "Aren't you hungry?"

"Oh, I'm hungry, but for--"

"--If you're going to say something cheesy like for you," Arthur said dryly, but with faint amusement, "I'm never going to take you seriously ever again."

"Fine, I won't say it," Merlin said. He was behind Arthur, and each of his hands slipped down from their place on his shoulders and moved around to his chest as Merlin leaned in. He pressed closer to him and nipped lightly at the shell of Arthur's ear; Arthur's shoulders tensed and Merlin could hear him swallow. Merlin said cheekily, "Doesn't make it any less true."

Arthur snorted, but put down the container and spoon he had been holding. His hands rested in loose fists on either side of his plate and he leaned back into Merlin's embrace. He turned his head slightly and Merlin met him in a light but slightly sloppy kiss. When Arthur pulled away, Merlin planted kisses along his jaw while his hands made clumsy work of his customary red tie.

"What are you doing?"

"What does it look like?" Merlin asked between peppered kisses. "I'm done with holding on to my thought. I have been holding on to it, and thinking about it, and building on it, all day."

Arthur was silent for a moment before asking, "Building on it?"

"Yes," Merlin answered. He finally had Arthur's tie undone, and the ends hung down over his body. Merlin's fingers moved to start unbuttoning his shirt, slowly. "Fantasizing, I suppose it should be called. While having a well-deserved wank, I must say."

Arthur leaned his head back against Merlin's shoulder, closed his eyes, and softly groaned. "You didn't."

"I did," Merlin quipped, amused. "But don't worry, it was much earlier so I'm ready again. Want me to tell you about it?"

"I'd much rather you show me," Arthur said, voice low and husky.

"Me wanking?" Merlin said, and Arthur's head nodded slightly. Merlin nipped at Arthur's ear, and grinned. "That would be fun. But don't you want to hear about the things I plan on doing to you?"

Arthur's eyes cracked half-open and he tilted his head a little to try to look at Merlin. "To me?"

Merlin kissed him again, keeping it light and gentle, pulling back when Arthur tried to deepen it. Arthur groaned in frustration and Merlin chuckled, nuzzling at his neck again. "Yes," Merlin answered. "I have plans for you."

His voice was quiet but he knew Arthur heard him perfectly clear. Merlin had undid about half the buttons on Arthur's shirt, and one of his hands now dipped in, pressing against warm skin. The pads of his fingers brushed lightly over one of Arthur's nipples and Arthur exhaled shakily. "Plans?"

"Mmm, yes," Merlin hummed against his neck. "I just want to pay you back in kind, you see."

"For what?" Arthur's hands still sat on the worktop but were in tight fists now. But he didn't make a move, just let Merlin do the touching and the kissing, which was exactly what Merlin wanted.

"You always make me feel so good," Merlin said into his ear. "I want to do the same for you."

"You do," Arthur said breathlessly, "I swear to god, you do."

"You get off on getting me off," Merlin said lowly. Arthur's Adam's Apple bobbed under Merlin's lips as he swallowed. "It's so hot. But I want that to be me, trying to ... fuck, Arthur, make you go wild."

"Merlin, you don't have -- it's not like you --"

"I want to," Merlin tried to reassure, hearing the uncertainty in Arthur's voice. "It has nothing to do with this being a job." Merlin frowned, feeling disappointed for a brief moment. "Unless you don't want me to."

Merlin pulled back a little, his fingers dragging over Arthur's warm skin as he moved to take his hand out of his shirt; one of Arthur's hands flew up, trapping Merlin's under it, holding him close.

Arthur said, "Tell me."

Confidence renewed in the two small words, Merlin leaned back down, pressing his lips right behind Arthur's ear. "Maybe you were right. Maybe I should just show you instead?"

Arthur's hand squeezed Merlin's, and he nodded. "Fuck yes."

Merlin pulled away, but grabbed Arthur's tie and slid it off his neck. He started to back out of the kitchen, grinning playfully as Arthur turned to look at him. Arthur's cheeks had small spots of pink on them and his eyes looked at Merlin with a bit of curiosity, maybe a bit of caution, but a whole lot of interest.

Merlin had the tie in both hands and held it out in front of him, snapping it. "Coming?"

Arthur snorted but didn't make the obvious comment. Instead, he muttered, "Little fucker," and stood up, making quick strides to crowd into Merlin's space. He moved to put his hands on Merlin's hips but Merlin swatted at him as he stepped back out of reach.

"Not until I say," Merlin said.

"What have I got myself into?" Arthur muttered, but affectionately.

"Don't you trust me?"

"Yes," Arthur answered instantly, and any caution or uncertainty dropped from his look completely. "I do."

"Good," Merlin said, and tried hard not to smile too widely and loss any bit of sexiness he had going for him. He looped the tie back around his neck but pulled lightly on it, leading Arthur as he continued to walk backwards down the corridor to Arthur's bedroom. But he stopped a brief moment, pressing a reassuring kiss to Arthur's lips.

Arthur automatically put his hands on Merlin's hips but Merlin backed away, laughing as Arthur groaned when Merlin pushed his hands away again.

"This is going to take a bit of practice, isn't it?" Merlin asked teasingly.

Arthur said seriously, "Yes. All night, possibly. Maybe tomorrow night, too."

"A sacrifice I must bear," Merlin said happily, and took Arthur's hand in his to lead him to the bed.

Chapter Text

Merlin was standing, naked, in the middle of Arthur's large walk-in wardrobe. He could hear the water for the shower running in the bathroom, just on the other side of the wall.

"Of course he wants his fuzzy grey one," Merlin muttered, eying up the towel that was sitting at the bottom of a large stack. Merlin had done the washing two days before and really should have known better than to put Arthur's favourite towel on the shelf first then pile everything else on top of it.

Merlin grabbed at the corner of it and started to tug, his arm reaching up and placing a hand halfway up the stack, hoping to prevent it from tumbling down on him, as it was already starting to resemble the Tower of Pisa.

It didn't work.

But just as the towels started to fall over, about to shower him in fluffy softness, everything just froze. They stopped midair, one of them right beside his head and just inches from draping across his shoulder.

"Shit," Merlin breathed, and when everything unfroze after a couple seconds, he was so startled he jumped backed.

It was quite a shock and he moved so fast to get away, as if the towels were birds of prey; while flailing, his arms and back hit Arthur's shoe rack quite hard, and several pairs slid off and thudded to the floor around Merlin's feet.

"Merlin?" Arthur called, the name echoing off the tiles of the shower.

Stunned, Merlin didn't answer but glanced around him, seeing the mess of towels and shoes on the floor, and wondered what the flying fuck had just happened.

It was like at the charity dinner, when the champagne glass had paused long enough for Merlin to catch it. Merlin had assumed there was another magic user around who had done it, one that hadn't revealed themselves because there was no way Merlin could do that, and the funny feeling in his stomach was just sensing magic being cast around him. It wasn't as though he remembered what it was like, it'd been so long since it happened.

But he had that feeling in his stomach now, and could feel a slight itch around his clip, and there certainly wasn't any other magic users in Arthur's flat right then.

"Holy fuck," Merlin said to himself, hand coming up to cover his mouth. He'd ... had he ... magic.

"Merlin?" The walk-in door opened up fully, and there in all his glory, was Arthur Pendragon. Naked. And wet from his shower, with little rivulets of soapy water running from the tips of his hair.

"You're soaked!" Merlin exclaimed, watching as drops of water slide down Arthur's legs and formed small wet patches in the carpet around his feet.

"Yes, that happens when you're showering, jump out of it in concern, but no one has brought you a towel yet," Arthur said dryly.

"Oh, right!" Merlin bent down and scooped up Arthur's favourite towel, throwing it in his direction.

Arthur easily caught it, and scrubbed it over his face. But then he let his arm hang down, the end of the towel brushing against the floor. Arthur frowned. "What on earth happened here?"

"Oh, right," Merlin said sheepishly, glancing around, though his heart was beating fast. "I was attacked by towels and shoes."

"Right. It's the fault of towels and shoes."

"Completely," Merlin said, deadpanned. "They're out to get me, you know."

Arthur just rolled his eyes. "Were you being clumsy again?"

Merlin opened his mouth, the word magic on the tip of his tongue; it made him nervous, and slightly afraid. Not of Arthur, of course, but what it could all mean; Merlin could feel the tingling fading away so quickly he wondered if it had even been there in the first place and maybe he imagined it all. And the last thing he needed was to get Arthur excited over something that might've been an absolute fluke. He needed to know more, be certain, or be proven wrong, before he would say anything.

Merlin smiled. "Er, yeah," he agreed, and at least it wasn't an outright lie. But he stepped over the strewn mess and threw his arms around Arthur, pressing his lips against Arthur's. He pulled back and smiled. "You're soapy."

"Yes, that shower thing I was mentioning," Arthur said, but he grinned. "We should go and finish up, yeah?"

"Yes, definitely," Merlin said.

"And then you'll clean up this mess?"

"Well, I was thinking I'd get you cleaned, then we'll go eat our food, and then I'll get you all dirty again."

"Excellent plan," Arthur agreed. "This can wait until later."

"Yes, it can," Merlin said, and he meant that in more ways than one. But the slight guilt that was rising was quickly squashed down when Arthur pulled Merlin closer and walked them to the shower.

Merlin shifted in the hard plastic seat, taking a deep breath and trying not to become too impatient. He chewed on his thumbnail, his left leg bouncing with jitters, and his eyes kept glancing up at the clock on the wall above the desk he was sitting in front of.

He had no idea what he was doing there, no more than he had any idea as to why he had waited for over fifteen minutes, when it was the last place in the whole city he wanted to be, since it brought up way to many memories from the past.

All right, that wasn't exactly true -- he knew exactly why he was there.

He blamed Arthur for this. Entirely.

Gwen's office hadn't changed much in the couple of years since Merlin had been there last. And he used the term office very loosely. It was a large room, yes, but separated by tall partitions into four cubicles and completely lacked any real privacy for the serious conversations that Gwen must need to have, given the sensitive nature of her role as a social worker.

Merlin remembered how awkward it had been, Gwen trying to speak lowly as she told him about his new foster placement. That had been the last time he'd spoken to her. Well, other than when he ran into her the month before, with Arthur, and had acted quite childish and treated her poorly.

Funny, that. He wouldn't have thought that way about the exchange before. Another thing he blamed Arthur and all his good breeding for.

Although, yes, remembering it now left Merlin feeling rather embarrassed, even though Arthur claimed to have apologised on his behalf; but it didn't make him feel any less awkward when Gwen finally swept into the office.

"Merlin!" she said, surprised. She seemed momentarily frozen in place, though her fingers flexed around the edges of the file folders she was carrying. Anxious, maybe; Merlin understood. "I didn't know -- I hadn't expected you -- Were you waiting long?"

"Um. Not too long," Merlin replied. His knee had stopped jiggling and he sat rigidly in the chair. "I didn't mean to -- I can go, if you're busy." And with that, he started to push himself up.

"Oh, no, you don't--" Gwen stepped forward, an arm extended. Merlin froze, halfway standing, staring at her hand as it reached for him.

Gwen pulled it back, pushing locks of curly hair behind her ear. "Please, stay," she said with a cautious smile. She moved quickly, going behind her desk, sitting down as she dropped the files on top of it. "It's perfectly fine, you don't have to go."

Despite what he considered his better judgment, Merlin left himself drop back down into the chair. He and Gwen looked at each other for a moment, awkward, before she finally said, "How're you doing, Merlin?"

"Good," he answered automatically. She'd probably heard that exact answer from him half a dozen times before -- abrupt, closed off, not really the truth.

Well. It was kind of the truth this time, at least more so than any other time in his life.

She smiled, and maybe she detected something different in his voice now, because it actually looked like she believed him. "That's great to hear. I -- I'm sorry, but I don't know why you're here. I'm not your case worker anymore, am I?"

He shook his head. No, she wasn't. He was too old now, of age and able to make decisions and choices of his own ... or, well. Within the limits of his contracts, anyway. But that wouldn't be for always, and he might be free someday, to have a life of his own.

And that was why he was there.

He could still hear Arthur's words from the night before, when they'd been lying in bed, catching their breath while the salty sweat dried on their skin.

("So we have a plan," Arthur had said. "For us."

Merlin's eyes were closed but he had smiled. "We do."

"What's your plans for you?"

Merlin had remained quiet, not opening his eyes, but he'd accepted Arthur's body as Arthur rolled over and carefully covered him.

Merlin knew what Arthur was trying to get at, but he had no answer, so he said nothing.

Arthur seemed to understand; as he nuzzled his nose against Merlin's jaw, he said, "Think we both know someone who can help you figure that out.")

Merlin had no idea where to start with Gwen, how to explain and, holy crap, how to ask for help. He'd never really done that before, always making his way on his own because, well, he'd only had himself before. But things had change, a bit, and he had someone now who had become the automatic default to his thoughts and his life, so he decided to start there.

"Arthur brought me those books you gave to him."

Gwen visibly relaxed and the smile on her face was so genuine, making the corners of her eyes crinkle just a bit. "Did he? I'm glad."

"Yeah. And, uh." Merlin coughed. "So. About going for exams--"

"Oh, I have all that…," Gwen quickly said. She became a flurry of movements, standing out of her chair while it wheeled back slightly, and opened the top drawer of a filing cabinet. "Here is some information," she said, pulling out a form and slapping it down on the desk. She stood over her computer keyboard, grabbing the mouse and shaking it across the mouse pad, the computer screen jumping to life. Bringing up a browser, she typed quickly into the search engine. "I'll just find dates--"

"Wait, wait," Merlin said quickly, slightly panicking. She glanced over and the look on his face must've been enough for her.

"Oh, Merlin, I'm sorry," she said, pulling her chair back up behind her, taking a seat. "I was just -- I got ahead of myself, didn't? You're not ready for--"

"No, not yet," Merlin interjected. "I mean, maybe someday, but I'm really behind and it's kind of hard but I'm working at it, and I just--" He took in a breath. "I just want to know what I'm supposed to do. To get to the end of it." He figured there would be a lot more than just working through the modules in the books, but he hadn't a clue what to do when, and if, he ever got that far.

Gwen slid the paper across to him. "This is a start," she said. "There's some information, a web address -- or I can order a package, if you don't have access to the internet."

"I do sometimes," he said, and picked up the paper. He held it in two hands, fingers barely pressing together, as if afraid of breaking a very delicate ideal. "But not always. So. I don't know. Maybe?"

Gwen nodded, and picked up a pen, jotting down a note on a pink sticky-pad. "I'll order one. Then you can go through it and come to me with any questions you might have?"

"You're not my case worker anymore. So. If you don't want--"

"No, no. It's fine," Gwen reassured. She smiled softly. "I want to help. I always have."

"I'm sure you're busy."

"I'll make the time."

Merlin nodded. Okay. There was someone else out there who really wanting to help him. All right then. That was -- he could work with that.

Gwen continued. "Is there anything else I can help you with. Or. Maybe you want to talk about--"

"I want a place of my own," Merlin blurted out, but then he snapped his mouth shut. He hadn't meant to say that, he really hadn't.

But, damn that Arthur, he had Merlin thinking. Arthur hadn't brought up any mention of living together, nothing more beyond just wanting to see each other more and not under the confines of a contract. Merlin didn't want to make assumptions, nor was he sure that's how things should start out if they actually got the chance to have a real relationship. Merlin didn't know, this was all new and foreign to him. But he'd stayed up part of the night, long after Arthur mentioned Merlin coming up with a life plan of his own, and considered many things. Many, many things, probably all unreachable and unattainable, but it was more than he'd ever allowed himself before.

"That's an excellent goal," Gwen said seriously, and it made Merlin feel a little less stupid for dreaming too big.

"I don't -- rent and stuff is an issue." Because there was no way he'd keep up with his current line of work, and he wasn't about to accept Arthur's money either. Merlin sighed, deflating a little the more and more he thought of the logistics. "People don't hire my kind --"

"Humans?" Gwen said. "Of course they do."

"Don't try to make this something it's not," Merlin said, falling back on old defences. "You know, maybe this is just stupid--"

"It's not stupid," Gwen said. "And, all right, you'll have challenges, but there are people out there willing to help."

"Like who?"

"Me," Gwen said. She clicked at her computer again. "You've been on my mind for a long time, Merlin. You were one of my first cases and, well, we both know it didn't go overly well for either of us. But it only made me want to do better. To help people like you. I've been gathering together resources, and I'm trying to vie for government help--"

Merlin snorted at that. He couldn't help it. "They don't care."

"Times are changing. And there are social services for all sorts of people so I think it's only fair that it goes to the Clipped too."

"Riiiiight," Merlin said. "Good luck with that one."

"Thank you," Gwen replied. Either she didn't detect Merlin's sarcasm or she was choosing to ignore it. "It's been a battle but I'll make it there. You will too."

Merlin didn't know what to say to that, and he didn't want to get into it anymore. He stood up abruptly. "Yes, well. I can't do anything about it for a couple years anyway."

"Why not, Merlin? Why not now?"

"I can't," he said shortly. "And, no, I'm not talking about it." He just barely remembered not to act like last time, to not act like an ungrateful child. He lifted the paper half-heartedly. "Thanks for this."

"No problem, any time."

"Right. And. Yeah, I'm sorry. About before? When I saw you." He shifted awkwardly, trying to figure out what more he should say.

She shook her head dismissively. "It's quite all right, don't worry about it."

He didn't think it was supposed to be all right at all, but he just gave a small smile, and nodded a parting. He turned to leave, but when he got to the door, he paused and sighed. He looked back at her. "You should talk to Arthur."

She looked at him curiously. "About what?"

"About --" he waved his hand though the air "--finding ways to help. He'd be a good ally in that fight, he knows important people and you know the system. I mean, you're both completely delusional and don't stand a fighting chance, but at least you'd be doing it together."

Gwen smiled softly. "Well, I'll keep that in mind. Thank you, Merlin."

"Yeah. See you."

"Please, come by any time you want, for anything you need."

He nodded but didn't say anything further.

Merlin left the building and headed to the Tube station, and it took everything within him not to throw the piece of paper he held in his hand into the rubbish bin.
Instead, he folded it up carefully and put it in his pocket.

Merlin thought a lot while travelling on the underground as he headed back to Arthur's flat. And he was thinking clearer now that it wasn't late at night after amazing marathon sex and a beautiful man whispering encouraging things into his ear. On the Tube, surrounded by all kinds of other people, after admitting out loud that maybe he did want something more with his life, did do a bit of sobering up to his mind and it wasn't reaching quite as far as it had been in the previous couple days.

But that didn't mean he gave up. One day at a time, right? He'd always taken that approach, no need to change it now; at least there was some sort of direction now, though. And so he got home and tucked the information from Gwen away safely in the box full of stolen licenses, which was the place he put things he planned on dealing with in the future.

And he pulled out his course books, sat at the dining room table, and worked on some maths problems.

That, he could handle right now.

He was working on them still when Arthur returned home; a greeting was called out as Merlin heard the keys drop into the bowl, the overcoat being hung up in the front cupboard, followed by the noises of tea being prepared in the kitchen. It was all becoming comfortable, routine, and a slight pang jolted in Merlin's stomach when he realised that would be gone in just a couple of days.

He betrayed nothing when Arthur joined Merlin in the dining room, putting a mug down beside Merlin's algebra text, the tea prepared just how Merlin liked it.

Arthur sat down beside him, taking a small sip out of his own. His other arm came to rest lightly on the back of Merlin's chair, fingers brushing his arm lightly. "Good day?"

Merlin nodded. "Yeah. I, uh." Really, there was no need to keep it a secret, right? "I saw Gwen today."


Merlin rolled his eyes at how Arthur tried to remain impassive, when clearly he was curious as to how it went.

"Yep. How was your day?"

"Now, wait a second here--" Arthur protested immediately, and Merlin couldn't contain his grin. Arthur narrowed his eyes. "You did that on purpose, you brat."


"Perhaps my arse."

"Yes, we'll do that later. Don't you want to hear about my meeting with Gwen?"

Arthur tugged lightly on the short hairs at the nape of Merlin's neck and Merlin ducked his head away, but with a smile. Arthur's fingers dropped slightly and they began to rub the skin right above the collar of Merlin's shirt. "Just tell me."

Merlin shrugged. "Nothing to say, really. She gave me some information to figure out how to get my GCSEs. And, um. She might be able to help out some day in the future."

"Future? Not now?"

Merlin sighed. "You know I can't do anything about it now. But, you know. Someday. And you should talk to her so you can be all heroic and stuff."

Arthur didn't say anything to that, just kept his fingertips moving and sipped on his tea again. After a moment of silence, he put his mug down on the tabletop. He turned slightly and slid that now free hand under the table to rest on Merlin's thigh. He pulled Merlin close, while leaning in, and pressed a kiss to his temple.

And promptly let him go, leaning back in his chair. "Aren't you going to ask me how my day went?"

Merlin rolled his eyes, but was glad Arthur didn't push the issue. "Let me guess," Merlin said. "You had several meetings, yelled at your email while typing a polite but firm reply, actually yelled at someone on the phone, and got into an argument with Morgana for an hour? All while making a load of money for your father’s company."

"Yes," Arthur agreed. "But I got enough of that done that I'm taking Friday off."

Merlin tensed, and glanced over at Arthur. Arthur's face had a passive look, but Merlin could tell he was watching closely for Merlin's reaction.

Merlin sighed. "Arthur, don't."

"Don't what? Take a day off work? Don't you think I deserve it?"

"Well, I'm sure you do, but--"

"There we are. Not a big deal."

"That's it exactly. I don't want Friday to be a big deal," Merlin insisted. It may be the last day of their contract, but he just wanted it to pass by like any other day. It would be easier that way. "You're going to plan something stupid and extravagant, aren't you?"

Arthur said through his teeth, "No."

"You're so bad at lying," Merlin said, sighing. For someone who had claimed not to be a romance and roses type of guy, Merlin had a feeling Arthur would be exactly that. "I just want -- it's just a normal day. I don't want -- I have to go back to my real life after this, and if you treat me any different just because I am--"

Arthur interrupted him. "I won't, all right? I'll have you know, it's quite normal for hard working people to take extra days off."

"I know, but you're doing it for --"

"Me. I'm being a selfish bastard and I'm doing it for me, yes you're right. How dare I?"

Merlin shook his head, and despite trying to keep it in, a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. "All right, all right, fine. You're taking the day off. I already have plans, though, so what're you going to be up to?"

Arthur blinked at him, then scowled. "What do you mean, you already have plans?"

"Well, I wasn't going to sit around all day by myself--"

"-- I thought you weren't making a big deal about it--"

"-- I'm not!" Merlin countered with a shrug. "But I made plans to meet up with Will that day."

"Cancel them," Arthur said firmly.

"I'm not bailing on my friend! Besides, I wanted to see him before I go away."

"You're not going anywhere, Merlin," Arthur said, sighing. "You still live in the city."

"Yeah, I know. But." Merlin shrugged. It was hard to explain, but it almost didn't feel right to carry on as if everything was the same. "It's different. I mean. Once this is over--"

"Nothing is over. We might be on pause for a bit, but you can still see your friend."

"Yeah, I guess."

"No guessing. It's true. I say so. So, change your plans," Arthur said, leaving no room for argument in his tone.

Merlin smirked. "Oh, is this you telling me what to do?"

"No, of course not."

"I think it is. Or," Merlin asked slyly, "are you begging me?"

"Absolutely not," Arthur said, pompously. "I don't beg anyone for anything."

"Oh, really?" Merlin said. He shifted in his chair, giving Arthur a predatory leer. "But wouldn't that be fun?"

Arthur only raised an eyebrow. "Fun?"

"Oh, yes," Merlin said. He started to crawl onto Arthur's lap, trying to arrange his limbs around Arthur's firm body. One of Arthur's arms came around him, though his other hand gripped at the edge of the table to try to prevent them from falling backwards. Merlin pressed his face into the crook of Arthur's neck. "Can you even imagine? Having Arthur Pendragon begging me."

"Won't happen," Arthur said into Merlin's ear.

"On your knees in front of me," Merlin said, sucking gently on the skin at Arthur's neck. His fingers trailed lightly over the front of Arthur's buttoned shirt, tugging lightly at the buttons but not undoing them. "God, that would be so hot."

"Merlin," Arthur said, sounding breathless.

Merlin pulled back slightly, so he could look down at Arthur's face. "You won't beg?"

Arthur shook his head. "No," he answered, though he didn't sound very confident. He swallowed. "But I'll ask. Spend the day with me Friday?"

Merlin kissed Arthur, making an affirmation noise. "Yeah," he said against Arthur's lips, not able to pretend any longer there was any other answer. "Yes, I will."

"Good," Arthur said, voice full of bravado again. He lightly smacked Merlin's arse, causing Merlin to huff and squirm around. Arthur laughed. "We need to move before we topple over."

"Oh, right," Merlin said, scrambling off of him. "Laying down is a much better idea -- Oh, wait, sofa! Still sitting up and laps." He grabbed Arthur's hand and dragged him along -- not that Arthur put up any resistance at all.

Thankfully, Will was fine with changing his plans with Merlin, and they met up a day earlier than planned. He didn't seem to have any problem at all with blowing off one of his IT classes for it, either.

Merlin had apologised, saying that Will really didn't need to do that, there would always be other times (so Merlin had been convinced by Arthur.)

No problem at all, just a web design class, Will had wrote in his email, could do it in my sleep.

So Merlin and Will met at a little pub Will knew, which had the best greasy fish and chips and pints of beer. Merlin kept the name and location in the back of his mind; he bet Arthur and Leon would like this place, if they didn't already know about it.

As the week had worn on, and despite his best efforts, Merlin felt a bit ... off. Strained, anxious, and his mind was constantly running with scenarios of what it would be like to go back to Coven House. How he was supposed to figure out a way to buy food without stealing anymore; what it would be like to see everyone else again; and, what if Arthur really did move on, even though he'd already claimed he wouldn't.

Will must've noticed something. Half way through his second pint, he put it down on the table with a loud thud. "Look, mate, I ditched a class for this. The least you could is pretend you're listening."

Merlin glanced up from where he had been idly pushing a chip around on his plate. "You were talking about that blond girl in your class you want to shag. See, I'm listening, though the topic isn't really my taste."

Will snorted but he grinned. "True enough. You could talk about your boyfriend if you want. Though, okay, I don't want all the nasty details."

Merlin blinked at him. "I never said I had a boyfriend." The most he'd ever said was that he was staying with a friend for a few weeks. Which, okay, wasn't exactly the whole truth but it was close enough, he supposed. He had no clue on how to approach the topic. Hey, Will, I work as a companion. Yeah, yeah that means I get paid for sex, what of it?

Though, the more and more time he spent with his childhood friend, he started to think that Will probably wouldn't care at all. Or, rather, care and that was kind of nice too.

Will gave Merlin a smirk. "Then who was that blond bloke the other night?"

"That blond -- how'd you know?"

"Mind reading powers," Will said, bringing a hand up to his head and wiggling them. Merlin rolled his eyes and threw a chip at him, and Will ducked and laughed. "Fine, fine. I saw you two coming out of the cinema last week, but I lost you in the crowd before I could catch up to say hello."

"Oh. Well. That's just my friend I stay with," Merlin said, shrugging.

Will shoved a couple chips in his mouth. "Then he must be a friend with benefits. And if he's not, you're a cocktease."

Merlin couldn't help but laugh, cheeks flushing. "What are you going on about?"

"That man looked like he wanted to pounce on you and shag you silly, right in the middle of the lobby. So either he's had a taste and wants more, or you've been holding out."

"All right, all right. He's. Well, he's something."

"Friends with benefits."

"Not exactly." Merlin shrugged; he supposed that's what he could call it under the contract, which they technically still had. But, with their recent talks, it seemed as though he should be called more.


"Um. I don't know?" Merlin bit his lip, trying not to smile. They hadn't mentioned that at all, and it was a weird and foreign concept to him; that sounded a little too serious, given they didn't even know when they'd see each other again after the following day.

"Okay, so it's complicated."

Merlin nodded. "Exactly."

Will shrugged. "Good enough." He scrunched his nose. "Although, he looked sort of posh and pompous and as if he believed he owned in the world."

Merlin laughed. "Got it in one."

"What do you see in him?" Will asked, taking a sip of his pint. After swallowing, he added, "Must be the money."

"Nah," Merlin said. He shrugged. "He may be all of that, but he's more."

"Oh, right," Will said sarcastically. "A rich bloke with a heart of gold."

Merlin grinned. "Something like that."

"Yeah, right," Will said. He didn't sound as if he believe Merlin, but he didn't push it, and he didn't try to put Merlin down for it either. "So, what's the most public place you two have had sex?"


"What? You look like you're seconds away from, I don't know, spouting about how wonderful and noble this guy is. If I have to hear anything, it may as well be interesting."

"Come on, that? You really want to know?"

"Hey, these are the kinds of things friends talk about, right?" Will asked. Merlin shrugged; he hadn't really thought about it much before, the only friend he'd really had before was Freya and there was no way he'd talk to her about this sort of stuff.

Will continued, "As a show of good faith, I'll go first. With my ex-girlfriend, at her parent's house in the garden. Behind some shrubs, but I'm pretty sure the pervy old man next door had his binoculars pointed right at us."

Merlin laughed. "No way."

Will nodded with his lopsided grin on his face. "I kept telling her to be quiet, but she's a bit of a high-pitched moaner so I'm pretty sure the sound carried up to the open window to her parent's room on the second floor. They wouldn't look at her for days."

"No, they were home?"

"Why do you think we were out in the garden?" Will asked, smirking. He leaned back in his chair and pointed at Merlin. "Come on, your turn."

"Fine, fine," Merlin said. "Two nights ago--"

"Whoa-ho, that's recent."

Merlin continued, a cheeky grin. "Yeah. We were at the shopping centre and I was driving him mad with little touches, or rubbing up against his--"

"Yeah, yeah, I get the picture --"

"So he practically dragged me into this posh men's shop, right? Grabbed some trousers without even looking at them, acted all suave and the saleswoman was eating it up, let him right into a dressing room. Two seconds after she'd left, he pulled me in there."

"So, what, rubbing against each other to get off?"

"Full-on sex. Always carry a single-use pack of lube and a condom when I'm with that one."

"Okay, that's getting to be a bit too much info--"

"And it was a really big dressing room, see," Merlin continued, feeling the blush rise to his cheeks but thoroughly amused at how Will was looking more and more uncomfortable, "so I was able to get down on the floor, right? And there were mirrors everywhere--"

"All right, all right!" Will exclaimed. He put his hands up defensively in the air, but he was laughing. "I get the picture. I get too much of the picture."

Merlin shrugged, but had a grin on his face. "Hey, you're the one who asked. Isn't this what friends talk about?"

"Yes, well, I'm setting limits on the over-description of man-on-man sexi, all right?"

Merlin laughed. "Sure."

Will sat in silence for a couple seconds, just staring at Merlin. Finally, he asked, "Did the saleswoman hear you?"

"Pretty sure the whole shop did, actually."

Will lifted his pint. "Cheers, mate."

Merlin laughed and clinked Will's glass with his own.

The rest of the time at the pub went well. Really uneventful, even. Just Merlin and Will, talking and eating and having a good time. It was comfortable, and fun, and Merlin was happy for that.

It was when they left the pub, about to part ways, when things changed.

"Later, mate. I'll email you," Will said over his shoulder. Merlin lifted a hand and gave a small wave.

Will was just a couple steps into the road when a lorry turned around the corner, going much too fast for the narrow road. Merlin could see it happening; Will turned to look in its direction, seeing it but not able to react in time.

Just as Merlin's mum had done, all those years ago.

It happened so fast, an automatic reaction; Merlin could feel it rushing through his body, filling him up completely and bursting out the fingertips he had reached out -- magic.

The world paused.

The lorry stopped barrelling down the street. Will was still, his head turned and foot mid-air. Even the low-flying bird off to Merlin's right was frozen in the air.

Merlin took but one second to inhale a deep breath and take the whole picture in. But he would not tempt fate, not misuse his time in this quiet, creepily still scene. He quickly rushed forward and grabbed Will by the shoulder. Just as he pulled back, everything jumped to life. But Merlin and Will spilled backwards to the pavement, and the lorry swerved, and everything was okay.


"Oh, god," Merlin breathed. His voice sounded hoarse to his own ears. He wanted to check on Will, make sure his friend was okay. But the pain rushing through his arm, mostly pooled around the clip under its leather band at his wrist, caused Merlin to roll into a ball and try to hold in sobs of pain.

"Merlin!" Will exclaimed. When Merlin looked up, he blinked his blurry vision, and Will's worried face came into focus. Will said, "Merlin, are you okay? Talk to me."

Merlin became aware of Will's hand gripping the material of his shirt. He tried to shrug it away. "I'm--" Merlin coughed, clearing his throat. He pushed himself up off the ground, awkward and nearly tumbling over again. Will took hold of his elbow and would not let go. Merlin tried again, "I'm fine."

"No, you're not," Will said, with a seriousness to him Merlin forgotten had existed. "You're -- that was --" Will's eyes glanced around the street. Merlin found his doing the same; no one seemed to be paying any attention to them, and thank goodness there wasn't a large creator beneath his feet. Will looked at Merlin, his voice dropped low. "That was one of your funny little tricks, wasn't it?"

Merlin nodded slowly but said nothing.

"I thought you couldn't do that any more?"

Merlin took in a ragged breath and looked Will right in the eyes. "I can't."

"You just did."

"I -- yeah."

"You saved my life." Will looked at Merlin with a bit of wonder and awe.

"I -- no, I didn't."

"You did."

Merlin shrugged helplessly, clutching his sore hand to his chest. "I'm not sure it matters. It's not like I'd be able to do it again."

"Of course it matters, idiot." Will glanced at his hand but looked up again. "And why not?"

Merlin's head hung low, shoulders hunched over, as if trying to make himself invisible. Who knew what would happen if the wrong people found out about this? "I can't control it. I don't know why it's doing this. It's not supposed to."

Will nodded, as if to himself. "All right. All right then." He looked around the street, and then hooked his thumb over his shoulder. "We're going to mine."

"Will, I need to go--"

"Your blond playboy can wait an extra hour. Come on."

Merlin followed him. He wasn't sure what Will wanted, or what he was going to do, but Merlin needed to just -- yes, get off the street, catch his breath. Compose himself.

And decide what he was going to do about it.

Will had a small flat he shared with a friend who also attended uni. Thank fuck he wasn't like Will and skipping a class, so he wasn't around. Will offered Merlin a beer, and although he already drank more than he usually did, Merlin took it gratefully. He took a deep swig and out of the corner of his eye saw Will watching him. But Merlin didn't say anything.

Finally, Will asked, "You gonna tell me what's going on here?"

Merlin sighed. He shrugged and absently rubbed at the band around his wrist. It wasn't a stinging pain anymore but there was a residual itch. "It's just been a couple times, recently. But I have no idea why, or how to control it. It just ... happens."

"Like a natural instinct?"


"Okay," Will said. "Tell me what happened."

The story spilled out of Merlin -- not that he had much to say, nor did it take very long to tell about the three incidents of magic he experienced recently. But it felt like a weight lifting off his shoulders, being able to talk about it to someone. And he found that, yeah, he trusted Will and that was an odd feeling but kind of nice too.

He talked about the flute of champagne, and of the attacking towels in the cupboard. Will already knew what happened that day, but Merlin explained the feeling -- that it was so suddenly, that he had worried and wanted Will to be safe. So he paused the world, just a little. Just enough.

"I can't get my hopes up," Merlin said, sagging back into the old sofa. He splayed his arms in the air. "I can't just make it happen. I want to, but I can't."

"Have you been trying?"


"Have you tried practicing? With your -- power."

Merlin shook his head. "No, because. I mean. How would I do that?"

Will pushed himself up from his chair, clapping his hands together. "We'll figure out a way." He rushed into the kitchen, and Merlin could hear the water tap running. Seconds later, Will returned with a plastic glass, a pitcher of water, and a tea-towel thrown over his shoulder. "For training," he announced.

"Training?" Merlin asked doubtfully.

"For magic," Will clarified. He poured water into the cup and placed it near the edge of the table that was between the sofa and his chair. "Try to do it again."

He knocked the glass over. And while Merlin reached out physically, with his hand, he was too far away and the water spilled all over the carpet.

"I'm sorry," Merlin said, though he didn't know exactly what he was apologising for. Will just shook his head, pick up the glass and poured more water.

"Again," Will said.

After half an hour, and a very wet spot on the floor, there was no progress. Merlin didn't feel anything; not even the magic stirring in the pit of his stomach, like he'd felt before.

"This isn't working!" Merlin exclaimed, frustrated. He threw his hands up. "It's useless! I don't have magic anymore."

"Of course you do! You saved my life today! It's just locked away. You can do this, you can. We'll practice more."

"I refuse to push you in front of a lorry," Merlin said sarcastically. "Though, I'm a bit tempted right now."

"Oh, ha ha," Will said with a roll of his eyes and a small smirk. He pulled his jumper off, a t-shirt still on, because the tea-towel was long ago soaked wet with spilled water. He chucked the jumper in Merlin's direction. "Not with your hands," Will said after Merlin caught it. "Use your magic."

That exercise turned out to be just as fruitless as the previous, and Merlin was seriously contemplating re-considering his blossoming friendship with Will. He was stubborn and pigheaded and wouldn't give up, and while admirable qualities at time, Merlin was annoyed with it at the moment.

"Will," Merlin whined, finally standing up after another twenty minutes. "I have to go."

"Just another time--"

Merlin snapped the jumper in Will's direction, whipping him on the arm.

"Bastard," Will said, laughing and jumping up, trying to grab at the rogue jumper. He attacked Merlin playfully, and they roughhoused for a few minutes, tripping over the chair and toppling to the ground.

"All right, all right!" Merlin yelled, laughing as Will had him in a deadly headlock. "I give up, I give up!"

"No, you don't," Will said, letting him go and pushing himself up. "That's the whole point."

"Fine, fine," Merlin grumbled, getting up off the floor himself and straightening himself. "I don't, okay?"

"Hmm," Will hummed noncommittally. "I'll make sure you don't."

Merlin just shook his head and smiled. "I’ll email you, yeah?"

"You better," Will said, giving him a clap on his shoulder as he showed Merlin out.

"Thanks, Will. Just -- thanks," Merlin said. "And, if you could not tell anyone--"

"You don't even have to ask," Will said seriously. "Secret's safe with me."

Merlin nodded, amazed at himself that he actually believed it. "All right," he said, and bid a farewell.

His elated feeling began to fall with each minute that passed on the way home. Not completely, but he didn't have enough left to feel as confident as Will apparently did. Merlin was anxious and nervous, and more than a little confused, about his magic. And he didn't know what to say to Arthur -- or if he should say anything at all, because the last thing he wanted was to leave him with that shining hope of his right before Merlin took off.

But as soon as Merlin got back to Arthur's flat, he realised that magic really was the furthest thing from either of their minds anyway.

When Merlin entered Arthur's flat, he called out a greeting. He could hear Arthur talking in the kitchen but knew it wasn't to him. Merlin toed off his converse shoes and followed the sounds of Arthur's voice.

Arthur saw Merlin and immediately held up a finger to silence him before Merlin even said anything.

"Yes, I understand," Arthur said into the mobile he held up to his ear. "He'll be ready by then. Yes. Goodbye."

Arthur turned the device off, and he threw it to the counter with more force than he normally would.

Merlin stepped towards him, frowning. Arthur's shoulders were tensed and his lips were pursed into a thin line. "Arthur?"

"That was someone from Aredian's office to arrange for your pick up tomorrow," Arthur said. Merlin stopped and stared at him. Arthur scrubbed a hand over his face. "Fuck, this is real."

"We knew it would happen," Merlin said. They knew it, and it was no point in getting upset or being surprised by it. He asked evenly, "When will they be here?"

"Midnight, sharp," Arthur answered, looking at him.

"All right then. I'll be ready."

Merlin reached out a hand, not sure what he meant to do other than just touch. Arthur moved quicker, grabbing Merlin by the forearm and tugging him in, while Arthur stepped forward. Their bodies clashed with a force against Merlin's that pushed him back up against the counter. Arthur pinned Merlin with his hips, and his mouth captured Merlin's roughly, hot and insistent and just a little desperate. Merlin responded in kind, gripping Arthur's arms with his fingernails digging in as he tried to pull him even closer.

When Merlin finally pulled away from the assault by kisses, he looked at Arthur's mouth. It looked swollen and red, a slight sheen covering his lips; Merlin couldn't help but capture those lips between his teeth and bite on them lightly. Arthur groaned and pushed against Merlin, the edge of the worktop digging into his back and he opened up for deeper kisses when Arthur's tongue sought entrance to his mouth.

They pulled apart only when they needed to breathe, but just barely, their foreheads resting against each other. Arthur's hand moved down and started rubbing Merlin through the front of his jeans, causing Merlin to groan deeply. He moved his hand when Merlin's fingers started scrabbling at Arthur's t-shirt, trying desperately to get it off so he could have access to skin. Arthur helped him with it, and then quickly pulled Merlin's hoodie over his head, popped open the button on Merlin's jeans, and slid his hand under the waistband of Merlin's boxers to curl his fingers around Merlin's erection.

Arthur kissed Merlin again, but just ever so lightly, still able to speak against his mouth. Arthur said, voice low and husky, with kisses moving against Merlin's, "You should fuck me."

It felt like the air was being squeezed out of him, but Merlin just nodded, his arms locking around Arthur's neck as he tried to walk them out of the kitchen. Arthur stepped backwards, his hands moving around for a firm hold on Merlin's arse as they stumbled down the corridor and distractedly found their way to the bedroom.

It wasn't begging, it wasn't asking, and it wasn't even the first time. And despite his confident movements, there was an underlying tremor that thrummed through Merlin in a nearly uncontrollable desire, and it was Arthur coming around him with a low groan, hands clenched in Merlin's hair and tugging, that very nearly Merlin shook apart.

They collapsed onto the bed in a heap of sweaty entwined limbs, tired and completely sated for the time being. They dozed, drifting in and out of sleep that was peppered with lazy kisses and soft touches. When they were both awake again, it intensified to something more desperate and they clung to each other as Arthur fucked Merlin just as senseless as he'd done to him earlier.

For the second time that night, they curled into each other, each ready to return to the dream world. Though one eye cracked open, Merlin looked at the clock, just to try and get a sense of how much time had passed; not that it really mattered, for he didn't mean to go anywhere else at the moment anyway.

He watched the red digital number change. He sighed deeply and closed his eyes, trying to will the image away. But the thought stayed with him. He said quietly, into Arthur's chest, "After midnight. Less than a day until this is over."

Arthur's arms squeezed him closer. "No it's not." Merlin felt Arthur's head rest against his. "Lots of time left for us."

Merlin didn't say anything, but he kissed Arthur's chest, and they both drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Days before, Merlin had come to the conclusion that the best sort of alarm-clock, since he absolutely hated them along with getting up, occurred a little later in the morning, after a lie-in, and was actually Arthur's hand or lips on his cock that roused him.

And aroused him at that.

Arthur must've realised this was the most effective way of waking Merlin up. And, for their last morning (for the time-being) together, he used this very method. First with his hand, light finger strokes up and down the shaft of Merlin's cock. Merlin blinked out of the depths of sleep, the warmth in his stomach slowly unfurling and travelling throughout his body, while Arthur's moist lips left a cool meandering path down over Merlin's side and ribs and the jut of hip, his hand continuing to work expertly over Merlin's morning erection.

The only slight pause was followed by the sound of a ripping wrapper, and then a condom being rolled on. Merlin's morning haze, and Arthur's touch, left his mind feeling foggy, but at least Arthur had the sense enough to remember they had to play by the rules.

Merlin rolled onto his back, pushing away the covers, just in time to see Arthur shift so that he could take Merlin into his mouth, slowly at first, just the tip of his cock, creating a seal and sucking enough that it looked like his cheeks had caved in. He looked up at Merlin, bright lust-blue eyes through pale eyelashes, and then took Merlin all the way in. Merlin's entire body quivered until he thought he would shake apart, bolstering the desire that pooled in his loins. Arthur's mouth moved smoothly, wetly; he sucked and licked and coaxed until Merlin was taut as a bow, and he whined as he came.

Merlin sprawled on the bed, boneless and sated, while Arthur quickly moved back up his body. Merlin suffered the delicious assault of Arthur's desperate kisses, his hard-on pressing hot and insistent against the flat of Merlin's stomach. Arthur rutted against him, and Merlin arched his back, Arthur moaning deeply. Arthur kept that frantic pace, Merlin trying to keep up with it, until Arthur came between them while he panted against Merlin's neck.

"Fuck," Merlin moaned as Arthur collapsed down onto him.

"We'll definitely get to that," Arthur agreed, the puff of his breath sending a shiver through Merlin.

"Yeah." Merlin trailed the very tips of his fingers from Arthur's shoulders, over his spine and the curve of his arse, and back up again. He sighed. "I'm going to miss waking up like that." Arthur tensed against his body, and Merlin could practically feel the frown against his collarbone. Merlin added softly, "Until I get back, I mean."

"Hm," Arthur said. He pulled back and looked into Merlin's eyes. "First morning you're back, I promise, this is exactly what you're going to get. Except that I'm finally going to taste you."

Merlin locked his arms behind Arthur's neck, and leaned up to peck a quick kiss against Arthur's lips. His tongue flicked out, as if testing for the taste of himself that wasn't quite there yet. "I'm going to hold you to that. Just saying."

Arthur grinned and kissed him back. "You better." He pushed up off of Merlin and rolled over, throwing his legs over the side and sitting up. He glanced over his shoulder. "Breakfast, yeah?"

Merlin nodded. "Pancakes, maybe?" He couldn't prevent the soft smile of remembrance if he tried.

Arthur smiled back and reached over to tug on Merlin's arm. "Exactly what I was thinking."

Arthur kept to his word and respected Merlin's wishes -- Friday passed like it was any other day when Arthur was off work. For the most part, anyway. Merlin did notice a bit of a trend -- they kept doing the things, or going the places, they had done and been while Merlin had been staying with Arthur. Merlin knew Arthur was trying to do something nice without going overboard or extravagant, which Merlin imagined was his preferred way. It was all rather sweet, actually.

After breakfast, they decided to head into the city. Arthur had mentioned needing to go to the shopping centre, and Merlin was not surprised to find they went to the one where they'd first and very unofficially met, when Merlin was just a street kid trying to steal some rich bloke's wallet. And the same one they later returned to, after the contract had been signed and Arthur was just trying to help Merlin out and buy him some proper clothing and shoes.

Which, it seemed, was his purpose again. Because they didn't go anywhere that Arthur would really shop at, but rather within the kind of budget that Merlin would allow for himself.

"Oh, no you don't!" Merlin exclaimed as Arthur eyed up a pair of jeans in Merlin's size. "I have clothes."

"You might need more," Arthur said, picking the hanger off the rack.

Merlin grabbed it from him and hastily shoved it back. "No way. I still owe you for the last batch you bought me."

Arthur blinked at him. "What are you talking about? No, you don't. It was a gift--"

"No!" Merlin interrupted. "Remember? The deal was you could buy them for me but only if I could pay you back someday. I have it written down in my book!"

"Your book," Arthur said slowly, clearly mulling that over in his head. And it was like a light bulb clicked on right above him, he looked so pleased with himself for remembering "In the little book that has the amounts of money you stole and from whom, so you can pay them back. With the licenses in the shoe box." He picked up the jeans for a second time and absently said, "I'd forgotten about that."

"Well, I haven't," Merlin said stubbornly, grabbing the jeans and putting them back again.

"You don't have to pay me back," Arthur said. "Not now, after we're--" He trailed off and waved his hand around.

"We're what?" Merlin asked, casually, trying not to look like he was fishing for information.

But Arthur only shrugged. "You know. Like we are."

"Right," Merlin said dryly. He walked away from the rack. "Well, what we are is not you buying me anything else, and you know it." He turned around to face Arthur who, thankfully, was following after him. Merlin walked backwards, but he grinned. "I will let you buy me a milkshake, though, so that I can make lewd comments about how thick and juicy it is."

Arthur barked out laughter, throwing his head back and clapping his hands together once. He pointed a finger at Merlin with mock accusation. "You were such a little brat," he said, taking quick strides to effortlessly catch up with Merlin, standing right in front of him and hooking a finger through Merlin's belt loop. "You tried just about anything to get me to want you."

"Worked, didn't it?" Merlin said with a playfully wicked smile.

Arthur shrugged nonchalantly. "Yeah, guess so."

"Guess so," Merlin protested, and went to shove Arthur's chest. Arthur easily caught him by the wrist with his free hand, and pulled him close, pressing their mouths together in a kiss, right in the middle of the shop. Merlin couldn't help but smile against Arthur's lips. "Come on, you big oaf--"

"Oaf!" Arthur protested.

"-- you owe me a milkshake," Merlin said, ignoring him. He wiggled out of Arthur's grasp, turning to walk beside him, but threw an arm over Arthur's shoulder. Arthur put a hand on the small of Merlin's back. Merlin continued, "Then maybe we can catch a matinee at the cinema. Some horrible film no one else wants to see so we'll be alone and I can give you a hand-job in the back row."

"Deal," Arthur said resolutely.

Merlin laughed. "I'm holding you to that." And he did.

Despite the fact that both of them seemed determined to keep the mood light for the day, as the time passed on, there was an elephant in the room that neither of them would speak about. And try to ignore it as they might, there was a single truth -- Merlin was leaving that night to go to his old life. His real one.

A couple of times he caught Arthur with a look of contemplation on his face, opening his mouth as if to say something, but then shaking it off and shooting one of his cocky grins at Merlin with some sort of smart comment. Merlin would laugh, or roll his eyes, or respond with a dry retort of his own.

And he imagined that more than once, Arthur caught Merlin with the same expression. Merlin debated telling Arthur about his magic -- how it had come out of nowhere to save Will the day before. But then he'd remembered how Will had made him practice to use it again, to no avail. And the last thing Merlin wanted was to drop that info bomb on Arthur, worry or excite him, when they weren't likely to see each other for four long months. Merlin decided, for the greater good, to leave it be until he figured it out more, and maybe have an actual surprise for Arthur next time he saw him.

But despite trying to cling onto that as a positive thought, the seriousness started to weigh down on Merlin, little by little.

Merlin couldn't help it. Even though he didn't voice it to Arthur, he started thinking about home -- no, Coven House. No, home. It was so hard to think of it as home anymore, though he supposed it was. He'd always thought so, more than any other place in the world. Before he met Arthur, anyway.

And back at Coven House, that very night, he would be faced with that life. Helen, sitting at her reception desk with her sugary-fake smile, clicking at the mouse and telling them all just how much they owed on their debt. Jonas and Catrina, their dirty ragged clothes and pupils wide from drugs or speech slurred from alcohol, always planning their next big job. He hadn't seen any of them for six weeks, and he wondered how much they'd changed. It was a sudden strike to his heart when he realised that, no, they probably hadn't at all. But he had, and he wasn't sure how he would fit back in with them.

Then there was Freya, with her big doe eyes and sweet heart and a secret dark magic she refused to speak about for any reason. She'd met Arthur, approved of him, and wished that Merlin could be with him; but she shared the same belief as Merlin -- or at least the one he used to have. That such things were unattainable and not for them. Merlin wondered if she could still be his best friend and think that way; he wondered if he could make it through or if, yeah, she and the rest of it would be a wake up call, to make him realise that his hopes and dreams were all a bit ridiculous right now.

But, no, that wasn't fair to Freya. She'd be supportive as best she could. Merlin knew this. He had to believe it. Freya would be the one bright spot in all the gloominess that was his life. Even though he hadn't seen her for over a week, nor had they talked much since then, he knew she'd be fine.

Because, if there was anyone who would make him remember that, it'd be Nimueh.

Nimueh, who he'd only seen a handful of days before, all dressed up and fitting into high society like she belonged there. Even at Coven House, with her icy cool demeanour as she walked around with a silent grace and secret knowing smile on her face, she seemed above the rest of them. Merlin wondered if it would still be there, when she looked at him, now that he knew her secret; where she got the money, her connections to the Pendragons, how she got clipped. Would she despise Merlin even more for this, make his life even more a living hell, or keep him close as an ally so he didn't spill her secrets? Not that he could, even if he wanted to. It wasn't his business to tell.

All it took to think like this was being left alone to sit on a bench to wait for Arthur while he used the loo. It was almost like out of sight, out of mind -- once Arthur was gone, Merlin would be faced with all this, crashing down on him like a wave.

It made him feel a bit sick.

"Hey, Merlin, you okay?"

Merlin glanced up and saw Arthur standing over him, frowning.

"Yeah," Merlin said. He coughed, trying to clear his throat and maybe rid his mind of the nasty cobwebs that had just taken over. He tried to smile. "All good."

"Merlin," Arthur said, sighing. It looked like he did want to discuss that elephant after all. "We should talk--"

"No," Merlin interrupted. "Not yet. Please. I don't want -- no." He shook his head vehemently, looking off in the distance. "No."

"Merlin, you looked like someone just kicked your puppy," Arthur said as he sat down on the bench next to Merlin.

"Oh, did someone kick you?" Merlin asked with fake cheeriness. "That was mean of them."

"Ha bloody ha," Arthur muttered. He leaned against the wooden back, one arm casually over the back of it, hand curling around just enough that it brushed Merlin's shoulders. "Seriously, Merlin--"

Merlin shook his head again. "Everything is fine."

"It's not."

"Let's pretend, okay?" Merlin looked up at the sky. "Just for a few more hours? Let's go to the pub and get some food. Maybe have a few pints."

"I could use a drink right now," Arthur muttered.

"No doubt," Merlin muttered. He leaned in and brushed a quick kiss at the corner of Arthur's mouth. "But, let's just go, okay?"

"Yeah," Arthur responded, pressing back a harder kiss. He stood up and helped tug a heavy-limbed Merlin off the bench, although it took him very little effort. "Wish you'd--"

"--Don't want to talk about it--"

"Let me take you to a nice dinner," Arthur finished smoothly. "What?"

"Not today," Merlin said.

"Fine," Arthur said, pouting a little. "But, someday."

Merlin slipped his hand into Arthur's, and echoed a promise from before, "Deal."

Arthur didn't laugh. "I'm holding you to that."

Arthur squeezed his hand and didn't protest anymore, nor did he bring up the end of their day for the remainder of the afternoon.

They returned to Arthur's flat, after dinner and into the evening, just a couple hours away from Merlin's pick up time. They couldn't ignore it anymore, even if Merlin wanted to. It loomed over them, weighing down on the light mood they had tried to keep.

They'd just come into the living room and Merlin plopped himself down on the sofa, limbs sprawled in every which way. If Arthur had to join him, he'd just have to crawl all over Merlin, which was plenty fine with him. But Arthur stood beside the sofa, looking down at Merlin with a frown on his face.

"Merlin." He sounded concerned, and a little sad, but determined to speak.

Merlin sighed. "Arthur, please don't. There's nothing to say."

"There's plenty to say and I've been holding off all day."

"Yes, you've been a very good boy," Merlin said dryly.

"Don't try to pick a fight with me right now," Arthur said, not taking the bait of distraction. "And don't mock me for trying."

"That's not what I was trying to do," Merlin said, even though that wasn't entirely the truth. He turned his face away from Arthur, unable to look into those intense eyes staring down at him. It was too uncomfortable. Instead, he glanced around the room, anywhere but up. He noticed a red set of the numerals 02 blinking at him. Distractedly, Merlin said, "You have phone messages."

"It's probably for you," Arthur said. "Freya's the only one who uses my landline." Arthur moved towards the table, but Merlin stopped him.

"Don't worry about it," Merlin said. "I'll talk to her tonight."

Arthur froze in his spot and his shoulders sagged. "Yeah. Guess you will."

Merlin couldn't take it any more; he stood up, went to Arthur, and wrapped his arms around his waist. Arthur immediately pulled Merlin close, as if he was trying to meld them together as one. Merlin hooked his chin over Arthur's shoulder. "Hey," Merlin said softly. "We have plans."

"Yeah," Arthur agreed, voice soft.

"And we've talked about them."


Merlin's lips brushed Arthur behind the ear, and started to pepper along his jaw, following a path to his mouth. "So," Merlin said, punctuating words between kisses, "let's not waste time. Okay?"

Arthur captured Merlin's lips with his own, kissing them hard and insistent. When he pulled away, Arthur nodded. "Okay." And when he began to tug Merlin along, Merlin followed more than willingly.

They didn't even make it out of the living room when the phone rang.

"Ignore it," Merlin commanded into Arthur's neck, nipping at it a little. "Whoever it is can wait."

"Hell, yes they can," Arthur said. His hand slipped down to Merlin's arse, squeezing.

The answering machine turned on, Arthur's short Leave a message, I'll get back to you filling the room.

They both froze when it was followed by a timid, nervous voice. Merlin? It's Freya. Please -- it's important -- I can't -- If you get this--

"Freya?" Merlin said into the receiver, cutting off the machine and hoping she was on the other end. He'd let go of Arthur the moment he'd heard her say his name, dashing to the phone. By the quiver in her voice, he knew something wasn't right.

"Merlin?" she asked

"Yeah, it's me. What's wrong?"

"Are you with Arthur?"

Merlin glanced at Arthur and said, "Yes, of course."

"So he's safe right now?" Freya sounded relieved. "He's okay?"

Merlin frowned. "Safe? Of course he's okay." Merlin's heart skipped a beat. "Why wouldn't he be? What's going on?"

"You need to keep him inside or away from other people or whatever."

"What? What's the matter?"

There was a pause on the other end of the line and Merlin could hear Freya sighing. She sounded small and very far away. "I can't -- you know there are rules --"

"Rules?" Merlin asked, exasperated. "Freya, you can't ask me if my boyfriend is safe and then not tell me why!"

At that, Arthur came up to Merlin, fingers lightly grasping his elbow. He frowned and hissed, "What is it?"

Merlin shook his head, unsure. "Freya, please."

"His last name is Pendragon, yeah?" Her voice was very soft, as if she was trying to make sure no one but Merlin could hear her.


"Well -- it's just -- I overheard -- someone is out to get him. Tonight, they said it had to be tonight. I've been trying to call you all day--"

"What do you mean, get him?" Merlin asked, panicked. "Who would want to do that?"

There was a pause.

Merlin was not above pleading, not about this. "Freya, please," he asked, starting to panic. He shrugged out of Arthur's grip and started pacing around the room. "You have to give me some sort of clue here."

"She -- well, she lives with us -- but she mentioned magic--"

Merlin frowned. "No one there has magic."

"But she has a lot of contacts, I think. She was on the phone, but not at home, but she didn't know I was there, where she was, or that I heard --"

"You're not making any sense--"

"I'm trying!" Freya said, frustrated and obviously conflicted.

"All right, I'm sorry," Merlin said. Encouragingly, he said, "Please. Tell me the rest."

"She said only magic could cause it, and only magic could cure it. Not that she wanted that. The curing, I mean. But that's was fine because she didn't have magic anyway--"

"She who, Freya."

Freya sighed, and Merlin could picture her nibbling on her lower lip as she contemplated giving up this secret -- it wasn't that he didn't understand her reluctance, because they had to protect their own, and shouldn't give out any details (and sometimes weren't allowed to.) Still, he hoped.

After another silence, she finally spoke. "Nimueh--owww," Freya hissed into the phone.

Merlin cringed at her pain. "You all right?" he asked.

Arthur came before him, "What's wrong with her? Is she okay?" He looked worried and very confused.

Merlin shrugged him off again, but waved his free hand, the one with the band covering his clip, in front of Arthur's face. Arthur nodded in recognition and his own face looked pained with concern.

Merlin spoke into the phone, the name catching up with him, with a realisation. "Wait, did you say -- Freya, think carefully," he instructed. "Did she actually say Arthur's name?"

"Yes, I told you--"

"-- his first name?"

"Well." There was a moment of static silence before she continued, "Actually, no. Just the name Pendragon."

"Oh fuck," Merlin said, the details clicking into place. "Freya, do you know about the magic? Other than what you said."

"No," she said softly. "That's all I heard, I left so I wouldn't be caught."

"No, no, that's fine," Merlin said, trying to reassure her. "I -- thank you, Freya. You have no idea how I appreciate it."

"It's okay, Merlin. I'll see you later?"

Merlin glanced at the clock. "Yeah, in a couple hours."

"See you then," she said. "Stay safe. Both of you."

"We will. Later," Merlin said, and hung up the phone.

"Merlin, what is going on?" Arthur asked, sounding annoyed.

"We have to go," Merlin said, grabbing Arthur's hand and tugging him towards the door. "Now."

Arthur pulled his hand from Merlin's. He stood fast in his spot and crossed his arms, and Merlin could spot that stubborn look a thousand miles away. Arthur said, jaw jutted out, "Not until you tell me what the bloody hell is going on here."

Merlin stopped and threw his hands up in the air. "Do you trust me?"

"Yes," Arthur said immediately. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"Then, please," Merlin said. "Let's go."

Arthur sighed, but he followed Merlin and grabbed his car keys from the little ceramic bowl near the front door of his flat.

"And your mobile," Merlin said. "Make sure you have your mobile."

"Always," Arthur said, patting his pocket. "Although, if you told me why, that'd be just fantastic, thanks."

"Call your sister," Merlin said, pulling the flat door behind them as they stepped out into the corridor. He called over his shoulder as they approached the lift. "Tell her -- tell her I'm sorry, I am so fucking sorry -- but she needs to meet us at your father's right now."

Arthur stopped in his tracks. "What on earth for?"

Merlin sighed. The lift doors opened, and he stepped in. Thankfully, Arthur did too. "Because," Merlin said quietly, and used the reflective mirror of the lift door to look Arthur in the eye, "I think she needs to help us save your father."

Arthur's hands gripped the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles were turning white. His jaw was set in a tense line and while he tried to keep his eyes focused on the road, he kept glancing over at Merlin.

Merlin only caught that out of the corner of his eye. He remained looking ahead as well; looking at Arthur made him feel like he had to confess all his sins and secrets, just to make up for dumping this on him.

Finally, Arthur sighed. "Merlin. You need to tell me more!"

"I don't know more!" Merlin exclaimed.

Arthur let go of the wheel with one hand, just so he could slam it down again. "Stop lying to me!"

"I'm not!" Merlin took in a gulp of air. "Well, not exactly."

"Merlin, this is not the time for your games."

"It's not a game!" Merlin shouted back, turning in his seat to finally face Arthur. "This is -- you think this -- this is just the way it is."

"Well, too damn bad," Arthur said. He glanced at Merlin with daggers in his eyes, wholly unimpressed. "You can't let me go into this situation without knowing anything."

"You should wait in the car," Merlin said resolutely. "Morgana and I--"

"Enough!" Arthur yelled, his thin line of patience finally cracking. "I don't even know what she has to do with this!"

"She'll be able to help." He slumped back in his seat and stared out the window, refusing to say anything else.

Maybe Arthur deserved to know -- in fact, Merlin knew he did. But Merlin just couldn't do it. He couldn't spill that secret on his own. He was breaking all the magic-users' rules by bringing Morgana into this, by potentially exposing her. He just didn't see any other way, but he at least needed her to be the one to tell Arthur.

Thankfully, Arthur had called her as Merlin asked, but it was Merlin who had snatched the mobile out of his hand to explain the importance. He'd done it in so few words, Uther's in danger, we need your talents, please, I can't do this without you and she seemed to understand and promised to be on her way. Merlin really didn't know if it was because she wanted to save Uther, or watch whatever punishment was being doled out to him. Either way, Merlin had no choice -- he knew no one else that had access to magic.

But in the passing minutes since the short conversation, the tension in the vehicle had increased and Merlin knew that Arthur was starting to become very angry.

Arthur broke the silence, his curiosity getting the better of him. "So, she's going to help."


"With some lunatic that is after my father," Arthur said. "To try to kill him."


"Who?" When Merlin didn't answer, Arthur burst out angrily, "Oh for Christ's sake, Merlin, just bloody tell me! There isn't anyone in the world who would hate him enough to try to--"

"Nimueh." Merlin gasped, a slight pain in his wrist. That was breaking the rules, the same ones that got Freya earlier -- you just don't talk about contracts you're not involved in.

Arthur glanced at Merlin again, clearly confused. He opened his mouth, then it shut, and Arthur looked back at the road. "That makes no sense."

Merlin confessed, "I know her, Arthur."

"Yes, you met her the other night."

"No," Merlin said softly, "I knew her before that."

"I don't know what you mean."

Merlin figured Arthur was either trying to get Merlin to confess more, or because he truly didn't want to be faced with that meant. "Arthur," Merlin said slowly, "how do you think your father knew how to get me for you? Have you thought about that?"

"Of course I have," Arthur snapped. He cleared his throat uncomfortably and made a left hand turn.

"Really?" Merlin said mildly. "Because then you must've assumed he's also done this."

"I don't want to think about my father -- like that," Arthur trailed off.

"Well, he's a client too. And he isn't as kind as you, and he's being faced with the consequences of it," Merlin said. "Of treating people like me the way he does."

"Nimueh," Arthur said, rolling her name around on his tongue. "She's -- oh, god."

"But not always. You knew her before she was like--" Merlin realised that he shouldn't be saying anything. "I don't know all the details." And that wasn't a lie -- no one told him anything. He had just figured it out.

Merlin looked out the window. They sped down the road, winding and curving, with big fancy houses behind gates. Merlin knew they would be there soon. He added, "But I don't think I'm that surprised. She's probably been planning this for a very long time."

"How long?" Arthur asked.

Merlin shrugged. "Don't know."

"That's not at all reassuring."

"Is any of this?"


"Yeah, didn't think so," Merlin said. He doubted there was anything he could do or say to reassure either of them at that point.

They pulled into a drive and Arthur rolled down his window so he could reach over to press in a code. A gate opened and Arthur drove past large sprawling gardens up to a magnificent house. Although not at all surprised, Merlin looked out the window in amazement. He'd not seen anything like this before except in pictures or film.

Arthur parked the car, and quickly hopped out the driver's side. Merlin followed just as fast. He fell into step beside Arthur as they approached the door.

"Morgana's car isn't here," Arthur said.

"Maybe we should wait."

"No. There might not be the time. What do you think Nimueh is doing in there?"

"No clue."

Arthur stopped and stared at Merlin. "You mean you don't know what's going on?"

Merlin shook his head. "Not really. I told you, all Freya said was that there was magic and that only magic could stop it."

"So Nimueh has magic?" Arthur asked.

"No, she's like me."

"She's like --" Arthur frowned. "Then how the hell is she using it?"

"No idea."

"And how are we supposed to stop it?"

Merlin pursed his lips together and didn't say anything.

Arthur's jaw dropped. "Holy fuck," Arthur hissed. "Morgana. And you knew!"

Merlin threw up his hands. "There are rules! I couldn't say! We protect our own."

Hurt flashed through Arthur's eyes. "I'm her brother! I should've known -- and you could've told me. You should have!"

"I'm sorry, Arthur. There's so much I just can't say. And you know that."

"How'd you know?"

Merlin just shook his head sadly.

"Fine," Arthur said shortly. "But we can't wait if my father is in trouble." With that, he turned and stalked away, reaching out for the doorknob.

"Wait," Merlin hissed at him, quickly catching up and getting between Arthur and the door. "You can't just -- we need a plan."

"What, now you want to talk?"

Merlin poked a finger into Arthur's chest. "Don't start being an arse right now because you're angry at me. We have to decide what we're doing."

Arthur sidestepped around Merlin. "We're going in there, making sure my father is all right, and we'll take Nimueh out if necessary. So either you're helping me or you're not."

"Oh, bloody fantastic," Merlin muttered. But he followed closely behind.

Inside the house, it seemed as though the seriousness of the situation hit Arthur and, despite his display of being a complete arse just moments before, he held his fingers up to his lips to shush Merlin, and motioned for Merlin to follow him.

Merlin just rolled his eyes. That had been his plan all along.

He trailed Arthur through the house, quiet as mice, room after room.

All was to no avail. Even upstairs in the master bedroom, there was no sign of them.

"They're not here," Arthur whispered, though the distress was clear in his voice. "I have no clue where they'd be. We're too late--"

"Arthur," Merlin said. He was standing at the window and he pointed out into the gardens. "There's a pool."

"Yes," Arthur said, and he quickly walked up to the window. The night darkness lay like a cover over the estate, but they could only see a little corner of it from where they were, little lights illuminating the water. Arthur grabbed Merlin's hand, tugging him along after him. "Let's check outside."

"Gee, why didn't I think of that?" Merlin muttered under his breath. Arthur either didn't hear him or was choosing to ignore him.

Merlin followed Arthur back downstairs and through a corridor, and waited while Arthur slowly and quietly slid open a glass door that led out onto the veranda. It was much brighter out there than in the dim house and there was no way to hide.

They spotted Nimueh quickly, but it appeared she was prepared for them. She was standing at the other side of the pool, wearing a bikini and a light flower-patterned wrap around her waist that flowed down and brushed at her bare feet.

She was holding out a gun that was pointed straight at them, the metal of the clip on her wrist catching the light.

"I saw you two just now," she said, nodding up to a window at the side of the house. "Sneaking down the stairs, but you weren't very good at it. Please, forgive me, this is such a barbaric device," she said, gesturing slightly with her gun. "I would much rather use my own brand of weapon, but well." She glanced at Uther, who was lying on a lounge chair beside where she stood. Her lip curled into a sneer. "That's long gone."

There was a woman's bag on the ground, which Merlin assumed was Nimueh's, and where she had had the gun stashed away. There were some other spilled contents, probably dropped while she rummaged through it when she spotted Merlin and Arthur -- a makeup compact, condoms, a small empty vial. On a nearby table there was a bottle of wine and two glasses -- one was empty and the other full.

Merlin looked at Uther. He was in a pair of swim trunks, bare-chested, and head tilted up at the sky, eyes closed. He appeared immobile but his chest was falling and rising, so Merlin knew he still lived.

"You found out," Nimueh continued, looking at Merlin. "I was so hoping this would be over and done with before you returned home and you couldn't get your meddlesome self involved. Nor would you be able to tell your client, not that you're allowed to, but at least I'd know he couldn't warn dear old father." Nimueh looked at Arthur. "Hello, Arthur. I must say, I'm a bit disappointed to see how closely you're following your father's footsteps. I though you were a lot more honourable than that."

"Why are you doing this?" Arthur said, trying to take a step forward.

Nimueh pointed her gun with more insistence. "You stay right there. And you," she said, looking at Merlin. "Away from him. Believe me when I say I wish no harm to one of my own."

"I highly doubt that," Merlin said. But, to keep her on the level, he did what she said and began to step away from Arthur. Arthur reached out to him, almost seemingly automatically, but Merlin shook his head and continued to step away.

"Yes, you two," Nimueh said as she watch them. "As I mentioned the other night, I am rather surprised at how quickly you got him wrapped around your finger, Merlin. It took me years to gain that level of trust with Uther, and he had even loved me once already. Bravo to you."

"I wasn't trying to do anything," Merlin said, hoping that Arthur wouldn't take anything Nimueh spouted at them to heart. He stopped walking, near one end of the pool.

"If that's true, then you're a bigger idiot than I thought," Nimueh said with a sly smile. "The contract goes a lot smoother when they trust you, don't you find?"

Merlin didn't say anything. She laughed at him, light voice floating through the air, a contrast to the gravity of the situation.

Merlin asked, "What are you doing to him?" He nodded at Uther. "He had your magic taken, yes, but not your life."

"You think so?" she snapped at him. "You don't know what it's like, Merlin. You were just a baby birdie when your wings were clipped. You don't even know what you're missing. I was magnificent, and he had it all taken away from me."

"I can imagine," Merlin said softly. He thought of his magic the day before, the little bit that came back to him for just a moment, and how the power sizzled through his body. He shook his head. "No one deserves whatever it is you're planning to do to him."

"Done to him," Nimueh said. She glanced down at Uther. "He's dying, slowly, but there is no bringing him back."

"Save him," Arthur blurted out, desperate.

Nimueh looked at him, intense electric-blue eyes barely blinking. She smile and said, "Sorry, darling, but I can't."

Arthur interjected, "You can!"

"Why not?" Merlin asked. Arthur was perhaps loosing his temper with worry for his father, but Merlin wanted to know how to fix it. And he suspected that Nimueh, as self-centred and confident as she was, would love to spill about how she had bested the powerful Uther, especially to his son.

Merlin wasn't wrong.

"You need magic, you see. And I have none. How about you?" she asked, and laughed, cool and uncaring. She dropped her gun to her side and neither of them moved. She kept looking at them but crouched down and picked up the little vial that had fallen out of her purse. It was empty and looked insignificant.

"This is very hard to come by, and very, very expensive," she said. "It's got a magical property to it, a spell cast over it, and it kills you slowly." She glanced down at Uther. "And the only thing that can cure it is the same magic spell cast over him." She dropped the vial onto Uther's lap and reached out to stroke the hair off his forehead.

A strangled noise came from Arthur as he witnessed the gesture. "Why?" he asked, and Merlin could hear the worry and frustration soaking his words.

"Because," Nimueh said, "it's a bit of a poetic justice, isn't it? He took my magic away from me and now it's the only thing that could've saved him."

"That's sick," Arthur spat out. "You don't have to do this."

Merlin added, "You really don't, Nimueh."

"Don't be so sure, Merlin," Nimueh said. "You have no idea how hard he's made it for our kind. Neither of you do," she added, looking at Arthur. "He deserves to pay. Not just what he did to me, but what he's done to all of us."

"How are you even doing this?" Merlin asked. "I'm pretty sure there's some clause in our contracts that say we're not allowed to kill the client, or something."

"Or something," Nimueh agreed. "But Uther is very predictable and, as always, asked me to fix him a drink with something a little special. He likely meant something a little more -- sexy, shall we say? But as I told you, Merlin, the more they trust you, the easier it is. The more freedom you have. The binding magic never picked up on it, and now I'll get away with it."

"I doubt our boss will agree," Merlin said dryly.

"I'll deal with it," Nimueh said confidently. But, apparently, those were not plans she wished to share. "Now, enough talking. It's time to end this."

"Nimueh, don't--" Arthur pleaded, but Merlin saw immediately that he shouldn't have drawn attention to himself.

"Merlin will protect his own, as that is our way, and I will him. But you, Arthur, are a loose end, and I can't have that."

She raised her gun and aimed a shot directly at Arthur.

It was if the world paused.
Time slowed down again, just as it had done those times before. He could see the bullet travel through the air, the little jet stream of movement behind it, as it headed towards Arthur. Merlin was too far away.

And then Merlin's magic exploded out of him like a sonic boom.

Gold filled the air, streaming out of him like flames of fire licking their way towards Nimueh and the bullet. The second it reached them, space and time returned to normal and there was a great big flash of light. The magic pushed everything in its path, and the bullet went off its trajectory, far away from Arthur. Nimueh flew backwards and she hit the hard tile that surrounded the pool.

Merlin collapsed into the small crater beneath his feet.

The pain pulsing through his arm was almost unbearable, pooling in his wrist and around his clip. His other hand tore at the band, as if taking if off would somehow release the pain that was crawling underneath, but that did not work.

Merlin curled into a ball and took deep breaths, trying to calm himself. But the magic pulsed through him with the beating of his heart, and he couldn't bite back a couple small cries when it tried to burst out of his clip again.

He tried to magic something, anything, to help with that, but all it did was make it worse.

He could hear Arthur shuffle around, probably running about trying to take care of everything at once -- check on his father, on Nimueh, on--


He cracked one eye open, look up and saw Arthur kneeling at the edge of the two-foot hole in the ground, his hand reaching down and clasping Merlin's shoulder.

"Good god, are you all right?" Arthur asked. "What just happened?"

Merlin just shook his head, clutching his sore hand to his chest.

"That was magic, wasn't it?" Arthur said. Merlin nodded. "Shit."

Arthur was just about to help Merlin up when he was distracted by a female voice. "My goodness, what happened here?"

"Morgana," Arthur said. "Come help me with Merlin."

Merlin shook his head. "No," he said. "Uther."

Suddenly, Morgana was kneeled down at Arthur's side. "Merlin!" she exclaimed. "What's wrong with him? What is this?"

"Morgana," Merlin croaked. "You have to help Uther."

"What's wrong with him?"

"He's alive," Arthur said, "but just."

"What do you mean, just?" She glanced over her shoulder. "What happened to him? And is that -- is that Nimueh on the ground over there?"

"She's also alive, just knocked out. I got her gun away from her, it's over there," Arthur said. His strong hands were still on Merlin's shoulder, an anchor through the daze and pain that was filling Merlin.

"Gun?" Morgana exclaimed.

Arthur nodded. "Yeah. She was going to take Father out either way, I think."

"Take him out? Either way?"

Merlin said, feeling a bit breathless as he sat up, "Kill him. For what he did to her. What he's done to all of us. He's poisoned with magic."

"Morgana, you have to save him," Arthur said. "Only you can."

"Why me?" Morgana said, though she stood up and glanced over in Uther's direction.

"Because only magic can save him," Arthur said, seriously.

Morgana looked down at him with surprise and then glanced at Merlin.

"I'm so sorry," Merlin said. "I didn't mean -- I don't -- none of my friends can get to their magic and I didn't know who else to call."

Morgana pursed her lips together and she looked at Merlin with a cold gaze. "You told him."

"Not really," Arthur said. "I figured it out."

"Because of him," Morgana said, pointing to Merlin. She glanced in Uther's direction again.

"He doesn't know," Arthur said. "I won't tell him, if that's what you want."

"Of course that's what I want!" Morgana exclaimed, shrill. "Do you think I want him to let that happen to me?" she asked, nodding at Nimueh's unconscious body.

"I won't let it," Arthur said.

Morgana looked at him and sighed. Then she kneeled down again, and placed a cool, delicate hand on Merlin's cheek, looking right into his eyes. "Why?" she asked. "Why would you save him, knowing what he's capable of?"

"For Arthur," Merlin said immediately. "That's his father. And -- we're better than what they say we are, Morgana. Don't let -- we can't just let people die if we can help it."

Morgana nodded, as if she already knew that answer. She stood up. "I have to make a call," she said. "If he needs a magical remedy, I know someone who might be able to help. But it's near eleven, hopefully he'll answer."

"Shit!" Merlin exclaimed, scrambling to stand up. He almost toppled over but Arthur grasped him and helped pull him up. "Someone call me a taxi."

"Whatever for?" Morgana asked, frowning in confusion.

"I need to get back -- they'll be there soon," Merlin said to Arthur. "I can't miss it. I'd be in so much trouble."

Morgana looked at Arthur. "What's he going on about?"

"He's being picked up tonight," Arthur said. He glanced askance at Morgana, not sure how much she knew. "By his, uh, boss."

"Take him back," Morgana said instantly. "I'll make my calls and figure this mess out. I'll ring you when it's done."

"No, no, he needs to stay," Merlin said. "Just call me a cab--"

"You can't take a cab, Merlin," Morgana said. "That's ridiculous. Arthur will take you."

Arthur looked at where Uther was still lying on the lounge chair; his eyes were closed, and there was a faint wheezing in his breath. Then Arthur looked back at Merlin, eyeing the red irritated skin at Merlin's wrist around his clip. He chewed on his lip, clearly conflicted and unsure what to do.

It broke Merlin's heart to say it, to leave Arthur here like this, but he didn't want to be a point of contention any longer. Merlin said firmly, "Call me a cab. I'll be fine."

"No," Morgana said. She stepped between the two of them, taking Arthur's face in her hands. With a strong, almost commanding voice, she said, "I will cure Father and he will be fine. You take Merlin, who will also be fine, and see him off, and then return here when that's all done. There will be nothing to worry about."

Arthur looked conflicted for just for a moment further, his face morphing under her hands into relief. He sighed and kissed his sister on the cheek. "Merlin," he said, stepping around Morgana and taking Merlin's hand. "I'm taking you. Morgana will take care of this."

"Yes, I will call you soon with good news," Morgana said, waving him off. She paused and tilted her head as she looked at Merlin. "Goodbye, Merlin. Take care." And despite his betrayal, she sounded like she meant it.

"Goodbye, Morgana," Merlin said. But she was already dialling her mobile while walking around the pool towards Uther.

"Let's go," Arthur said, walking towards the house to cut through to the front drive.

"Maybe you should--"

"Morgana has decided, Merlin. I don't know if you've noticed or not, but you just don't argue with that."

"You argue with that all the time," Merlin pointed out, but followed Arthur.

"That's just to piss her off. This is different. She'll take care of this."

They both glanced back at Morgana. She was talking on the mobile, and picking up the vial off the ground that had been blown off Uther's lap by Merlin's magic. She reached down and touched his forehead with the back of her hand and nodded.

It looked painful for him to do so, but Arthur turned away. He reached out and placed a hand on the back of Merlin's neck. "Despite everything -- I trust her with this. He's her father too," Arthur said. His finger squeezed lightly. "Come on, now. We've got to get back."

Merlin nodded and didn't argue anymore. He actually felt quite grateful to have Arthur's solid, calming presence at his side.

The ride back to Arthur's flat seemed to go a lot quicker then when they had left. The pain in Merlin's arm subsided, but was more persistent than the last time he had done magic.

As was Arthur with his questions.

Merlin didn't want to answer any of them. He just wanted to pass out and sleep so that he didn't have to feel any of the itches in his wrist and stop trying to figure out what had happened that night.

But he knew he owed Arthur some of the truth, given the bombs that had just been dropped on them. And Merlin did have to commend Arthur for handling it as well as he was.

"What do you mean, you saved Will? And that he made you practice?"

Though, Merlin was possibly detecting a bit of jealousy that Arthur was not the first to know.

Merlin sighed and leaned his head against the window. He scratched his wrist and his eyes were glued to the little digital clock on the dashboard. Barely any time left at all.

"I told you, it just happened. Three other times. The most powerful one -- other than today, because that was the most intense -- was with Will, yesterday. I pulled him out of the way of the truck. And then he made me try to do magic again."


"And nothing. I can't control it. I don't have access to it whenever I want. It just -- appears. That's why I wanted to Morgana there tonight, I would've been useless."

"You definitely weren't useless," Arthur said. He put a hand on Merlin's knee. "Pretty sure you saved my life back there."

"Pretty sure?" Merlin said teasingly, though he sounded, and felt, very tired. "I'd say I did a bloody fantastic job, thankyouverymuch."

"I'd say so too," Arthur said quietly. "You could've told me, though. You should've."

Merlin sighed and closed his eyes. "Yeah," Merlin said. "I should've told you a lot, and sooner." He let his hand drop down to cover Arthur's hand. "No time now, though."

Arthur squeezed Merlin's hand. "Next time," he said, playing the same promise game they'd been playing all day. But Merlin didn't mind; it was something to look forward to.

It was a mad dash through Arthur's flat when they returned. Merlin headed to the room he used to stay in to grab his rucksack. He dug under the bed, pulled out his shoebox with licenses, and shoved that along with the few other belongings left lingering there into the bag.

Rushing down to Arthur's room, he saw piles of clothes thrown onto Arthur's bed. Merlin held up his rucksack. "I don't have room for all that. Just pick out a couple--"

"I have one you can use," Arthur said, going straight to his cupboard and pulling out a gym bag. "It's fine. Is that really all you came with?"

"Yep," Merlin said, helping stuff shirts and hoodies into the second bag. "Pretty much all I own is here."

Arthur didn't say anything, but leaned over and planted a soft kiss to the corner of Merlin's mouth. "We really should've done this earlier," he said, quickly zipping the bag up.

"I thought we'd have more time," Merlin admitted. "Didn't expect to be out saving people and all."

"Thank you," Arthur said suddenly. He pulled Merlin into a hug. Softly into his ear, he said, "I mean it. You didn't have to--"

"Yes, I did," Merlin said, squeezing Arthur tight. "But, I mean. Thank you. For everything."

"No problem," Arthur said. "Anything for my boyfriend, yeah?"

Merlin went tense in his arms and was almost afraid to pull back to look at him. "Your -- you never said--"

"No, but you did," Arthur said, and Merlin could feel him smiling against his neck.

"I what?" Merlin said, pulling back.

"On the phone, earlier, with Freya?" Arthur smiled and shrugged. "I figured that, yeah. Yeah, that."

"Yeah, that," Merlin echoed, smiling.

Arthur looked like he was about to say something else but his mobile began to ring. He quickly fished it out of his pocket, glanced at the caller ID, and brought it to his ear. "Morgana. Is he -- yeah? Oh, thank fucking god. Thank you."

Merlin didn't have time to waste, so he grabbed his small rucksack and the gym bag, and left the room to let Arthur speak with his sister. He went into the dinning room, grabbed his schoolbooks but left Arthur's little red netbook behind, and went to the front corridor to slip his shoes back on.

Arthur joined him, frowning. "You weren't going to leave without saying something?"

Merlin shook his head. "No, I was, I just had to -- They'll be here right away," Merlin said. "I should go down. You're probably supposed to stay here."

"I think so, yeah," Arthur said, sighing. He shifted from one foot to the other, then reached out and grabbed Merlin, pulling him into a kiss. Merlin kissed back, matching it -- a bit clingy, and desperate, and when they pulled apart, it felt sad rather than comforting.

Arthur rested his forehead against Merlin's. "Just -- stay safe, all right?"

Merlin nodded. "I will. You too."

"Always," Arthur said. "I'm going to see you soon, remember?"

"Four months, I know," Merlin said.

"Sooner," Arthur said confidently.

"Or sooner," Merlin said with a wistful smile.

Arthur went to say something but was cut off again by his mobile. He pulled away and sighed, but answered it. "Arthur Pendragon," he said. "Yes, he's right here. Yes, he'll be right down. Thank you." He pressed the end button and looked like he wanted to throw the mobile at the wall.

"So that's for me," Merlin said. He hitched his rucksack over his shoulder, gripped the bag in his other hand. "Right. All right. So. We'll be seeing you, then."

"Hey," Arthur said, stepping into Merlin's space again. "Remember something for me, okay?"

Merlin raised an eyebrow. "Yeah?"

"I'm -- well, I'm--" Arthur stumbled for a second, but then smiled softly. "I'm rather quite fond of you, boyfriend."

Merlin couldn't help but laugh, and a peaceful feeling started to settle over the sad one. "Well, I'm fond of you too. See you, Arthur." Merlin opened the door and stepped out.

"See you soon, Merlin."

Merlin smiled at Arthur and nodded, and before his insides burst with a pain stronger than his fettered magic trying to break free, he turned away. He didn't look back, but he didn't hear the flat door close behind him until he stepped onto the lift.

Merlin sighed and pressed the button. The doors closed and the lift took him back down to his real life.

Chapter Text

Merlin walked along the side of the road, a grease-stained bag of burgers swinging at his side. He sipped on the straw of his milkshake and ducked through the hole in the chain-linked fence. A few more metres and he bounded up the slanted front steps into Coven House.

"Helen!" he greeted with a big smile. She was sitting at her usual roost at the front desk, clicking away the mouse while her eyes were trained on her computer.

She ignored him.

Fridays used to be dreaded days at Coven House, but in the past two months since he'd been back, they had become Merlin's favourite. While Helen preyed on everyone, trying to collect rent and happily typing away at her computer when someone couldn't pay and it was added to their tab, all Merlin had to do was walk into the lobby and her face would harden and she'd be put in a sour mood. Merlin didn't have a tab anymore, and he was paid six months in advance so he didn't have any troubles with her at all. He felt bad for everyone else that had to deal with her but he rather liked showing her up for a change.

He tossed his empty milkshake in the bin, and then leaned up against the counter, trying to get her attention. He asked loudly, "Nice day today. How're you?"

She finally glanced up at him, the gap in her front teeth flashing with her brief fake smile. It became more genuine when she noticed his eye.

"Lovely shiner, Merlin."

Instinctively, Merlin brushed the back of his hand over the cheekbone just under his eye, as if trying to erase away the blue smudge of bruise that was there.

"Walked into a door," he said mildly.

She snorted. "If by door you mean Jonas' fist and by walked you mean he punched you, then yes, I suppose you did."

"How'd you know?" Merlin exclaimed with fake indignation.

Although Merlin already knew the answer to that. The walls of Coven House were very thin and the volume of his and Jonas' row the night before had been very loud. It had been one of the few times Merlin had ever seen Jonas when he wasn't drunk or high, aside from the times they pulled a gig, and he had no idea that Jonas could become so angry, or forceful.

"Someday, Merlin," Helen said, "you'll be back to being just like the rest of us."

He knew she was talking about his fight with Jonas, why Jonas had been yelling at Merlin and so angry with him. It had been hard for Merlin to turn down the job offer but he just couldn't do it, and Jonas had not been happy with that. He used to rely on Merlin quite a bit.

Merlin gave a cheeky grin. "What's that supposed to mean?" Merlin gestured around, a sweeping motion encompassing the small foyer, the rickety stairs to the upper landing, the doorway to the rec room with its tattered furniture and television that looked to be from 1953. "I'm exactly like everyone here."

"Not quite," Helen said. "You're not taking jobs right now, are you?"

"No," Merlin answered shortly. Helen's term for 'jobs' could have two indications -- contracts, for which only two had been offered to him since he'd been back but he promptly turned down, or else taking a part in one of Jonas and Catrina's heists, for which he had also been avoiding.

Merlin held up his bag of burgers. "It's not like I'm lazing about, you know. I still have to fend for myself."

"Oh, yes," Helen said dryly, rolling her eyes. "Your petty theft."

"Hey, a man's got to do what a man has to got to do," Merlin said with a shrug. Any money Merlin had made from his time with Arthur had been contracted to go straight to his rent, and he never saw as much as a pound from it. And while he found some notes shoved in his rucksack that Arthur must've put in there when Merlin wasn't looking, it wasn't enough to last forever. Despite trying to make it stretch (while taking note of how much he would have to pay back) it had run dry.

Pickpocketing was something to fall back on; he was good at it, and if he picked the right target, he could score bigger and have to steal from less people. That day had gone particularly well and would probably last him a couple days, if he played it right, and there was only one extra wallet tucked away in his hoodie pocket to worry about someday.

"Hmm, I suppose," Helen hummed. She raised an eyebrow, giving one of her sly smiles. "You haven't found a legitimate job yet?"

Merlin could feel his cheeks heat with embarrassment. "You know I haven't."

Merlin really was trying to stay out of trouble, and trying to go legit, but it hadn't been easy. He had no work experience (he didn't think 'companion' was something he could put on his CV), and he hadn't achieved any sort of level of education yet, and while he had a couple of interviews at crap fast food restaurants, nothing had come of it. He was still trying, but interviews were hard to get, so he kept working at his courses trying to get somewhere.

Helen had turned away from him, back to her computer, and he was already done with her attitude, so he turned to walk away.

"Wait," she stopped him. He turned around with an exaggerated sigh and saw her poring over an email.


She glanced at him. "You're wanted for a meeting tomorrow."

He frowned, confused. "With Aredian?" He had just had one the week before, and he thought seeing him more than once a month (unless a specific contract offer came up) was unusual.

Helen rolled her eyes. "Is there any one else you would go see?"

"Just asking," Merlin said with a huff.

"Yes, Merlin," she said dryly. "You have a meeting with Aredian tomorrow at half past six. He will send a driver to pick you up."

"Right. Okay. Right." Merlin chewed on his bottom lip anxiously.

Oh, god. There was going to be another contract offer to turn down. Merlin didn't know how long Aredian was going to stand for him doing so; rent covered or not, Merlin clearly still needed to make a living. The last thing he wanted was Aredian to get suspicious about Arthur and not even consider him as a client anymore.

The thought broke Merlin's heart.

"Righto, then!" he said cheerfully, plastering a smile onto his face. He shrugged. "When the boss calls for me, you know I'll be there."

Helen tilted her head, assessing him, and it made Merlin uncomfortable, wondering what she was looking for, what sort of information she would be wanting to rat out to their boss about.

Merlin decided right then and there he was going to be more careful.

"Great," Helen said, turning back to her computer. "I'll let him know you're aware."

"Thanks, Helen," Merlin said.

Right then, the front door to Coven House flew open, springs shot so it hit the wall with a thud. Glancing over, Merlin saw Jonas with his arm thrown over Catrina's shoulder, and the two of them stumbled over the terrace.

"Merlin!" Jonas said cheerfully. "There you are!"

"Jonas!" Merlin replied just as happily. Obviously, Jonas and his girlfriend had been passing the time their usual way and were quite jovial at the moment.

Well, not Catrina. She smirked at Merlin but that was nothing out of the blue. "Lovely shade for you," she said, chin nodding at Merlin's face and grinning.

"Oh, mate!" Jonas said. He let go of Catrina and stumbled over to Merlin. Merlin didn't flee, didn't put up hands in defense, but he was certainly on guard and ready to hit Jonas over the head with a sack of burgers if need be. He didn't think it would be necessary, not with the way Jonas was swaying with each step.

Jonas sloppily put his hands on Merlin's face, tilting Merlin's head back and trying to get a better look at Merlin's cheek. "Oh, my friend!" Jonas tsked. "That's just bloody horrible. I'm sorry my fist slipped."

"Are you kidding me?" Merlin said, but he laughed as he ducked out of Jonas' grip. "Fist slipped? What sort of excuse is that?"

Jonas shrugged and chuckled, his hand dropping away easily though he threw an arm over Merlin's shoulder, hugging him into one side. "I didn't mean it. I just wasn't myself, you know that."

"I do," Merlin agreed. He tried to push out of his mind how sad it was that being sober was unusual for Jonas; if Merlin had started in on the drink to get over everything in his life, he'd probably be the same way.

"Good! So you forgive me?"

"I do," Merlin repeated, bumping Jonas' hip with his own. He'd been right pissed off the night before but as the pain faded so did his anger. He threw his arm around Jonas' shoulder too. "Just don't let it happen again or I'll clock you one next time."

Catrina bit out a bark. "I'd like to see you try." Helen chuckled under her breath.

Jonas was the one who protested. "Hey, now! Don't be mean to our friend. We still need him, you know."

"You do? For what?" Merlin asked.

"The big gig I was talking about last night, mate," Jonas said. He dropped his voice to a stage whisper, not at all covering up what he was trying to say. "Big money rolling in over a series of jobs for a couple months. Need you there, pal. No one else I can trust but you."

Merlin glanced over at saw Helen looking intently at him. Even Catrina seemed to be holding her breath, glaring while she waited for an answer. Jonas, just inches away, looking at him with bloodshot hopeful eyes.

Merlin grinned broadly. "Of course."

Jonas let go of him with a loud whoop, and rushed to Catrina, grabbing her around the waist and swinging her in the air while she laughed gratefully. Even Helen looked momentarily pleased before she dropped the small smile.

"Hey, you two," she said, "guess what today is?" And even dealing with her didn't seem to deflate their joyous moods.

Merlin slipped away and bounded up the stairs, pulled out the set of keys to his little room, and went inside. Closing the door behind him, he leaned against it and slid to the floor, the bag of burgers dropping beside him. He banged his head against it three times before exhaling a shaky sigh.

He was tired, and it was going to be a long couple of years.

Later, Merlin lay on his bed. He had a small rubber bouncy ball that he had picked up a couple of days after returning to Coven House in his hand. He looked down at it, looked at the wall, and then down at it again, rolling it between his fingers.

With a deep breath, he lobbed it at the wall and it bounced back; he held out his arm, fingers splayed in the air, and willed the ball to stop mid-air before it reached him.

As usual, it just kept on moving and Merlin caught it easily.

He sighed. It didn't matter how many times he tried, nothing happened. The magic in him didn't stir even a little. As soon as he had left Arthur, returned to his old life, it was just like before. As if there hadn't been a little bit of progress; as if it hadn't burst out of him to light up the night air and save Arthur, or even the stopping of time to save Will. Or, hell, a falling stack of towels was just that, nothing different or special about them.

It was as if his magic didn't exist. Just like it always had been since he'd been clipped as a child.

Merlin knew Will would be angry at that, would try to push him anyway. Not that Merlin had seen Will since -- well, since before. He didn't want to disappoint his friend. He didn't want to have to explain where he was. He didn't want to have to face Will and tell him that there would never be any magic ever again and that, oh yeah, he was just a dirty street kid.

Merlin knew Will wouldn't care, but. Well, Merlin's pride wouldn't let his friend see him like this. Not yet.

Usually, he would only try throwing the ball once. Give it a go, and when it didn't work, he would put the ball down. No point, he knew, and he'd just be angry and frustrated.

But he'd received an email from Will again that day. He got them almost weekly, curiosity and hurt hidden in his words. Pride or not, it made Merlin feel guilty, and so that night, he tried throwing the ball again, just in case he had been wrong.

It bounced back, and he repeated it over and over, to no avail. Until, finally, there was a yell from the other side of the wall.

"Hey! Knock it off!"

"Sorry!" Merlin called back. He sighed in frustration and put the little ball on the rickety table beside his bed. He shut off the light and rolled over, staring at the wall in the dim light that filtered into his room from the window.

He thought about things. Too many of them, thoughts that plagued his mind every night. Arthur, and what he was doing right then? Will, and how angry he was at Merlin. Nimueh, and where she might be (no one had heard or even said a peep about her since he'd been back, and he tried not to bring attention to it.) Arthur, and was he figuring out a way to get Merlin out of this life? Uther, and did he know what had happened? Morgana, and was she very angry with Merlin for revealing her secret?

Arthur, and was he missing Merlin right then too?

Merlin tried to will the thoughts from his mind to get some sleep. It had used to be a lot easier in a time when all he had to think about was himself, but those days seemed to be long gone, even if he was completely alone.

"Why are you so cranky?" Freya asked. She was sitting on Merlin's bed, legs folded up against her body and her chin rested on the top of her knees. She reached down and picked at a thread on Merlin's thin bedcover.

"I'm not," he answered shortly. He was standing in front of his sink, foam all over his face while he prepared for his meeting with Aredian, which was only a couple hours away. There was nothing he could do about the bruise on his cheek but he figured he should at least shave the stubble.

"You are," she said timidly. "Are you nervous about your meeting?"

"No," he answered with a shrug. He really wasn't. He knew what to expect now, and he knew that he would without a doubt turn down any offers, though he'd at least pretend to think about it so nothing seemed to suspicious.

"All right, then," Freya said. She leaned back against the wall. "I saw Leon today."

This made Merlin stop his razor half way down his face, a strip of skin showing in amongst foam. He dropped it into the sink so he didn't end up cutting himself and he whipped around to face her. He asked hopefully, "You did?"

She smiled. "I knew that would make you happy."

He jumped onto his bed, grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking slowly. "Tell me!"

Freya shrieked, trying to push him away. "Get off!" she said, laughing. "You're getting foam all over me!"

Leon had somehow become the go-between for Merlin and Arthur. Or, at least, that's what Merlin and Freya assumed and that was a bit of hope Merlin held onto.

The first week after Merlin had been back at Coven House, Freya had come to Merlin and said that Arthur stopped by to say hello, and to pass on the message that he hoped Merlin was doing okay, and that Arthur was trying.

But at her words, Merlin felt a sting of pain in his wrist -- there really was to be no communication between him and Arthur, even through a third party, and his magic knew it. For having word from Arthur, something that should've been happy or reassuring, Merlin was rather disappointed.

And it was a bit upsetting the next time Freya came and told him about seeing Arthur, that she shook her head no and said that messages hurt Merlin and could Arthur please leave her alone? She had grabbed her little blanket and packed it away, rushing off, saying that she left a very sad man in her wake. That was the last thing either Merlin or Freya wanted for him.

The week after that, she had the story to tell about a 'tall man with a goatee who was called Leon' who stopped at her blanket. They chatted a bit while he looked at her jewellery and then he out of the blue mentioned he had a friend named Merlin. Freya had been surprised and said she had one named Merlin too and wasn't that a coincidence?

As Freya had described it to Merlin, Leon smiled and said, "Quite a coincidence. I don't know about your friend Merlin but I certainly hope mine is doing well and is safe. I haven't seen him for a while."

Freya had caught on quickly and smiled, replying that, "I see mine everyday. He's a little mopey but he's doing all right."

"That's good to know," Leon said. "Tell him I'm glad for that."

Freya promised she would. Leon then bought a bracelet for much more than it was worth and refused to take any change, and had carried on his merry way.

Leon returned to her every week, with the same message about his friend Merlin and not seeing him but hoping he was safe and he was being thought of, and he always ended up buying two bracelets at the price of what ten would have cost.

Merlin knew, just knew Arthur was behind it. He didn't have honest-to-goodness confirmation though, so his magic didn't seem to mind. And he didn't know how much Leon knew -- quite possibly a lot of it, to fully understand or maybe none of it to keep up with the loophole. Either way, and despite his earlier reservations of letting Leon in on his secret, Merlin was truly thankful for it.

At the thought of the correspondence, Merlin slumped back against the wall and rubbed at his chin, forgetting the shaving foam.

"Merlin!" Freya scolded again. "You're making a mess!"

"Oh, right," Merlin said absently. He rubbed his hand on his already dirty shirt, not having changed for his meeting with Aredian yet anyway. He glanced at Freya. "Leon. You saw Leon. And?"

"I did," Freya said, a soft smile. "And his message was different this week."

Merlin sat straight up. "Come on, lady! Don't tease me like this!"

She laughed at him, shaking her head, big brown eyes shining happily. "All right, all right, calm down, would you?"

"Out with it!"

She must have felt some pity for him because she relented and stopped teasing. Seriously, she said, "He said he hoped his friend Merlin was safe and well and that he would be seeing him soon."

Merlin paused for a brief second and then burst out, "What?"

Freya laughed and shrugged. "That's what he said."

"My meeting," Merlin said, feeling astonished. A wide grin began to creep across his face. "Oh my god, my meeting is about Arthur!"

"You don't know that," Freya started cautiously, but Merlin cut her off. He bounced on the bed and then threw his arms around her.

"It's got to be!" Merlin said. He kissed her on the cheek, leaving a smear of white foam, and then scrambled off the bed. "I better get ready!"

"Merlin!" Freya complained, wiping at her face.

He grabbed his small hand-towel and threw it in her direction. She caught it and started to clean up while he turned back to the mirror. He smoothed some foam over his face to even it out again and picked up his razor. "That's what it is," he said matter-of-factly. "He's telling me he's coming for me."

"Maybe," Freya reluctantly agreed. She stood up and came to stand just behind Merlin, looking at him in the reflection. "Why do you think he is? Isn't it early?"

"He misses me, obviously," Merlin said, grinning. And then he voiced his hopefully thoughts, though cautiously. "And maybe … well, maybe he has good news."

"He's getting you out," Freya said, sounding a little sad.

"Yes!" Merlin said with a bright smile. But then he frowned, and a little seed of doubt started to form. "Or, well. Maybe he just can't. Maybe he knows he can't so he's just wants to see me now."

"Oh, I don't think so," Freya said, putting her hand on the small of Merlin's back comfortingly. "I'm sure it's not that. He wouldn't give up."

Merlin tried to smile. "No. It's not his way."

"Doesn't seem it, does it?" She kissed Merlin's shoulder and rubbed his back before stepping away. "Finish getting ready and go find out. One step at a time, yeah?"

"Yeah," Merlin nodded. He took a deep breath to try to calm his nerves so he could shave without nicking himself. "All right. Yes. I can do this."

"You can. Good luck," Freya said as she opened the door to his room to leave him alone to get ready. She smiled at him. "I'll see you later?"

"I'll come find you," he reassured.

"All right, then. Bye, Merlin."

"Bye," he said, and turned back to the mirror to get ready for what he was feeling was going to be a very important and possibly life-changing evening.

Hopefully, since somehow Arthur Pendragon had convinced Merlin he was allowed that sort of luxury in life.

Aredian's office was no different than it had been before. It looked just the same, with dark imposing furniture while Aredian sat behind a large desk with his elbows on the top of it and his fingers making an evil steeple in front of him. And, sure, Merlin had only been there a couple more times after that first, but today felt different. It seemed a lot less intimidating. Maybe it was because Merlin felt ready, prepared, and was in fact looking forward to it. Or maybe it was because Aredian would not always have power over him and Merlin knew that -- believed it -- now.

It took Aredian no time at all to let Merlin know just how right that was, but it was not at all in the way Merlin had expected it.

Aredian had gestured for Merlin to sit in the chair across from him, and Merlin was barely seated when Aredian said, "I won't beat around the bush, here, Merlin. I am selling out your contract to me."

It felt as if the wind was knocked out of Merlin. "You're--" he had to bite back a fucking kidding me, right? at that, "--doing what?"

"Selling your contract to me," Aredian said to him. He was watching Merlin closely, likely looking for Merlin's reactions. "I have had a very generous offer I have been negotiating for the past couple weeks. You will no longer live in my establishment or work for me under a contract. It will be transferred to someone else."

"What?" Merlin repeated forcefully, unable to keep in his surprise and distress at the announcement. "You can't -- I have a contract with you -- and you're my boss -- and I live at Coven House!"

"Not after this meeting, you do not. And I most certainly can -- this was one of the conditions of our original contract, that I informed you of and you agreed by signing."
Merlin had forgotten about that, it slipping his mind with the time that had past, the reassurances he had been given. It came rushing back to him, nearly knocking him out of the chair with how it made him feel dizzy."You told me that had never happened before! And that you didn't do that!"

"Yes, that is true," Aredian agreed with a bow of his head. "But things do change and business opportunities present themselves. You're a very special case, Merlin. You always have been."

"So someone is buying me from you?" Merlin asked. His hands were curled into fists rested on the top of his thighs, and he kept rubbing them back and forth over the jean denim in agitation. He really just wanted to jump up and run away but he had a feeling he wouldn't get very far.

Aredian nodded and gave quick smile with a flash of yellow teeth. "Yes, I suppose you could say that. This new -- boss, is that how you put it? -- will now dictate your affairs, and by the bonds of the contract you will have to follow those orders."

"But -- but -- no!"

"Yes, Merlin, and you do not have any say in this matter. You signed it over to me with our original agreement" Aredian did not seem surprised by Merlin's reaction but there was no sympathy, no need or will to console Merlin in his distress. Aredian's eyebrows rose in question and he asked smoothly, "Is there any reason why you're so upset about this?"

In Merlin's mind, he yelled yes! He thought of Arthur, about not seeing him again, about being taken away from some unknown person. He thought about Freya and wondered who would look after her. He even thought about Jonas and Catrina and his commitment to them to help with their heist.

"It's -- my home," Merlin said weakly, not wanting to give anything away to Aredian. It was possible he could get around it somehow, or plead with the other person to let him go, or something.

"How touching," Aredian said dryly. "And now you'll have a new one."

"What if I don't?" Merlin asked defiantly, starting to panic that he was running out of options, if he even had any to begin with. "What if I don't let this happen?"

"As I said, there is little for you to do about this. Under the contract, you are my property." He said it with little caring, a true businessman with an asset. It made Merlin's cheeks flush with shame when he looked Aredian, who was so blasé about it. Aredian asked, "Don't you know what happens when you try to resist my decree?"

Merlin mumbled, "Yes."

"I didn't hear you," Aredian said. "You'll have to speak up."

Merlin met Aredian's eyes, jaw jutted out. "Yes."


"My magic," Merlin said, "will start to work against me."

"It'll start to eat you from the inside out," Aredian supplemented. "Have you ever seen that? Someone who resisted me?"

Merlin shook his head. He hadn't seen it, but he heard whispers of one clipped person who tried to go against Aredian and his signed contract. There were rumours that, hidden under long sleeves and a hood pulled up over his head, there was the man that had what looked like deep burns from his wrist up his arm and onto his face. Word had it that he suffered to the end of his contract, and when it was up, he disappeared. No one knew where he was. Merlin sometimes thought he was just a mythical creation to have the Clipped follow Aredian's contract, but that wasn't exactly something that Merlin wanted to test out.

"Well, then, that power will be transferred over so it be best you not think anymore about resisting, understood?"

Merlin nodded and swallowed hard. His pulse was pounding and it sounded like the ocean was in his ears. He felt dizzy and nauseous and all he wanted was for the meeting to be over. "All right," he said, looking at his knees. "When does this happen?" He might still be able to work something out if he had time, or at least get word to Arthur.

"Right now," Aredian said, standing up. Merlin looked up sharply, surprised. Aredian moved out from behind his desk and to a door at the side of his office, different than the one that he had come in through. Aredian opened the door and announced through it, "You may come in now."

And through the door walked one Arthur Pendragon, in a black suit and a blue tie -- Merlin's blue tie -- with a stoic expression on his face. He didn't even cast a glance at Merlin as he walked past him and sat in the chair next to him.

"Arthur," Aredian said as he sat down behind his desk. He gave a slimy grin. "I do believe you know Merlin here."

"I do," Arthur said. He glanced over at Merlin, barely, but then did a second take. Arthur frowned. "What happened to his face?"

"Oh, you know how those types are," Aredian said, wiggling a couple fingers in Merlin's direction. "Scrappy."

"Hmm, yes," Arthur hummed noncommittally. He turned back to face Aredian. "Are the documents prepared?"

"They are," Aredian said. He reached down to open a drawer to his desk. "We'll sign them to transfer ownership, and then the boy will sign it for the … binding measure."

"Excellent," Arthur said. "That's what I'm looking for."

Merlin sat in his chair, eyes flickering back and forth between the two men as they carried on their conversation as if he wasn't sitting right there. His cheeks were heated with anger and embarrassment.

He couldn't help but grit out, "Is that so?"

Aredian pursed his lips together and it looked like he was trying not to chuckle. Merlin really wanted to punch him in the face. And he just wanted Arthur to be Arthur. But he wasn't.

Arthur glanced in his direction, impassive. Back to Aredian he said, "I must thank you again for this opportunity. I know it is outside what you usually do."

"It certainly is," Aredian agreed. He picked up a pen -- the one that was silver and gold with the runes that looked a lot like Merlin's clip -- and he twirled it between his fingers. He tilted his head as he addressed Arthur. "But your father made a very strong case for this. He is a long-time friend and trusted client, and after -- well, I wanted to make up for some past troubles."

Merlin stiffened at those words but was wise enough not to say anything. He assumed that Aredian was talking about Nimueh but Merlin didn't know the full story or the one that had been fed to Aredian.

"Yes, he mentioned a little something," Arthur said. "That's why we want this particular arrangement. To preserve the Pendragon name from any … indecencies."

"I'm sorry there is some broken trust there," Aredian said with a bow of his head, small beady eyes calculating. "I hope this repairs it."

"As do we," Arthur said. "If this goes well, perhaps my father will be interested in further business ventures."

"That is my hope as well. Is he sure he doesn't want in on a part of this?" Aredian asked, nodding at Merlin. "I can have the documents changed--"

"No," Arthur cut him off. "This is mine and mine alone."

Merlin was conflicted as to whether he should be grateful for it (he knew he should) or if he wanted to yell at them both to let them know that he shouldn't be anyone's property nor treated as such, whether or not he signed a contract that had agreed to it. But he bit on his lip and remained quiet; as angry as he was then, he wanted to know what sort of game Arthur was playing at. And the prospect of being with Arthur wasn't too terribly bad at all, even if it was like this. But Merlin would be having some words with him about that.

"As you wish," Aredian said. He brought the pen down to the paper and scrawled a signature. Merlin could feel a slight twinge in his wrist, the magic in the clip acting up as if it sensed a change occurring.

Aredian slid the paper across the desktop to Arthur. Arthur leaned forward and took the pen from him and signed right under Aredian's. With that, there were new threads of magic in Merlin's arm and it felt as they were trying to chase the ones from Aredian away.

Arthur held the pen out to Merlin. His face appeared calm, blank, but Merlin knew him well enough to see the apprehension in his eyes. Merlin sighed and took the pen with a shaky hand, carefully to keep his fingers from brushing against Arthur's, not wanting to give Aredian a scrape of anything to hold against them.

Merlin grasped the pen but made no move. He looked down at the paper, eyes scanning it as if he were reading, when really he was taking in the gravity of the situation and trying to remember how he'd got himself there in the first place.

"Merlin," Aredian said, drawing him from his thoughts. Merlin looked up and saw Aredian looking at him with his mouth pressed into a grim line. "We talked about this."

Merlin scowled. "I'm reading it."

"It is a combination of your contract with me and the one you previously had with Arthur," Aredian told him. "There is an added clause that you are not to discuss my business or me with anyone," he said, looking pointedly at Arthur. "You can take a copy to look at later so you know what you can and can't do, but there really is no need to waste our time here. Sign it."

It was those last two words that activated the remaining hold that Aredian had on Merlin; his hand twitched with it. Rarely did Aredian use commands with them -- if they didn't make rent, they had the leeway of putting it on a tab, and all contracts were offers with the decision left upon the companion whether or not to take it.

There was no room for interpretation here, no decision to be made, and the heat in Merlin's wrist grew more insistent the longer he waited.

Merlin sighed and signed the paper, and he gasped at the physical reaction it had on him. Aredian's magic control drained out of him, cold like water down a drain, and Arthur's licked at him, warm and heated like a flame before it settled down around the clip.

Aredian announced, "It is done. Congratulations, Arthur, you have yourself a permanent companion for a couple of years."

"Yes," Arthur said. "It seems I do." He stood up and buttoned his suit jacket, smoothing it out. He looked down at Merlin. "Let's go."

"My stuff--"

"Is waiting in the corridor for you," Aredian supplied. "You're officially moved out of my premises."

"That was fast," Merlin muttered under his breath. Aredian had prepared for this, liking having Helen or someone else pack up his room and send his belonging with a second driver within minutes of when Merlin left for the meeting.

"Very efficient," Arthur agreed. He nodded at Aredian and stuck out his hand. "Thank you for your business."

"No, thank you," Aredian said, standing and shaking Arthur' hand. "Please do say hello to your father for me."

"Will do," Arthur said. He stepped past Merlin, not even looking over his shoulder as he said, "Merlin."

Merlin did as he was told and followed Arthur, picking up the two bags that were indeed in the corridor outside Aredian's office door. There was no one else in sight and Merlin followed Arthur out to his car, which was parked right outside the building.

"Put them in the backseat," Arthur said as he rounded to the side of the car.

Merlin hissed at him, "What is going on, Arthur?"

Arthur glanced up over Merlin's head, looking at the building, and he said again, "Get in the car, Merlin."

Merlin wondered if they were being watched but was caring less and less. He wanted answers.

But Arthur had told him what to do, and the longer he waited, the warmer his wrist became. It was only a matter of time before it would begin to sting, Merlin suspected.

Pride lost to the wish of staying unharmed, so Merlin opened the door and threw in his bags, slamming it shut. He got into the passenger seat beside Arthur, not saying a word while they drove away.

That lasted all of twenty seconds.

Merlin burst out, "What the bloody hell, Arthur!"

"Why, hello to you too, Merlin," Arthur said calmly, though he glanced over at Merlin, looking concerned. "Nice to see you. Hope you're doing well, boyfriend."

"Oh, don't you boyfriend me," Merlin said heatedly. "You just bought me! What should I be calling you? Master?"

"Well, as lovely as that sounds--"

"You bastard!"

Merlin hissed and clutched at his wrist as pain sprung from around his clip.

Arthur looked at it and frowned. "Couldn't call Aredian names, huh? Looks like you aren't allowed to insult me either now."

"Oh, enough," Merlin huffed. He slumped back in the seat, the anger deflating out of him as the pain quickly receded. Simply, he stated, "You bought me."

"I had to," Arthur said. He reached over to put a hand on Merlin's leg but Merlin twitched away. Arthur sighed tiredly. "It was the only way I could get you away from him."

Merlin looked out the window. "Yeah, I guess so, huh? That's just -- yeah. Now you really do have a permanent whore, huh?"

"Don't start, Merlin," Arthur snapped at him. "Let me explain, for Christ sake."

"Do I have to listen?" Merlin said, rolling his head to the side and looked at him. "Is that an order? Because I have to follow those, don't I? Guess I don't have a choice, then, so say whatever you want."

"Oh for the love of--" Arthur pulled the car over into the carpark they were passing and put the vehicle into park, turning off the ignition. Arthur turned to Merlin, scowling. "Do you always have to be such a brat?"

"Yes," Merlin answered solemnly. "Haven't you missed it?"

"Fuck, yes," Arthur said.

This time when he reached out, Merlin didn't shy away, instead throwing himself into Arthur's arms, unable to resist any more.

"That's more like it," Arthur said into his ear, his arms wrapped tight around Merlin to pull him as close as possible in the confined and awkward space of the front seat.

"I missed you," Merlin muffled into Arthur's neck. He tried to stifle back the emotion that was bubbling up his throat. "I really did."

Arthur kissed his temple. "God, I missed you too." He pulled away and cupped Merlin's cheeks. He frowned as his thumb brushed over Merlin's bruise. "What happened? I told you to be safe."

Merlin tried to duck his head out of the way but Arthur wouldn't let him go, so he just rested his forehead against Arthur's. "I'm fine," Merlin said, eyes closed as he breathed in the smell of Arthur. "Just a disagreement with a friend."

"Some friend," Arthur said dryly.

Merlin pulled away from him at that. "He is," Merlin said, and slumped back against the car door. "And I left him there! And Freya! I -- I need to talk to them, let them know I'm okay. And, god, try to help them--"

"You will," Arthur reassured. He leaned forward, hands rested on Merlin's thighs, as if unable to stop touching him. "We'll get to that, all right? We have things to do first--"

"Yes, yes, sex," Merlin said, scowling and waving his hand absently. "We have two years for you to use me however you want, remember?"

"That's not -- would you stop talking like that?" Arthur said with irritation. "I didn't get the rights to your contract for sex whenever I want."

"So you don't want it whenever you want?"

"No! Well, yes but -- that's not what this is about!"

"Oh, really," Merlin said dryly. "It wasn't to get me away from him so you could see me whenever you wanted?"

Arthur threw his hands up in the air. "Argh, you're frustrating."

"You'll have to get used to that all over again," Merlin pointed out. "Look, I'm just trying to make light of this, okay? I mean. You got me out of there--"

"--I said I would--"

"You did," Merlin conceded. "And that's a good thing, even if it's like this, right? But, well. You own me now, and. Right. We'll deal with that, yeah?"

"Not for long," Arthur said.


"Owning you," Arthur said. "I won't be for very long."

Merlin looked at him, horrified. "You're selling me?"


"Then what--"

Arthur put his hands up in the air, trying to halt Merlin's ramble. "That's it. You need to just shut it all ready so I can explain. No, I mean it," he cut Merlin off when Merlin opened his mouth to make a comment. "Don't make me pull out the conditions on the contract just to shut you up long enough so I can tell you what is going on, got it?"

Merlin huffed and scowled, but he nodded. "Fine."

"Good," Arthur said. "Right now, we are going to see someone. A man called Gaius, who is an old friend of the family. My father's physician, actually. I've known him as long as I can remember. And, apparently, he has magic. There seems to be a lot of that going on," he added dryly.

Merlin opened his mouth to ask a question but promptly shut it at Arthur's glare.

"But Morgana -- who, as you know, also has magic, even if I was the last bloody person to know--"

"Does your father--"

Arthur cut him off again. "Well, no, but I'll get to that later, yeah?" Merlin nodded. Arthur continued, "Anyway. So, Morgana helped come up with this plan, because she knew that Gaius would be able to help. We're going to see him because he'll be able to break the binding magic to the contract, but there has to be agreement by the so-called owner, so we couldn't have Aredian still a part of this. Merlin, don't you get it? That's why I got your contract, so that I could break it. I'm letting you go, all right? You're not going to belong to anyone."

Arthur fell silent. Merlin blinked at him, the words starting to sink into his mind. He mulled them over, trying to grasp them, but it was like they were foreign and didn't make any sense.

Arthur looked at him anxiously. "Well?" he asked. "Aren't you going to say anything?"

"I -- I think I'm speechless."

Arthur snorted and rolled his eyes. "That's a scientific impossibility oomph."

Arthur let out a great gust of air when Merlin threw himself at him, but caught Merlin as best he could. He laughed when he tried to arrange his limbs and get his arms out from being trapped between their bodies.

"You're letting me go," Merlin said, amazed.

"Well, not entirely. You can't get rid of me that easily," Arthur said confidently, hugging Merlin again. "But, yeah, out of our contract, absolutely."

There was little else that Merlin could say to that. He kissed Arthur then, deep and thorough and tried to pour everything he was feeling into it. When they broke apart, Arthur licked his lips and chuckled breathlessly.

"Jesus," he said, though he had a dopey grin on his face. "This is not the time for that. We've got to go."

"Are you sure?" Merlin teased, though he pulled back again to settle into his seat. "It's been two months."

"Fuck, it sure has," Arthur grumbled under his breath, but he grinned. "Later. We have people to go and see." He turned to the steering wheel, paused, and then looked at Merlin. His brow was furrowed in thought. "Merlin? Does the name Gaius mean anything to you?"

Merlin shrugged. "Not really. But you must trust him, yeah?"

"I do," Arthur said slowly. "But -- there's a reason he knows what to do to help us out."

"Yeah?" That made sense, Merlin supposed, if he thought about it. The thought of Arthur getting the contract was what was at the forefront of his mind and he hadn't been able to process much beyond that. "Cause he has magic?"

"Well, yes. But. There's something you should know before we go see him."

"What's that?"

"Gaius used to work for the government--"

"Oh, unlucky guy."

"Yes, well. Especially since -- Merlin, he used to. Well."

Arthur looked very awkward. Merlin frowned and asked, "What?"

Arthur sighed. "He used to put clips on people."

At that statement, Merlin instantly pictured an older man with long silver hair and eyebrows that reached the roof, the image an imprint on a confused eight-year-old boy that Merlin usually had pushed to the back of his mind. Merlin swallowed. "He's the one who clipped me."

"Yes," Arthur said quietly. "He doesn't anymore, of course. Retired. But I don't know the whole story, I'm sure there's a reason why--"

"Probably to keep his magic," Merlin said reasonably. "He probably had that held over his head or something."

Arthur nodded. "That's what I was thinking. Merlin, if you can't see him--"

"It's fine, Arthur," Merlin answered. "No, really," he stressed at Arthur's doubtful look. Merlin shrugged. "I mean. It. A lot of us do things we're not proud of," Merlin said. He didn't think he needed to clarify that too much. "We do what we can to hang on and survive, yeah?"

Arthur reached over and squeezed Merlin's knee. "Isn't that the truth for just about everyone, magic or not?"

"Yeah," Merlin agreed, and settled into the seat as Arthur turned the car back on. "I suppose it is."

Chapter Text

Arthur drove through the streets, cursing at roundabouts and other stupid drivers, all the while explaining to Merlin what he knew about what happened that last night -- not that Arthur knew a lot, much to his apparent frustration.

Morgana had everything cleaned up before Arthur had returned to his father's house after he saw Merlin off. Arthur was convinced she had help, because Nimueh was gone and everything was tidied up -- minus a mini crater in Uther's pool deck, and that had been the hardest part to explain -- and Uther was in his bed, resting peacefully and healthy.

But Morgana refused to tell Arthur anything in detail.

"We keep our secrets," Merlin agreed.

Arthur grumbled, "Apparently so."

They came up with some story for Uther, not that Arthur really approved of or enjoyed lying to his father, but he knew it was for the best to try to protect everyone. And it seemed that Uther didn't remember anything that happened that evening -- "I think Morgana made that happen," Arthur said grimly, and he seemed a little uncomfortable with his sister's power. But he didn't say anything more negative than that. And Morgana had promised that Nimueh would not be bothering them any longer.

As far as Uther was concerned, Nimueh had never shown up that night and Uther had had serious words with Aredian about it.

"But what about--" Merlin started to ask, but knew he was still bound against mentioning Aredian or Coven House. To try to get around the magic at his wrist, all he said was, "I haven't seen her again."

Arthur shook his head. "I don't know."

Merlin had images of magic eating Nimueh from the inside out, and despite everything that happened, he truly wish that wasn't so. He hoped Morgana had helped her find a way out too.

"And that's about it," Arthur said as he pulled into a different carpark. "I've been trying everything I can do to find you a way out, and Morgana comes to me with snippets of information -- including about Gaius -- and we came up with this plan. I didn't mean for it to take so long--"

"Arthur, it's fine. This is -- well, it's more than I ever expected."

Arthur put the car in park and shot Merlin a cocky grin. "Told you I would do it."

"Yes, yes you did," Merlin said with a roll of his eyes. He was never going to live this one down ever.

They exited the car and Arthur came around it, casually taking Merlin's hand, in which Merlin could not help but grin at the gesture. "Come on," Arthur said, tugging lightly and leading the way up to a block of flats. "Basement suite."

"Hey," Merlin said. "So what does your father know about this? The contract, or us, or whatever."

"Ah, right, that," Arthur said as he stopped and faced Merlin. "He -- well, he knows Nimueh skipped out on a contractual weekend with him, and that Aredian has no explanation for that. It's made my father very nervous and suspicious as to where she's going to turn up, or who she might speak to."

"Wouldn't that make him want you to stay far away from the likes of me?"

"You'd think, wouldn't you?" Arthur said. "But I may have suggested to him that it was because he never had full control, you see. That he wasn't the primary contract owner."

"So if he would've been her -- boss, if you will," Merlin said, trying to find a right word for it, "then he wouldn't have to worry about that any more."

"Precisely," Arthur said, nodding. "I got him on board with the idea that it would be much better for me -- and in turn, our family name -- if you were, well. You know."

"Under your control," Merlin said unabashedly.

"Yes, that," Arthur said, a little spots of pink on his cheeks, and it was incredibly endearing that he was still embarrassed to talk about Merlin that way. "But it was helpful to have him on my side for negotiations with Aredian."

"Well at least there was that."

"Yeah." Arthur tugged on Merlin's hand again. "Come on. Almost there."

Arthur pressed the buzzer on the outside of the building and they were let in seconds later. He led them down a flight of stone steps to the basement suites and knocked on a door.

Morgana opened it. "Arthur, you made it. Hello, Merlin."

"Hi, Morgana," Merlin said as they entered into the flat and she closed the door behind them. "Good to see you."

"I'm sure it is," she agreed. She didn't seem nearly as friendly the first couple times he'd met her, though Merlin suppose he couldn't blame her for being cold -- he had, essentially, betrayed her, even if he was just trying to help. He didn't expect that to sit easy with her.

"Merlin," Arthur said, gesturing. "This is Gaius."

Merlin turned to the elderly man, who as far as he could tell, looked almost exactly the same as he had a decade earlier when Merlin last saw him, save for perhaps a couple more wrinkles on his face.

Gaius stood there, hands behind his back and a slight hunch to his shoulders as he looked back at Merlin, not saying anything.

"Um, hello, Dr. Gaius," Merlin said with a little wave, feeling a little bit awkward.

"Please, just Gaius." Gaius looked at him, his head tilted to the side a little. Merlin shifted on his feet, unsure what to say, and neither of the others felt compelled to interrupt this moment. Finally, Gaius said, "I've been waiting a long time to meet you again, Merlin Balinson."

"You have?"

"Indeed I have. I have never in my life met anyone with such power. I regretted doing what I had to do, it was such a shame. I hope you'll accept my apology for it."

"Oh, that. Well." Merlin shrugged, cheeks flushed with embarrassment. He didn't exactly want to say it was all right or anything, but he wasn't about to be mean about it to an old man who had just been doing his job and protecting himself. Merlin didn’t like to remember that day, it was so long ago, but at least now he understood it was something much beyond either his or Gaius’ control. "It -- yes. It is what it is, yeah?"

"The casual philosophy of the young generation," Gaius observed. "So many of you live by it."

"It helps us get by," Merlin said. He couldn't contain himself any more, and Gaius was likely a wealth of information that Merlin never had access to before. "But, about that magic thing? Can I ask a question?"

"Of course," Gaius said. "I quite expect you're curious about it, aren't you?"

"Always," Merlin admitted more freely than he'd allowed himself before. "I'm -- I'm not supposed to have it, am I? What with--" he waved his arm around, the clasp on the band that covered the clip catching light "--this and all, right?"

"Quite right," Gaius said. "And something to discuss, certainly. Please, won't you all sit down?"

He led them through his small flat, which was full of books, stacks of medical magazines, potted plants and little jars full of god knew what. In the dinning room, there was a wooden table with a wooden bench on either side. Merlin took a seat and Arthur slid in next to him, hand on the small of Merlin's back. Gaius and Morgana sat across from them.

"Morgana tells me that you experienced quite the display of power not too long ago," Gaius said.

Merlin looked at Morgana, who seemed quite unrepentant at that. At least she offered, "He's the only one I told."

"I -- yeah, that's fair," he replied to her. To Gaius, he said. "And, yes, I did. Which I thought I wasn't supposed to do because I'm clipped."

"You're not, no."

"No magic at all?"

"None," Gaius answered.

Arthur put in, "Obviously, that's not true. Or you're mistaken. Because, believe me, I saw it. He used his magic."

"Yes, to save your life," Gaius said, humming under his breath. His finger tapped on his chin as he mulled the thought over.

"And to save my friend Will," Merlin added. "And stop Arthur's towels from attacking me in the cupboard."

"Attack you?" Gaius asked, surprised. "Who would make them do that?"

"No one," Arthur said with a roll of his eyes. "The stack toppled over."

"Ah, of course," Gaius said, as if he perfectly understood.

"And at the gala," Morgana added. "My champagne glass. That was you who stopped it from knocking over, wasn't it? It's how you caught it so easily."

"It was," Merlin nodded, and was particularly pleased that Arthur hadn't told either of them anything more of his magic and waited for Merlin to have the chance to explain for himself.

"I just didn't suspect," she said.

"Nor should you have," Gaius told her. "If you knew about his clip, you certainly wouldn't have thought so."

"Then why?" Merlin asked. "Why is this happening now? Is it--" He bit on his lip nervously, glancing at his boyfriend. "Is it because I'm with Arthur?" Arthur rubbed his hand over Merlin's back, comforting.

There was a quirk to Gaius's lips. "And why do you ask that?"

"I don't know," Merlin said, shrugging. "It's just -- it never happened before I knew him."

Arthur said, "It's because I'm so remarkable, you know." Merlin bumped Arthur's shoulder with his own and Morgana rolled her eyes. And despite trying to be so flippant about it, Arthur looked at Gaius with intense curiosity, wanting to understand just as much as Merlin did.

"I do have a theory," Gaius conceded, a little amused. "And I believe the answer to that is both yes and no."

Merlin scrunched up his nose. "How's that now?"

"My theory has a lot to do with your previous -- benefactor, shall we?"

"I, uh, can't really talk about him," Merlin said. He rubbed at the band on his wrist.

Morgana muttered under her breath, "That bloody bastard." Arthur hummed in agreement.

"It's all right, Merlin. You don't have to," Gaius said. "I will. I have much I could say."

"We know a bit about him," Morgana added. "We've been keeping an eye on him and his activities for a couple of years now."

Arthur asked, "We?"

Morgana just shook her head, and although Arthur didn't know, Merlin suspected she meant the Druids. Gaius didn't clarify but expanded on what she had to say. "Yes, we have. I am particularly interested how he uses magic against the Clipped. It is an area of -- special interest," he said, sounding rather mournful, "for me given my years of work."

"I witnessed it just this evening," Arthur said, "he has some sort of -- pen."

"Yes, magically enchanted, I am led to understand."

"It is," Morgana answered. "That bastard uses their fettered magic against them."

"Yes, I think so," Arthur agreed. "The pen had markings on it, like on a clip."

"My magic reacts to it," Merlin put in, unable to resist contributing to one of the most important conversations he'd ever been a part of.

But his magic -- and the remaining control Aredian had over Merlin, to not tell any of his secrets -- didn't like it. Merlin's arm twitched under his words, that very reaction he just talked about.

Arthur's eyes, as if trained to take in everything he could about Merlin, noticed it. His hand moved up over Merlin's back and his finger's curled around Merlin's shoulder, squeezing comfortingly. If Gaius or Mogana noticed anything, they didn't make mention of it.

"Yes," Gaius mused. "Somehow, Aredian has figured out a way to use the properties of a clip in that pen of his and is able to control through it. That's why they share the same metal, the same etchings. They are, essentially, the very same."

Morgana put in, "I want to know where he learned that. Are you certain you don't know? You must, given what you used to do."

"Clip people," Gaius said bluntly, not trying to hide it. "I know, but it is a job I inherited--"

"How?" Merlin asked.

Gaius shook his head. "A tale for another time, perhaps. It really has no bearing on this. It is a secret that is believed to be long lost."

"Someone knows," Morgana argued.

"Yes. And now so does Aredian and he's using it for his own profit."

"Bastard," Arthur cursed. Merlin nodded in agreement.

"He may have that secret," Gaius said, "but he doesn't understand it. He doesn't seem to fully understand how the clip works, or what its enchantment really does to person with magic."

"How's that?" Merlin asked, curious, thankful that he wasn't stepping out of any boundaries put on him.

"The clips put the magic to sleep, I suppose you can say. Restrains it entirely."

Morgana added, "But doesn't destroy it."

"No," Gaius agreed. "It's still in there. And anytime a clipped person uses Aredian's pen to sign one of his contracts, it is actually waking their magic up. Bringing it out of hibernation, so to speak. It's so he can use it to bind them to his contract."

"So he's giving their magic back?" Arthur asked.

"Again, that is a yes and no answer," Gaius said.

"I would go with no, mostly," Merlin put in. "Because for an entire year, I never felt a thing."

"That's what I mean," Gaius said. "Aredian doesn't seem know this is happening but he certainly doesn't want you to use your magic. But, with however he's figured out how to do it, you give control of your magic to him. So he wouldn't be allowing you to use it. I doubt that when he -- leases," Gaius said carefully, "any of you, those clients who have temporary control aren't letting you use magic either."

"But Arthur," Merlin said slowly, turning to look at the man seated beside him. "You -- you wanted me to have it."

"I wanted that for you so bad," Arthur agreed, leaning in closer to Merlin. Merlin put his hand on Arthur's cheek. Arthur said, quietly, "I'd give you free rein of it, if I could."

"So then why didn't he have it?" Morgana asked, drawing them from their little intimate moment, and Merlin's hand dropped from Arthur's face as they both turned to look at her. She suggested, "From the sounds of it, Merlin didn't actually have any control."

"My father," Arthur answered immediately. "It was his contract, really, just sort of leased to me."

"And my boss," Merlin added. "Technically, I was still under his contract." A bit of hope blossomed in Merlin's heart; he wasn't under Aredian's control anymore. And Arthur was going to give up his. Merlin would be free of anyone else, and maybe his magic would--

"Don't forget the clip," Gaius said. "Your magic may have been wakened in you, but that clip is designed for one purpose only and that's to keep it inside. Regardless of anything else, ultimately, it would have been working to restrain it at all times. That is why you didn't, and would never, have full control of your power while the clip is intact."

Merlin's heart sank. "Oh. Right."

"Hey," Arthur said seriously. "I told you I'd come up with a plan for that--"

Morgana interrupted him, giving Arthur a significant look. "One step at a time, Arthur," she said sharply. "Let's not rush things. Let's just get Merlin out of this whole contract business first."

"Very correct, Morgana," Gaius said. "I do believe that we have a bit of a ritual to perform, don't we?"

Merlin asked, surprised, "Ritual?"

Arthur muttered under his breath, "This is where they do some hocus-pocus mumbo-jumbo."

"Oi!' Morgana protested. "We're here to help out. Do not insult us. We could just, you know, not--"

"Okay, okay!" Arthur said, putting up his hands before she got too carried away. Merlin was thankful that Arthur conceded, because from what he knew of the two, that was an argument that could probably go on for a long time.

"So," Merlin asked, suddenly a bit nervous. What if it didn't work? How upset would Arthur be? How disappointed would he himself be? "How does this go?"

"Quite simply," Gaius said. "Please, take off the band and put your wrist up here on the table."

Merlin cast a nervous, embarrassed glance around, but Arthur just nodded encouragingly, Gaius gave a patient look and even Morgana gave a soft smile. Merlin sighed, unbuttoned the band, and put his arm on the table, with his clip, the gold and silver entwined metal with the runes etched in to it seated deep into his skin on full display.

Thankfully, none of them made a big deal out of it.

"All right, this is how it needs to go," Gaius instructed. Merlin listened carefully, and although Arthur did as well, it seemed he'd already been instructed on it. "I will put my hand in the air over yours and say an incantation. Arthur will have to put his hand right on yours, relinquishing his binding control over you and Morgana will help him with that -- this is why we needed him to have your contract and not Aredian, as we highly doubted he would go along with this plan. Finally, I will say another incantation. And then it is done."

Merlin blinked in surprised. "That's it?"

"It's not simple, Merlin," Gaius scolded with a scowl. "It happens to take a lot of power and energy."

"All right, all right, I didn't know," Merlin said apologetically.

"Quite all right," Gaius said. "But, please, quiet now. All you have to do is sit there while we finish this."

"All right," Merlin said. Arthur reached over and squeezed his knee encouragingly.

Gaius hovered his hand in the air a few inches above Merlin and with a flash of gold in his eyes, he whispered words that Merlin did not understand but that resonated within him, sitting heavy in the pit of his stomach like he should know them. Merlin gasped as the clip heated, the skin around it becoming itchy and uncomfortable.

"It's okay," Arthur whispered to him. "Just keep still."

Merlin nodded and tried.

Morgana instructed Arthur to put his hand over Merlin's wrist, and he did so, very carefully. His fingertips rubbed the skin beside it, and that was comforting and put Merlin at ease. Arthur repeated the phrases that Morgana said to him, though he had to say them a couple of times because he stumbled over the unfamiliar words.

Merlin hissed loudly as a pain stung through his wrist, causing his hand to jerk under Arthur's, but Arthur held onto him steady and true and Merlin rode the waves of pain until, suddenly, there were none.

Arthur drew his hand back, and Gaius whispered more words. There was one last jolt to his hand, and Merlin could swear he saw the air around it dance with gold but just for an instant, before it was all done.

And he remembered. He remembered that this was what it had been like, all those years ago, but a little bit in reverse, with different words, and with a lot more pain as the metal seared into his skin.

"Did it work?" Morgana asked anxiously.

"I -- I don't know," Merlin admitted. The metal was still there, but then again, that wasn't what this had been about. That would never be gone, no matter what. The skin around it was red and looked irritated but oddly did not hurt.

"Well, how do you find out?" Arthur asked impatiently.

"Hold on, would you, you git!" Merlin said.

He paused, and looked at Arthur. Arthur, for his part, didn't look angry or annoyed with Merlin.

Merlin smiled broadly. "You, Arthur Pendragon, are a spoiled prat."

"Merlin!" Gaius hissed.

But Arthur just smiled back. Merlin held up his wrist, right in front of his face. "Yes, you certainly are. And that Aredian? A sodding bastard if I ever knew one, and wait until I tell you all about Coven House and how we live there, tiny rooms and ridiculous rent we have to pay."

Merlin's wrist was fine. There was no sting. There was no pain. Merlin had just insulted Arthur, Aredian, and gave out more information than he'd ever had about where he'd been living.

Arthur swallowed hard but was grinning madly. "It worked."

"It bloody well did!" Merlin exclaimed, laughing. "Gaius, Morgana -- thank you. Just. Thank you." He looked at them and Gaius looked ridiculously pleased with himself, and even Morgana looked like she was tearing up.

Turning back to Arthur, Merlin said, "And you." He leaned into Arthur when Arthur reached out and pulled Merlin close.

Merlin's arms circled Arthur hard, hugging him as tight as he could. He hooked his chin over Arthur's shoulder and rambled, "Ask me. Please, ask me."

"Ask you what?" Arthur murmured.

"Anything. Everything. Anything you want," Merlin said. His hands fisted some of Arthur's suit jacket, almost desperately. His voice was shaking, he knew, but he couldn't help it. "I'll tell you, I promise. Nothing hidden, no more secrets, no lies. Anything you want, I'll tell you. Just ask me."

One of Arthur's hands came up to cradle the back of Merlin's head, fingertips massaging ever so lightly. He buried his face into the crook of Merlin's neck and sighed, breath deep and shaky.

Merlin pulled away, frowning. "Arthur?"

Arthur looked at him; his mouth was now set in a serious line and his blue eyes stared intently at Merlin. The light joyousness that Merlin had was starting to fade and in its place there was concern, anxiety, a feeling that mirrored how Arthur looked.

"Arthur?" Merlin repeated, confused at the shift of mood that filled the air.

"Merlin -- this is. Fuck, I can't believe I'm going to ask this," Arthur said, shaking his head as if he didn't believe what he was saying.

"Perhaps," Gaius said softly, moving to stand up, "we should give them some privacy, Morgana."

"No," she said, not moving. "We need to be here to support this."

Arthur said, "No, its okay. You can stay."

"Stay for what? Support what?"" Merlin asked, panic starting to bubble up through him. He searched Arthur's face and his hands clung tighter to Arthur's jacket. "Please, what's wrong?"

"Oh, no, nothing is wrong, Merlin," Arthur said, trying to wrench Merlin's hands from him so he could hold them.

"Oh, for crying out loud," Merlin said, annoyed. He hit Arthur's arm lightly, but then grasped at his jacket again. "Don't give me a heart attack like that."

The muscle in Arthur's jaw twitched, but he said softly, "Say it again."


"What you just said to me. About asking you--"

"Anything," Merlin said earnestly. "You can ask me anything, I promise."

Arthur pulled Merlin back to him, hugging him tight and cradling his head again. He asked, "Do you trust me?"

"With everything," Merlin breathed into his ear.

Arthur asked, very quietly but intently, "Would you trust me to bring you to the brink of death and back?"

Merlin's entire body tensed up. He leaned back a little, and searched Arthur's eyes for the truth. But he couldn't bring himself to speak yet, needing an explanation.

"You told me, once," Arthur started, and leaned his forehead against Merlin's, "that the only way you could get your magic back was to break the clip's power. By --" Arthur's breath hitched in his throat, but he continued, "dying and reviving back to life. Yes?"

Merlin nodded but didn't say anything.

"But you said there was no one in the world you'd trust enough to do that."

Merlin barely made a sound as he said, "Arthur."

"If I could get that done for you," Arthur offered, "if I could, and I knew I could get your magic back to you, would you trust me to?"

"Yes," Merlin exhaled, the sound of his heartbeat pounding in his ears. "I trust you."

Arthur kissed Merlin lightly on the lips and pulled back. He looked across the table at Morgana, so Merlin did too.

She was holding out a little vial full of pale green liquid.

"Death by magic," she said.

Gaius added, "Cured by magic."

"To bring your magic back," Arthur finished. "We owe Nimueh a lot of gratitude for bringing this to our attention."

Merlin stared at it. He couldn't make himself speak, he couldn't talk. He just stared at this chance to be who he was meant to be.

Arthur took his hand. "If you don't want to, that's all right," he said softly. "It was just an idea, but it's up to you. We needed to break the binding magic on you so that you would be free to make that decision. It has to be yours and yours alone."

Merlin looked at him. "Do you want me to?"

"It's up to you," Arthur said. "I just wanted to give you that choice."

"But do you want me to," Merlin asked, almost desperately. He needed to know.

"Quite frankly, I think it's crazy," Arthur said bluntly. "I'm an idiot for even thinking of asking you. It's insane, and dangerous, and it has me more fucking scared than I care to admit." He squeezed Merlin's hand. "But I promised to find a way, I promised that to you. Right now, this is the only one. And I won't stand in the way of it because I'm afraid to lose you, I won't."

Morgana said, confidently, "And he won't lose you, because I'm brilliant and pulled this off before. I'll make sure you live."

"With Uther," Merlin said, looking at her. "But he doesn't have clipped magic, so we don't really know, do we?"

"I know it works," Morgana said.

Gaius reaffirmed, "We both do."

Merlin just nodded at them. As curious as he was to find out how they knew, he afraid to speak at the moment. The whole thing was surreal and it felt like the world had just been tipped sideways on its axis. If he spoke it might just tumble all the way over and shatter.

Arthur was right: it was insane, and dangerous, and -- and Merlin's body was yearning for it, the magic that had just gone through a de-binding ritual was fighting against the clip. The more he thought about it, was faced with the prospect of having it back, he could feel it in him. True, Merlin actually felt nauseous, but it was his magic tossing around in his stomach, trying to get free.

Merlin turned to Arthur. "Do you trust them?"

"Yes. I've known them both forever, and they're my family."

"And I trust you," Merlin answered, though his voice sounded wobbly. He coughed, cleared his through, and said more clearly, "I do trust you."

"But you don't have to--"

"I'm doing it," Merlin said, looking at Arthur. "I'm going to do it."

Arthur closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. He opened them, and said with conviction, "Then we're doing this."

"Right now, right?" Merlin added. "Before I chicken out."

"No chickens," Arthur said. He reached out and cupped his hand around the back of Merlin's neck. He pulled him in and kissed him soundly.

Merlin wouldn't let him pull away. He kept his hands on the sides of Arthur's neck and kept him so close. He blocked away everyone and everything else, and only focused on Arthur. Whispering, he admitted, "It's kind of scary. Really scary, actually."

Arthur nodded, nose brushing against Merlin's. "It'll be okay," Arthur said, with such heart that Merlin honestly believed it, "and I'm here for you."

Morgana interrupted, "Actually, Arthur, we talked about--"

Arthur glared at her. "I am not leaving him," Arthur said firmly.

Merlin pulled away and frowned. "What is she talking about?"

Arthur sighed and leaned back. "She thinks--"

"We both do," Gaius said as he stood up.

"-- that I should remove myself from the flat while you go through this--" Arthur waved his hand around "--process."

Merlin shook his head, over and over as if he couldn't stop. "No. No, no, no. Why? No. I'm not doing it if you're not here."

"That's what I said!" Arthur agreed. "I'm not leaving your side, Merlin. Never."

"Think reasonably here, boys," Morgana said. "Merlin is ridiculously powerful. We don't know how his magic will react once set loose--"

"Oh my god," Merlin breathed, and it was so hard to believe. "I'll have my magic back."

She gave him a soft smile, though she didn't give up her argument. "Exactly. Merlin, it'll be free, and it hasn't been in a very long time. Gaius and I have a fighting chance of dealing with it, if necessary, but Arthur -- you're the odd man out here."

"So what?" Arthur retorted. Merlin had seen that look set deep in his face before, and he knew that Morgana had lost this argument -- and Merlin was glad for it. Arthur repeated, "I don't care. I'm not leaving."

"I won't hurt him," Merlin assured. He just knew it -- his magic had broke free before to save Arthur. He honestly didn't believe it would do anything to harm him. Merlin shook his head. "I'd never hurt him, and I won't."

Morgana and Gaius exchanged a glance, but then she nodded. "Fine," she said shortly. "We thought as much, but it was just a suggestion."

"Thank you for the thought," Arthur said curtly, "but no way in hell is it happening."

"I said fine, Arthur, it's been decided," she snapped, standing up. "Come, Merlin, we'll set you up in the den. It'll be more comfortable for you, and we have extra precautions there."

Merlin was suddenly nervous. "You do?"

"Good ones," Arthur said, also standing up and tugging on Merlin's hand. "We've thought this through very carefully. And I think--" He waited a second as he watched Morgana and Gaius exit the dinning room. He said in a low voice to Merlin, "they've done it to someone else first. They seem a hell of a lot more confident about it now."

"To who?" Merlin whispered back. "Nimueh?"

"Maybe?" Arthur said, hushed and frustrated. "They won't tell me!"

"Hey, hey, it's okay," Merlin said. He cupped Arthur's cheeks in his hands and kissed him firmly on the mouth. "It's going to be okay. It'll be brilliant."

"You'll be brilliant," Arthur said, and Merlin's confidence soared.

Within minutes, Merlin found himself laid out on the sofa, hooked up with wires to machines that would monitor all his statistics. Gaius, though a retired physician, really seemed to know what he was doing and Merlin decided it best not to ask where all the equipment had been absconded from.

Gaius explained, double checking a monitor with a very positive nod, "We're using a blend of magic and modern technology to make this work."

"And you know it does?" Merlin asked one more time.

Gaius smiled down at him, kindly. "I do. See this as a repayment for what I took from you. I've always wanted to give it back, more than you'll ever know."

Merlin nodded, and wondered how many other people he'd tried something like this on in the past couple months. "All right, then. Cheers, Gaius."

"Everything will be fine, Merlin."

"It will," Arthur said from his perch beside Merlin. He was sitting on the coffee table, pulled right next to Merlin, hand hovering and ready to clasp hold of him. Merlin reached out and took it in his own hand, and only then did Arthur visibly relax, but just a little.

Merlin echoed, "It will."

"This is fucking crazy. Just ... bloody mad," Arthur muttered under his breath. He leaned down and kissed Merlin's forehead. "You've turned my life right upside down since you've come into it."

"But you wouldn't have it any other way," Merlin teased, trying to calm his jitters. It didn't come out nearly as he had intended, his voice shaking a little. He was scared, yes, but the prospect of it working -- when it worked -- was playing just as much havoc on him. It was indescribable, the excitement and rush of thrumming through his body, as if the magic knew it was coming and was crackling right under his skin.

"I really wouldn't have it any other way," Arthur agreed. "Just remember--"

"Let me guess," Merlin said, smiling. "You're quite fond of me."

"Absolutely," Arthur said, squeezing his hand and chasing away the last of Merlin's worries, leaving behind nothing but good.

Morgana approached them, and she handed Merlin the little vial she had been holding. "We're ready, Merlin."

He nodded. "Right. Yes. Right, then. What do I have to do?"

"Just drink it," Morgana said. She retreated to a chair in the corner of the room, next to the one that Gaius was sitting in. She sat down, crossed her legs, and smiled reassuringly. "And take a little nap."

"I'll be here when you wake up," Arthur said, words warm with no trace of distress. "I promise."

"I know," Merlin said. "I trust you."

And he popped off the lid and drank the bitter liquid back. He watched Arthur's face, near and strong and comforting, until his eyelids started to droop and darkness took over him.

Chapter Text


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.