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Castle (the rules by which we live)

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♦ Castle ♦
(the rules by which we live)

Merlin isn't weird. Most people do it, or think about it, or—like him—just look at it. He knows; he read once that twenty-five percent of the population is into it, or something like that. What normal couple hasn't tried out a pair of handcuffs? It's not an uncommon interest. And anyway, it's not as if he's out there in PVC with a whip in his hand every night. He's aware that there are venues where women and men do it professionally, or at least he's heard that such places exist. Merlin isn't one of those people. He's normal. He just likes to watch, when he's alone and gets that itchy warm feeling that signals a developing hard-on. Just because you get off on the fantasy of something, the idea of doing it, doesn't mean you enjoy it in practice. A former girlfriend of his had explained that to him, in impassioned detail, after he'd caught her with a rape-fantasy porno. He never told her that he knew that, of course he knew that; he didn't imagine he'd enjoy getting raped in real life either and he'd only freaked out because the little bit of video he'd seen had made his cock fill fast enough to give him vertigo.

Merlin knows that getting off fastest when he's got some BDSM pornography playing loud on the computer screen doesn't mean he'd really like to be that bloke, gagged and bent over and bound. It can't be comfortable, for one, and as hot as he finds it in theory, pain actually hurts. He cut his thumb on one of Lancelot's stupidly sharp kitchen knives three days ago trying to slice a sodding tomato and, he knows for sure, it is not orgasm material. He gets hard and he wanks as beautiful women and butch men tie up and boss around slim twinks—so what? He also comes just fine having regular vanilla sex with nice girls and boys. He doesn't have to think about it while shagging, about one of those artsy students using her scarf to knot his wrists to the bedposts. Because he's normal and certainly not the type to get hung up on an erotic fetish. He just likes to watch. Sometimes.

Which is why he assumes Will has finally spent enough time dicking around on Merlin's computer (trying to change his background to a picture of a goat, probably) to discover his Diamond membership to Gay BDSM Club and is taking the piss when Will says, "You should come to a fetish party with me on Saturday," over curry.

Merlin chokes on his tikka masala. "What?"

"There's a place called Castle," says Will, looking terribly earnest, all bluster and blush, like that time he told Merlin once and for all that he liked girls only and broke Merlin's fifteen-year-old heart. "I met this hot, smoking hot, bird at the bar last Tuesday, and she told me about it."

He's not taking the piss. Part of Merlin is relieved—his tastes in porn remain undetected as yet—but the other part of him is still hopping about anxiously. Fortunately, he's developed an avoiding-arsehole-jokes mode that lets him keep that hidden around Will. He takes a careful sip of his lager. "So? You've never been into that stuff, so far as I know. She must be well fit."

"Oh, she was, like you would not believe. Long, black hair and perfect skin, all dolled up in a lace corset and with this sheer thing on. I think it was meant to be a skirt. Bloody gorgeous."

Merlin rolls his eyes—Will and his never-ending thing for Goth girls, for fuck's sake.

"Of course, she has all these walls, like they always do, and told me she wouldn't even consider getting coffee with me unless I proved I could handle her." Will digs into his pocket and produces a poker chip, painted matte-black and with a strange red decal on it. "She gave me this. Said it was good to get me and one guest into Castle for a special fetish party on Saturday night."

Merlin takes the chip; it's much heavier than he expected, definitely not plastic. A tempting, tangible piece of a lifestyle that makes him shiver a little inside, his blood heating at the way it weighs down his fingers. Maybe he could—he slides the chip back to Will suddenly. "Sorry, mate. Not my thing."

"Merlin! You haven't seen this girl. And she said she'd be cage-dancing. She is that hot. And I bet she has hot friends. Hot, kinky friends! Please, please, please, I can't go alone. I'll look like an absolute wanker!" Will begs.

"You are a wanker." True fact.

"You don't have to dress up or anything. Just show up and have a few drinks, take a look around. Castle is supposed to be incredible. I read about it online. Members-only usually, and you have to be invited to be a member. Crazy. But once a year they have this event for non-members and shit. Merlin! It's like a once in a lifetime opportunity to get in there for free. Please."

Merlin wants to, he can feel the desire to go and witness and learn welling up inside him right where the shivers were before. It's a perfect excuse too: 'No, I'm just here providing moral support for my friend,' and 'This isn't really my scene. I'm just trying out new things.' A neat, safe way to find out how deep this…thing…goes. But what if he goes and he wants even harder and it ruins him for normal sex and he becomes one of those weird PVC-wearing, whip-wielding people?

"Will," he hedges.

"Please," repeats Will, and Merlin never could resist that for long, damn him.

"Fine," he grunts. Will whoops gleefully. "But only for an hour or two! And I reserve the right to walk out at any time and make you come with me."

"Done and done," says Will, grinning. "But you won't want to. Morgana—that's her name—she'll introduce you to her kinky, hot friends, and you'll be thanking me forever."

So naturally, Merlin gets on his computer that evening and looks Castle up. The website is surprising: professional, with clean links and none of that dark, over-the-top gothic style that Merlin finds so unappealing. The fetish party is advertised on the main page as 'a chance for non-members, novices, and the simply curious to explore some of their darker inclinations.' Apparently Castle is the most exclusive BDSM dungeon (and doesn't that word make Merlin's lip curl) in London. The Castle staff includes trained Mistresses, Masters, and 'submissives,' all of whom can be contracted for both individual and couple services. Merlin reads every page the website has to offer, mind reeling, because this—it's real, it's fucking real, and it's right here within easy reach of his shabby little flat: a cheap ticket and quick ride on the Tube away.

There's so much information, so many words and concepts he doesn't know. SSC. RACK. Scene. Munches. And he's never let himself do this before, always managed to fight off the temptation, but tonight he can't, needs to know more. He hits Wikipedia next, devouring the page on BDSM, where he learns that the decal on the chip Will's carrying around in his pocket is called the Triskelion and is a common symbol of BDSM practices in Europe. From there he reads about algolagnia, about the Folsom Street Fair, about TPE, and before he knows it, it's gone 4 AM and he's got to get off, he's just got to right now, doesn't know how he made it so long without unzipping and palming his leaking cock.

Merlin shoots hard over his fingers and stares at the come, sticky glops of it, and imagines a silky voice in his ear instructing him to lick it off. His cock twitches again. Hastily, he wipes himself up with a tissue from the box he keeps handy nearby and crawls into bed, wondering how in hell he can get up in three hours and concentrate at work all day with this knowledge and, worse, the anticipation, bubbling around his head.

Saturday night arrives and Merlin is standing in front of his closet with his arms crossed while Will makes indignant noises and tries to flail Merlin into putting on something "more appropriate, come on, mate."

"You said there was no dress code for this thing, and I checked it out online. I can wear whatever I want, so fuck off with your collar, Will," says Merlin.

Will does that full-body twitch which means he's resisting stomping his foot like a five-year-old. "Fine! But at least wear something black, okay?" The collar droops sadly in his grip—not that Merlin is staring at it or anything. He's beginning to wonder if Will hasn't discovered his porn collection after all.

"I don't own anything black," Merlin says, which is true and actually quite odd now that it occurs to him. "Look, the jeans are dark-ish and the shirt is grey. It's the best I can do. And no," he continues, as Will opens his mouth. "I'm not borrowing something. Your clothes don't fit me and you know it. What would you rather I do? Dress like a normal person or look like I don't know how to read size labels?"

"Bloody hell," Will huffs. He's wearing black trousers and a fishnet shirt that he probably bought at the shady porn shop around the corner, and he looks ridiculous (mostly because Merlin is over that, though a decade ago he would have been hyperventilating with lust at the sight). "You're fucking impossible."

"At least I'm humoring you enough to come," says Merlin.

"Everyone else will be dressed up, man. You'll be the odd one out." The metal ring on the collar swings a bit as Will lifts it to his own neck, chin up so he can slide the leather through the clasp and buckle it beneath his Adam's apple. Mouth dry, Merlin swallows and swallows again. He could be wearing that. Is it tight? Cold? Warm from Will's hand and heavy-supple?

"I don't actually care," Merlin says after a humiliatingly long lapse of attention. "I have a plan, and it involves finding a seat at the bar and spending too much money on gin."

Summer's just come in, the first heat wave blissfully sultry. Merlin tucks his wallet into his back pocket and hopes it doesn't get lifted. They jostle each other during the walk to the Tube station and through the ride to the outskirts of the city proper. Energy is radiating off of Will; he's bouncing his leg, tapping his thumb on his thigh, and it's seeping into Merlin, making him edgy. He's already uncomfortable enough, but by the time they climb back up into the warm night, heading down the street Castle calls home, he's as jumpy as a dateless thirteen-year-old girl at her first dance.

Castle is a low, squat building. Nothing special to look at: brick, no apparent windows, some old-fashioned lampposts shining down white light. It sports a large sign that says nothing more than the name in thin cursive font. The plain exterior does no justice to the short line of people waiting to be let in. Merlin feels the urge to bolt at the sight—there are two men with masks covering their whole faces—a woman in a corset with holes cut out to show her nipples. Leather and lace and chains. One woman in nothing but a thong is kneeling, leashed, at the feet of another in a solid purple cat-suit, bare-kneed on the pavement. And it's noisy. Excited guests are laughing and cajoling over the pumping music that pours from the wide-open, double-door entrance. Two bouncers stand guard, wearing matching knight's armor, chainmail and all.

"Fuck," says Merlin, stopping.

Will stops a step ahead of him. "Holy shit."

"Can we go home now?" Merlin asks.

After a moment's hesitation, during which Merlin's hopes both plummet and soar simultaneously, making his stomach flip, Will says, "No. We're going in. Morgana is worth it."

"Are you sure about that? You make it sound like we're heading into battle," Merlin says weakly.

"Come on." Will grabs his arm and pulls him towards the bouncers, evading the line altogether. Merlin lets himself be dragged, torn between the desire to flee and the desire to reach out and take the collar of off Will's neck and buckle it around his own.

The bouncers glare until Will clumsily digs the poker chip out of his pocket, then they draw back the red rope and wave them inside, into din and darkness, an unlit hallway leading towards more noise. Merlin blinks, trying to cope with the sudden onslaught of heat and bass, and focuses on Will's hand circling his wrist, guiding him.

The room they end up in has more lighting, flickering yellow false torches; it's clearly some kind of receptionist foyer. On the left side there's a wooden desk staffed by a skinny redheaded woman with two-inch black fingernails. She waves them over and yells "Do you need a room to change, sirs?" when they get close enough.

"Uh," shouts Will, obviously confused but doing better than Merlin. "What?"

She gestures at Merlin. "If you've brought something else to wear and would like to change inside, we have accommodations for you." She means his outfit, apparently.

Merlin shakes his head. The woman eyes him for a moment before nodding and indicating an arched entryway that demarcates what is clearly the nightclub, away from the hall leading off behind her desk—that must be where the private dungeons are. Merlin shudders and can't bring himself to move for a long moment, staring. "The party is that way, sirs," the receptionist yells.

"Right!" Will says. "Merlin, come on." He tugs at Merlin's wrist again, and it must look like—to these people, maybe it looks like Will and Merlin are, and Merlin is—

He shakes off Will's hold and takes a deep breath. "All right, just. Okay."

The Castle nightclub is like most nightclubs, except for the part where it's also Merlin's erotic nightmare-fantasy come to life. Through the archway, the bar is on the right, all dark marble countertops and wrought iron. The stage is to the left, and between is a triangular dance floor. Three pillars, one at each corner, support cages with writhing figures inside. Music, more vibration than sound, pounds out from gigantic speakers, and Merlin feels like his heart is pounding along with it. The strobe light makes him dizzy, purple flickering erratically through the dark over the bodies. So many bodies.

Tables and booths bunch together just off the dance floor and in the recesses of the walls, huddling on thick, black carpet. Red candles in iron cages burn on every surface. Maybe, Merlin thinks a little hysterically, it's all colour-coded to hide the bloodstains.

Everywhere there are people in insane outfits doing insane things. One woman, completely stark fucking naked, is laid out flat on a table while two men with kitty-tails sticking out of their arses lick her all over with tiny kittenish licks. A blonde bartender in a medieval dress is flipping liquor bottles back and forth with her male counterpart—also in full barmaid regalia. Merlin stares, wild-eyed, struggling to take it all in, to see every piece and etch it into his mind: the man in the velvet gloves, the small Asian woman with the red-laced corset piercing, the man—woman—man—Merlin isn't sure—winding a leather whip around and around hi—r bare waist.

Will pushes up close to him and yells into his ear, "I'm off to check out the cage-dancers!" and then disappears around a man with piercings in his chest. Merlin blinks stupidly at the space Will had occupied, lost, until someone plows into him from behind and sends him sprawling into a woman who's at least six feet tall, platform shoes not included. After that, apologies mumbled more fearfully than genuinely, Merlin remembers his plan.

He's skinny enough to slip through the hoard clamoring for drinks and manages to secure the attention of the female bartender with a handful of notes; he orders a gin and tonic, but of course there's no place to sit nearby, so he's forced to duck through the tables until he finds one, small and miraculously empty. It's covered with glasses dripping condensation and beer bottles with the labels partially ripped off. He drops into a seat, eyes firmly on the iron-backed chair across from him, wishing there was enough alcohol in the world to make him forget the sounds of the man getting spanked in a booth three feet from him and the low command of his Mistress, Shut up, boy. Did I give you permission to speak?

This gin and tonic is really good. Merlin wonders how much he paid for it.

He drinks it, considers getting up for another (and another), but doesn't want to lose his spot. He glances around, hoping to find Will, and his eyes catch on the stage instead. Somehow he's at a table with a decent view of it, of the red light that's filtering down and of the woman who's being strung up, wrists above her head and ankles in a spreader bar, by a man wearing nothing but a pair of tight leather trousers. She's completely naked, and the man is blond and tanned. He's the kind of man who works out regularly—the kind of man Merlin loves to go home with. The woman tips her head, spills her dark-honey hair down her back, and watches the man wind red rope around and around her arms. Merlin watches too. Muscles ripple in the man's arms as he jerks her up onto her toes and drops the rope over a hook suspended from the ceiling.

When he's finished checking the woman's bindings, tugging and touching them like they were the flesh and she the clothing in the way, the man turns to a small table that's been set up nearby and opens the black case on it. He picks something up: a knife.

The case is filled with knives.

Merlin's cock swells at the same time that his rational mind begins to well and truly freak the fuck out.

The music decreases in volume, leaving empty ringing in its wake until a smooth, feminine voice comes over the speakers, "Ladies and gentlemen, masters and slaves, please turn your attention to the stage for a special demonstration in the art of teasing, given by our very own Prince."

The announcement hushes the crowd of dancers, and those who haven't already quieted are now glancing up, slowing down, slipping off to find tables and watch the show. Merlin can't take his eyes off that glinting knife. It's small, thin, something Lance might use to pare vegetables. The Prince spins it through his fingers as he circles the woman, each barefooted step careful, measured to take him in and out of her line of sight though she tries to follow him, turning her head. Finally, when the last straggler abandons the dance floor and even the cage dancers have climbed down, he stops behind her and to the right, gazes out at the audience. It feels to Merlin like his eyes pierce more than the knife ever could. He's pinned in place by them, cock throbbing and blood-heavy.

The man reaches around the woman and brings the blade to rest, low against her belly. She moans. Several people around the club moan with her, maybe even Merlin, just under his breath, a wavery, rasping exhale. With aching slowness, the man draws the knife up the center of her torso, between her breasts, to the divot between her collarbones and taps the tip there, like he's idly thinking of what to do next.

Each tap makes Merlin's heart thud and hot desire pummel through his veins. The knife—maybe it's cold? Maybe it's hot from the light and the body heat. Maybe it's dull, or sharp, or somewhere in between. He can't tell, and he can't know, because it's not against his skin. But if it were, he wouldn't be heaving and twitching like the sub on stage. He'd be still and patient and perfect, a blank canvas for the man to paint on.

A hand lands on his shoulder and brutally startles him out of his drifting, mesmerized fantasy. "Hey, mate," says Will.

"Shit!" Merlin gasps. "Bloody hell, Will! You scared me, you tosser."

"He's great at first impressions," Will says to the beautiful woman standing next to him. "Morgana, this is Merlin. Merlin, Morgana."

"Ehm, right," says Merlin, nodding awkwardly. As much as he wants to hold out his hand to shake, it's clammy with sweat and fisted tight in the fabric of his denims. He'd be able to unclench it if he couldn't still see the man, sweeping the flat of the blade up the woman's inner arm, out of the corner of his eye.

"Hello, Merlin," Morgana says, smirking slightly. "Enjoying the show?"

Merlin shrugs, says, "Not, uh, not really my thing. But, you know. Whatever floats your boat."

Morgana takes a seat across from him, her back to the stage, and nods, polite and, Merlin thinks, a bit mocking. Will plops down in the third chair and tries to waggle his eyebrows subtly at Merlin, looking for some kind of affirmation. Merlin rolls his eyes back, though he has to admit—Morgana is gorgeous on levels that put her right out of his and Will's league. She's wearing what amounts to little more than a bathing suit, if bathing suits were thongs made of purple leather and came with chain belts. Violet streaks glint in her black hair, matched by the glittering violet eyeshadow painted like a mask across her upper face. He'd probably be more in thrall of her if she weren't blocking his view of the stage. Not that he wants to be watching the show, it's just—fuck, it's excruciating. He can hear everyone else around him reacting in gasps and grunts. Will is nattering on about their stupid, boring lives; no one will notice if he shifts just that much, an inch or two, just enough to see.

Merlin's elbow hits the chair at the table next to theirs, sending tingling pain up and down his arm. "Ow! Fuck," he yelps.

"Ha!" Will snorts.

Morgana arches an eyebrow and says, "Will? Could you get me a drink? I'd like a Merlot, please."

"Uh, sure." Will stands.

"Gin and tonic," says Merlin, and as Will frowns at him, "You owe me, mate."

"Fine," huffs Will. "Be right back."

Will's barely out of hearing range when Morgana reaches across the table and snatches Merlin's elbow, digs her painted thumbnail into the soft inner flesh and drags him forwards. Glasses and bottles skitter to the floor as he crashes chest first into the edge. It's iron, like everything else in here, and it bloody well hurts. "Ow! Fuck," he yelps again. "What the fuck, you crazy—"

Morgana jerks his arm, surprisingly strong, and he slams into the table a second time. "Don't ever," she murmurs, leaning in close so her breath tucks around his ear, "call me crazy."

"Don't act crazy," Merlin snaps.

"You like it."

"I don't—"

Her other hand is hot, smells metallic, where she closes it over his mouth. "Shhh," she whispers. "You do, it's all right. I know. I can tell."

Merlin shakes his head, feels her nails making half-circles in his cheeks. He considers biting her hand until she lets go and fleeing back to safety (his apartment, his room, before all this), but can't resist the burning curiosity that melts like wax through his body. She waits for him, a moment, then two, and smiles.

"I can tell," she repeats. "It is, after all, my job."

It startles Merlin to realise that her voice is the same as the one that came over the speakers earlier, announcing the show. Merlin swallows. She's not just a cage-dancer, then. A dominatrix. A professional Domme has him in her grip. He makes a garbled, muffled sound beneath the gag of her palm as something strange and perfect jolts up from the soles of his feet to his groin.

"You want this. You know it. You should come back." Morgana nips at his earlobe, hot breath, sharp teeth. "Will you?"

Merlin shakes his head again, and again after she says, "You'll have to," and again, dizzily.

Finally, she frees his mouth, if just so he can answer when she asks, "Why?"

"Can't afford it," he pants, more honest than he intended. "Want to."

"Not a problem," she replies, letting his arm go.

He sits back warily, glaring at her as he rubs his sore elbow. "Oh?"

She grins and pulls a card out of a small pocket on the side of her bustier. "This," she says, "will get you in for three free visits to the nightclub and public shows. Or, you can trade it in for a single one-hour session with one of our highly-trained professionals. Tips on you, of course. Your choice."

Merlin stares at the card, a taunt flipping between Morgana's fingers. If he tilts to the left a few inches he can see the Prince on his knees, his mouth open against the hip of his sub as she writhes under his knives. Merlin's throat goes dry.

"One time special limited offer," says Morgana.

He grabs the card from Morgana's hand before he can think any more about it and wrestles his wallet out, shoves the card in behind his ID.

"Good boy," Morgana purrs; Merlin shivers.

Leave it to Will to fall in with a professional dominatrix and tear all of Merlin's carefully constructed denial to pieces.

Merlin doesn't know if he can manage this: getting up, going to work in the lab, picking up take aways, coming home and sharing it with Will's sorry, unemployed arse, watching some telly, drinking some beer, and going to bed with the knowledge he has now. He's had the smallest, perfect taste, and his skin is crawling with it every hour of every day. It's only been half a week since Will forced him to that stupid party, but it feels like ages, and in between the want and the fear he has the foreboding sense that his life has taken a turn he can't come back from.

The card is tucked into his wallet. Sometimes, Merlin takes it out and rubs his fingers over it, presses the sharp paper corners into the tips of them. When he does, he bites down on his lip and thinks maybe I could, and then has to put it away again, hurriedly. Late at night, after he's locked the door to his room, plugged in his headphones, and turned his computer monitor so it doesn't face the window, just in case, he lays Morgana's card on his desk and keeps it in his peripheral vision as he watches his old favourites again, those porn videos that he's fully purchased because they get him over the edge every single time.

Touching himself has changed somehow. His mind's working a bit differently. It used to be that he watched and enjoyed the scene on his screen from an outsider's perspective, the voyeur. Not anymore. Now he's right there in the action, he's that bloke, bent over and dripping saliva around the ballgag in his mouth. He's the skinny twink with needles through his nipples. Staring, Merlin can barely keep his eyes open and yet he still can't look away, because he doesn't know, not really, what it feels like.

He could know. If he wanted. He could take the Tube back down to Castle and wave his card and say to the red-headed girl at the desk, Can I make an appointment with the blond man who uses knives? and she would make him that appointment and then he'd—

Will's coffee date with Morgana is on Thursday afternoon. Merlin gets home from work late that evening, kept back by a batch of ruined samples that needed special disposal. When he toes off his trainers he notices a pair of black female boots; the sight sends a pulse of trepidation through his aching body. The date must have gone well then. He considers going out for a pint to give them more time alone—heaven knows Will will grouch at him for a week if he interrupts—but it's only a moment before he realises he's too exhausted to do much more than collapse in bed and try to sleep without dreaming.

Morgana and Will aren't in the kitchen. Merlin can hear the telly on in the living room, though. He hopes they're not necking on the couch. He bought that couch himself, and he's not yet had the chance to neck on it. His love life's a shambles.

Mechanically, Merlin gets a glass from the cupboard, fetches ice from the freezer, and listens to the click and jangle of it as he fills the glass with water. One full cup isn't enough. He fills it again, and gulps it down as he rubs the place where, beneath his shirt, a yellowing bruise doesn't quite ache the way he wants it to. He pushes at that spot, thinking of how he hasn't had dinner and it's gone past nine, but he's not all that hungry; how he really doesn't want to walk through the living room to his bedroom and glimpse whatever Will and Morgana might be up to on his couch; how he's tired and yet wired at the same time, pent up and jiggling his heel against the tile floor. The little plastic button of his work shirt hits just the right spot beneath his breastbone. It feels good—one spark against the wave of numbness, in that way that pain has of waking him up.

Merlin sighs and sets the glass down in the sink. He pulls a lager from the fridge to drink instead. At least he can spend some quality time with his own hand this evening, maybe drink too much beer and harass Will for pulling successfully. If Morgana leaves, that is. Hell, maybe she'll spend the night, and Merlin will have to make his morning cuppa looking at her across the wobbly breakfast table. The image of Will's smug face drives Merlin into the living room, bottle in hand, kitchen door swinging creakily behind him.

Will and Morgana are curled up on Merlin's couch, watching a rerun of Doctor Who in the dark. Will's tucked into Morgana's arms and lap, all intimate and close, and she's petting his hair like he's some kind of treasured pet. Jealousy surges like bile into Merlin's chest. He swallows and swallows from his lager and tells himself: It's not what you think it is and Will doesn't even know and You don't really want that until it subsides.

"Hey," he says.

Will startles and extracts himself, sitting up. "Hey, uh. You're home late," he says, scowling. Morgana gives Merlin a small, sideways smile, telly light flicking eerily over her face.

Merlin tips his beer at them, half-friendly, half-mocking. "Dr. Gaius kept me late. I get to have a lie-in tomorrow, though."

"That's great, mate," says Will. If Merlin didn't know him better, he'd think he was dealing with some pretty bad constipation. But he does, and he knows Will is just wanting him to get lost again.

"What're you watching?" Merlin persists, perversely.

"Nothing." Will stands and gives Merlin a significant look over Morgana's head, says, "Excuse me. I'll be right back." He heads towards the hall, presumably to the bathroom.

Merlin doesn't follow him.

And suddenly—Morgana is on him faster than should be possible. She grabs him by the throat and shoves him back, back, his beer bottle tipping and slopping over his hand as he stumbles, back into the kitchen, all the way until he hits the cupboards. "Hey, hey, no," he protests, but Morgana murmurs, "Shut up," and forces him over the countertop, the edge digging into his lower back, so he shuts right up and bends for her.

"I haven't seen you around," she purrs, pressing her weight into him.

"No," he grunts. Pain spikes from the small of his back, from the sharp bones of her hips against his. She smells delicious, like vanilla and cloves, and she's wearing an off-the-shoulder tunic over a tight pair of black leggings. Merlin winces even as his cock starts to fill in his thin slacks. She's Will's girl now, kind of, and he doesn't want to imagine her gagging and blindfolding and riding him until he's sore, but he's—shaken up, hot and bothered and desperate because he knows she would.

"No," Morgana says. "Why not?"

"Busy," says Merlin. He's not lying.

Morgana makes a thoughtful sound and nuzzles his cheek. Merlin's head hits the cupboard behind him and he gasps, blinking dizzily as he realises, fuck, it all hurts, and fuck, that feels good and he just wants it to go on and on and on.

"Sorry," he finds himself saying, helplessly. "Sorry, sorry, I—"

"Oh, love, my pet," Morgana interrupts, and she kisses him, chaste, on the mouth. "It's all right. I know. It's hard."

"I can't—!"

Her lips are so near. "You can, and you will. Tonight."

"No," he says. "No." Because he really is tired down to his sinew and this is too huge to think of when his real life, his job, his friends are less than a day away: working with Dr. Gaius tomorrow, dinner with Gwen and Lance and Will afterwards, ending the night at the usual pub, one pint too many, and maybe going home with someone for a drunk, unfulfilling shag, if he's lucky.

"Don't you want to make me happy?" Morgana breathes, and the words turn a key in Merlin's mind.

He nods frantically. "I do, please, just tell me—"

"Go to Castle," she commands.



With a final lingering kiss, Morgana releases him. She smiles as she holds up Will's collar, the one he wore the night this became so insane, then she tucks it into Merlin's pocket, letting her thumb shove once more into his hip before she steps away.

Merlin straightens, takes a deep breath and heads back for his trainers. And out the door.

There's no line outside Castle this time, and only one bouncer standing duty. He stamps Merlin's card and waves him through with no fuss. The same red-headed girl from the night of the fetish party is at the desk, tapping her nails as she stares at something on her laptop. It's not crowded or hot, and the music pulsing from the nightclub is low enough that they can speak at normal volume. Merlin isn't sure if he likes it more or less this way. On one hand, there haven't been any strange and alarming outfits so far. On the other, he feels more vulnerable, a bit like the scurrying prey in a field of experienced, camouflaged predators.

The receptionist looks up, asks him if he has an appointment, and when he says, stuttering, "No, no," if he would like to use a room to change his clothes, the same as a week ago, despite the fact that he obviously hasn't brought anything more than his wallet and a nervous tick—and the collar, hidden but still a burning presence against his left thigh.

"Ehm, no," he says again.

"Would you like to make an appointment?" she asks.

Merlin hesitates for a split second before finding the courage and muttering weakly, "The…the Prince?"

"I'm afraid he's not available for new clients."

"Oh," says Merlin, biting his lip. Of course he's not.

"We have several talented male dommes you can make an appointment with, sir." The receptionist taps a few keys on the laptop. "Master Valiant is free tomorrow at 3 pm, and he'll be here again next Tuesday, all day."

"No, um, no," says Merlin.

"Master Aredian—"

"No, no thank you. I'm not. I'll just," Merlin gestures in the direction of the nightclub, "go in there. And sit. At the bar, I mean, and have a drink."

The redhead nods politely. "If you change your mind, just let me know."

"Sure, yes." Merlin turns away and rubs a hand over his face, embarrassed. He wonders how often they deal with hideously awkward idiots like himself, and if it bothers them, if they think he's not up to their level or something. And he's not! Because this isn't what he wants, anyhow. Morgana didn't order him to stay: he could go home and collapse into bed after all. Why did he listen to her in the first place? He didn't even think about it, just obeyed out of hand. What does that mean about him? And what does it mean that the biggest part of him doesn't want to go home at all?

Hell, he's here already. He might as well get a drink.

Castle's nightclub looks different without the purple strobe lighting and the crowds, though it's still dim, atmospheric. Merlin had forgotten the red candles in their spindly iron candleholders, each left to melt freely into pools of wax the colour of fresh blood. The pillars and their cages have been removed, the stage is curtained and dark, and most of the barstools are empty. Couples and small groups are pocketed in some of the booths. One large group of men, all wearing identical leather jackets, have pulled three tables together and are having a rowdy conversation about football. It's—surprisingly normal, actually, except for the décor.

The bar is untended. Merlin settles on a stool, figuring the bartender must be in the back because he hasn't noticed any waitresses around. It's going to be one of those horrible, uncomfortable evenings, he just knows it, the kind where he sits by himself with nothing to do and no one to talk to, bored but not wanting to leave, looking like a loser until he finally gives up and heads home. And maybe the bartender will try to make stilted conversation with him that will flounder because he's a ball of anxious energy, or maybe he'll drink too much and make an arse of himself falling over, but either way he'll regret coming out at all.

Merlin pushes his right heel onto a bar between the legs of the stool, knee jittering helplessly up and down. What did he expect, anyhow? He doesn't even know. He sighs and grabs a wine list, flips through it though he knows fuck all about wines.

"I'd suggest the 2006 Swinto Malbec, if you're having trouble deciding."

Merlin looks up.

It's the Prince.

The Prince is the bartender. Merlin's throat goes dry, the well-used memory of this man and his knives turning over and over in his mind as a dizzying jolt of lust makes his breath catch.

"Or, if you prefer white, the 2006 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Riesling is quite good," says the Prince, nodding at the wine list in Merlin's hands. Merlin looks down at it, then back up, absolutely at a loss for words. He's knows he's staring, and probably gaping a little, but he really can't help it.

"Well?" The Prince arches his eyebrows.

Merlin is stuck in a loop of desire and fear inside his own head, unable to process.

After a minute or so passes the Prince says, "Wow. Or nothing," dragging out the 'r' and biting out 'nothing'—and then he's rolling his eyes, doing that small what-the-hell headshake, and turning away to wipe his black bar rag on the opposite counter, and all of Merlin's ridiculous fantasies crash down around him like a tonne of bricks.

The Prince is an utter prat. Of course he is. He goes around calling himself the Prince, for fuck's sake.

"I would have expected better service from a place with a wine list five pages long," Merlin drawls. "I'll have a gin and tonic, thanks. Hendricks, not the well gin, if you please."

The Prince turns around with an incredulous look. "And who might you be?"

"A paying customer," says Merlin. "My name is Merlin."

"Well, Merlin. Hello. I'm Arthur, the owner of this establishment that you seem to find so unsatisfactory, and I know you're not a registered member. I'll have to have a word with my bouncers. Can't have them letting people in right off the street." Arthur gives Merlin's crumpled white button-down a mocking glance-over. "It's bad for business. We have dues, you know. Very expensive dues." And that look just says it all.

Offended disgust and disappointment roil into a horrid mix in Merlin's gut. He glares at Arthur and fumbles for his wallet, catching it up with Will's collar and dragging them both out of his pocket. He slaps the pass Morgana gave him onto the counter and snaps, "Morgana invited me, you cuntbag."

"Cuntbag?" Arthur repeats, blinking, stunned. "Are you fucking kidding me?" He gives Merlin's card—and his collar, dropped next to his wallet and a stack of coasters—a derisive look. "Of course you'd be one of Morgana's little pet cases. Pathetic. You've probably never even seen the mean end of a whip."

If Merlin had hackles, they'd be straight up in the air by now, and Merlin does stupid, stupid things when he's this upset; it's a pattern in his life. "Look, Prince," he buries every ounce of sarcasm he can into the word, "I can handle whatever you can dish out."

Arthur narrows his eyes. "I doubt that."

Challenge flows hot and heady through his mind. Merlin tips his chin, leans back, opens his arms in the universal I-double-dog-fucking-dare-you pose. He wishes, fleetingly, that he had his jacket, so he could take it off dramatically and drop it to the ground.

Sneering, Arthur snatches up Will's collar. "My shift ends in ten minutes," he snarls. "Take this," the collar gets shoved back at Merlin, "and go see Emmyria at the desk. Tell her I said to put you in the Dark Room. Wait for me."

"The Dark Room," Merlin scoffs. "Really?"

Arthur is like Morgana—fast. He has Merlin's wrist in his grip, has Merlin bending awkwardly over the bar before Merlin even sees it coming. Apparently, Merlin thinks wildly, Dommes really like to twist and bend people about. Arthur's got him harder than Morgana did though, he's struggling just to stay on the stool, and there's a surge of fiercer desire in him for it. His knee throbs, slammed into the purse-hook beneath the bar counter. "Shit," he says. Everyone must be able to see this. Are they watching? Is this normal?

Arthur stares at him, not half a foot away, expression gone fierce and cold and searching. Whatever he's looking for, it seems he finds it, because he lets Merlin go and repeats, "The Dark Room. If you really think you can handle it."

Merlin pulls back, rubs his knee, grimaces and nods, embarrassingly breathless again.

Arthur's eyes drop to Merlin's mouth, open around lack of air. "I don't usually," he starts, then shakes his head. Uncertainty flashes in his eyes for just long enough that Merlin sees it, and he wants—suddenly, badly wants—to make sure Arthur is never uncertain about him again.

Morgana's words echo through his mind, tightening like ropes, like chains, around his denial, his last ounce of resistance. Don't you want to make me happy?

"Merlin," Arthur calls when Merlin reaches the archway leading into Castle's front hall. He's smirking. "If you back out, no one will blame you."

"I'll see you in ten minutes," Merlin replies.

The Dark Room is exactly that: dark. Black walls, black ceiling, black tile floor. But the light is good enough that Merlin can make out every tool and every piece of equipment from the assorted whips and paddles and dildos hanging on the far wall, to some sort of bench, with an arched seat and what might be footrests. It's better than any setting Merlin has seen in porn; it's sleeker, cleaner, more intimidating. Everything and anything he could imagine might happen here. There's a huge flat table with straps secured to each corner that makes Merlin think, half-hysterically, of medieval torture devices. There's a throne chair next to the doorway; a sink in the far corner; muzzles and stirrups, buttplugs with pony tails, a suspended swing made of straps. So many things. Merlin barely takes in half before Arthur opens the heavy door and enters.

Arthur has put on gloves. Black ones made from soft-looking, clinging leather that doesn't creak when he flexes his hands into fists and out again. Merlin swallows, Will's collar buckled tight around his throat. It presses on his Adam's apple, warmed with his body heat, even the metal parts. When he'd slid the leather through and cinched it tight, he'd thought of stripping, of kneeling, or maybe stretching out on the table to wait, arse in the air. But he'd done none of those things. Mostly because he's fighting the urge to get the fuck out. (What was he thinking? Is he really going to do this? How did he get here? Could he still find a way out?) and partly because, well, Arthur hadn't told him to.

"So?" Merlin says. Arthur isn't acknowledging his presence and the tense silence is making Merlin's nerves worsen. "What are the rules, then?"

Arthur still doesn't look at him. He's eyeing the room like he's planning something. "Emmyria told you my rules. Remember, if I gag you, shake your head and try to bark like a dog. If I don't, the safeword is 'Camelot.' I'm sure you'll be needing it soon." Arthur leaves out the question and the assurance of being tested, being clean, though Emmyria had made him sign all kinds of wavers. Merlin can't think about that yet, why they would need that kind of documentation—what Arthur might do to him that it would be necessary.

"We'll see about that," says Merlin. Where will he put me, he wonders. What will he use? Does it matter? Merlin is determined to prove him wrong, no matter how far it goes.

The expression Arthur turns on him is almost frightening. "We start now. Don't speak unless I tell you to. Don't make a sound." Arthur sits down on the throne, and in his tight black shirt and slim denims, with his shining blond hair and hard eyes, he looks—hell, he looks like a real prince, a dark and terrible one from some dystopian future who could just as easily watch Merlin burn as kiss him on the cheek. Weird, sick thrill clenches up in Merlin's gut.

"Strip," commands Arthur.

It's not as hard as it should be for Merlin to obey. This place, this room, Arthur and his words—they do something to him, turn the key that Morgana found just enough, so the first tumbler goes click. All it takes is one deep breath and the instructions sink in, hit his bones, settle there.

He lifts his arm and, looking straight at Arthur, tugs open his cuff.

"I didn't give you permission to look me in the eyes," Arthur snaps.

Prat. Nevertheless, Merlin's gaze drops and he swallows, looks instead at his own hands as he undoes his other cuff, then goes for his neckline.

"Slowly," says Arthur.

Merlin wants to ask: How slowly? Enough to bore us both? He fumbles the first button, high near his collarbones, but the task is familiar, easy from years of practice. Each button after another slips out of its little hemmed hole smoothly. Merlin takes a few seconds, maybe more, to get his fingers on them and give that little twist-push. Despite that, it's not long before Merlin's shirt hangs open, and he's done this before, in his bedroom—stripped for a partner—so he's comfortable with shrugging his shoulders, letting the shirt fall down to his elbows and catch there, rest a moment. He reaches behind and tugs on his sleeves. The button-down falls away.

There's no good way to take an undershirt off slowly, but Merlin does his best. He closes his eyes, grasps the bottom hem, and pulls it gradually up his torso—not a good look for his arms, he knows, crossed and awkward, elbows all jabby. He keeps his eyes shut as he drops the shirt behind him on top of the other, and puts his hands on his belt.

Leather. Fuck, leather, he loves it, with all its thousands of uses and the hundred and more different ways it can feel, and how Merlin always, always knows when he's touching it. Like the collar around his neck, the belt is the smooth, shiny, mass-marketed kind of leather that most people know best. Merlin frees the strip from the old, nicked buckle and, using both hands, pulls it, inch by inch, through his belt loops, and the sound it makes, the incremental lessening of pressure around his hips—they make him feel full, decadent like he's just had a five-star dinner and too much liquor with it. His left hand does the work, guiding the belt up and across his bare belly, and his right just feels: his thumb passes over the small holes, and with each one he gets more sensitized, ratcheting up on higher and higher alert. By the time he's holding the belt, stretched horizontally in front of his body, it's like he's half-drugged on it.

"Continue," Arthur orders.

Merlin doesn't want to, he wants to hold the belt like he does sometimes in his room, during the rarest of times when Will is out and he pretends it's his own, personal whip. He doesn't want to, but he drops the belt and when he opens his eyes, he sways, off-balance. Shoes. He has to take off his shoes, shoes and socks before trousers.

Somehow, Merlin doesn't fall as he toes off his trainers. He nudges them to the side and bends down for his socks, removes them as gracelessly as usual. That's okay, though. He's following orders. Arthur isn't complaining.

The tile floor is very, very cold, and though it sends shivers up from the soles of his feet, Merlin tries to keep his breath steady. He toys with the waistline of his trousers, trying for a taunting coyness or at least more than a clinical loss of his clothing. He wishes he could see Arthur's eyes—where are they? Is he even still watching? Maybe he's bored, maybe he's regretting this. Maybe it's because Merlin isn't attractive enough, definitely not like that woman Arthur turned his knives to, skinny-limbed and big-eared as he is. Merlin glances up at Arthur's gloved hands, motionless on the armrests, and he can get closer, if he wants to risk it: he follows the line of one arm up to blink at Arthur's chin.

Arthur doesn't look bored. He doesn't look any different from earlier, fierce and cold. But he is watching, and Merlin is getting hard just from this, untouched, not even naked yet.

He drags down his zipper. The metallic snick-snick-snick of it is louder than it ever has been before, but not louder than his uneven breathing. One last thought of ending it and never coming back rattles through Merlin's hazy head, but it's weak and quickly swamped by the confusing blur of obedience and defiance and lust, by the insistence of his half-hard cock. He twists the button out of its hole and shimmies his trousers down to his knees, kicks them off quickly so he can't flinch into his nudity. He's not wearing pants.

And then there's nothing to do but stand and wait, naked but for the leather and metal, heavy around his throat.

Arthur looks and looks and continues to look—Merlin can feel him—and Merlin manages not to shiver or twitch or move at all. He can be artwork if that's what Arthur wants, if all Arthur wants is to keep looking all night.

"Turn around," Arthur says, eventually. And that's okay too. Merlin does a perfect 180, and finds himself facing the wall of sex toys. He bites his lip, can't even picture how to use some of them. That one, what the hell does it even do? If he had to choose—but he doesn't have to, doesn't even want to. It's all in Arthur's hands now, isn't it?

"Again," says Arthur, so Merlin comes back around to face him. Arthur makes a small, approving sound in his throat and stands. "You look lovely like this."

Merlin opens his mouth to thank him, pleased—but catches the words and the noise in time to turn them into a shaky exhale.

Arthur nods. "Good. But this is easy. It's about to get much harder."

Arthur puts his hands on Merlin's waist then, easily, comfortably. And though he's only touched Merlin once before, only met him less than an hour ago, his grip is proprietary and confident, and he guides Merlin backwards until his back hits the left wall. He's trying not to look near Arthur's eyes, but Arthur is so close and dragging Merlin's arms up, his knuckles scraping the plaster as they go high above his head. Arthur's a presence powerful enough to raise the hair on Merlin's naked skin, more than heat and control and challenge, something else entirely. Merlin has to close his eyes and tip his head back to keep down a weak noise because Arthur is shackling his wrists in handcuffs that are swinging at the end of a chain suspended from the ceiling. But it's okay, he's okay, he's done this before too. He let that girl, what was her name, back at uni—he let her tie him to the bed frame more than once, but never did it ever feel like this.

The cuffs are like his collar, unlined leather, the kind that buckle and can be cinched—yes, ah—tight. When Arthur finishes securing him, he runs the tips of his fingers down Merlin's arms, over his shoulders, into the ticklish armpit and farther, and Merlin can't help but squirm. He has room to, he can stand without struggling, with no strain on his elbows or shoulders. He can twist and jerk just to feel the leather press lines into his skin. He's sure he could lift his legs and put his entire weight on the bindings and they wouldn't give.

And that makes Merlin smile, helplessly, a little half-smile that twitches on his cheek. Nothing has ever felt like this: strange and new and good. He twists his wrists and swallows hard, forces the collar to bite into his throat with it, and the pain makes it all that much more acute. Blurry, peaceful, yet everything clear-cut and simple. All he has to do is what Arthur says, yeah? All he has to care about is making Arthur happy. That—it's freeing.

Merlin opens his eyes and Arthur is staring at him, evaluating. He has such a nice mouth. Maybe he'll let Merlin kiss it; Merlin darts in for it, that kiss he can already remember. It will taste like relief, have the texture of rope, romance in the way Arthur will open him and scour him clean.

Arthur grabs Merlin's chin and shoves his head back into the wall.

"You know better," he snarls.

Pain bursts behind Merlin's eyes, harsh and kind of, just there, maybe a bit surprisingly nice. Gasping, Merlin nods as much as he's able. He does, he does know better. Kissing isn't what they're here for, right? This isn't roses and perfume. This is bondage and sado-masochism. Merlin's still scrambling to get his head around it, to actually recognize that no, he's not dreaming, hell, boy, look where you've got yourself now. Next time you'll know to shut your stupid mouth.

"We can stop if you want," Arthur offers. "Just say the word."

Merlin shakes his head. The movement makes Arthur's gloved fingers dig into his jaw. How can it be that it aches so good?

"No? I'm going to hurt you now, you know," Arthur murmurs, and flips Merlin around so he can shove him face first into the wall. "Tell me you want that, Merlin. Say it, say you want me to hurt you."

The words trip out around a grunt and a spark of eagerness. "Yeah, yeah, I want you to—"

"You'll love it."

"I will, yes, I—" Merlin is dizzy, just says it because he wants to get on with it. He needs to know if this—if this is what he is. "I'll love it. Please, please . . ."

"Please what?" Arthur whispers against his ear.

"Master, my Lord, Sire, I don't know, fuck, what do you like, anything—"

"Sire will do." Arthur's heat leaves, and Merlin listens to his footsteps cross the room with his forehead still pressed to the cool plaster. He feels feverish, or in a trance, hypnotized, gone a bit mad, losing bits of himself with each novel sensation. His cock throbs, fully hard. How did that happen? His head pounds, his hands are starting to tingle, and nevertheless lust scalds him from tip to toe. Is it the situation? Or is it just the man, Arthur?

Sound brings Arthur back to him, and with Arthur come fingers in Merlin's hair, dragging his head backwards, and then Arthur pushes the coil of a thick whip against Merlin's mouth and tells him to, "Kiss it."

Merlin knows this, has seen it countless times, but he never planned to be the one with an instrument of pain on his lips. Fear, insidious, stretches tendrils out from his stomach. It will hurt, oh fuck, of course it will hurt. What is he thinking? He's going to let a stranger take a whip to his naked back. He really is going to, he's certain, and because the anticipation and curiosity are greater than the terror, he finds the kiss inside him and pushes it onto the supple leather.

Arthur pulls the whip away from him, uncoils it, the end slapping the tile floor, and he says, "No more words. Don't cry out. Don't make a sound. Brace yourself."

The first lash is not what Merlin expected. In the movies—in the movies he's watched where a whip is used—the blows look like agony. But this doesn't hurt quite so much at all: yes, it stings, yes, it's not Merlin's best idea of a fun time, but he can handle this. No problem. With the second and third lash that follow, one right after the other, each sharp sting blurs together into a warmth that spreads across his back, and it feels like lying on a towel at the beach on a blisteringly hot day, when the sand itself can burn. Not exactly comfortable, but then again—sort of nice.

His lower back takes the fourth and it hurts less even than before, but the fifth—that one lands lower, just where his arse begins, and Merlin jerks against the burning line of pain. Strange, he thinks vaguely. When the pain is worse, the fade is better. For the first time, then, the whip makes a snapping sound in the air and as it lands across Merlin's shoulder blades, the mean little end snags over his shoulder and the pain is, literally, shocking. It rips a short, clipped cry out from him before Merlin can bite down, and there's a curious quality to the shame afterwards. It's not because he failed to prove to Arthur that he could take it—it's more, more like he—

Arthur's gloved hand curves around the nape of Merlin's neck and forces his head down, chin to his chest. "What were your instructions?" he asks, cold.

He knows the exact way Arthur said it; the words are written on his mind. "No more words. Don't cry out. Don't make a sound. Brace yourself," he whispers.

"You failed," —and there it is again, shame a nauseous churn, shame that he failed Arthur—"Which lash?"

"The sixth," Merlin gasps.

"Then you'll have at least six more," says Arthur, and he moves away, even further away. Merlin shudders, because he knows—Arthur's making room for his swing.

What comes after makes Merlin's back bow and his vision go white at the edges. He tries to hunch but can't. He's stretched and can't make himself smaller, can only press his cheek into the wall and keep his teeth in his bottom lip, pain to fight the pain, how ironic. Lashes that crack with the sound of lightning rain down, and down, and down in rapid succession, and Merlin's world contracts until it's nothing left but the hurt, and even the feel of the tile and the cuffs and his collar are washed away by it. Suddenly, he's not counting, he's not thinking, he's not anything at all but skin set on fire.

And finally, some indeterminable time later, probably minutes though it could have been a day, Arthur stops, and then Merlin can hear them, distantly, the choked, gasping noises he's making, can taste the plaster where his mouth and teeth are pressed open against the wall, can feel the strain on his shoulders because he's not standing anymore; he's hanging. He shudders, pathetic, God, he's pathetic, and hitches through a few breaths, tries to get control back, he doesn't want to disappoint Arthur again—

Arthur places a gloved hand on Merlin's waist and pulls his body back, and it draws another whimper from Merlin (fuck, why can't he—), the texture of Arthur's clothing chafing against his raw flesh. Arthur's other hand palms Merlin's throat, guides Merlin's head to his shoulder, bringing Merlin's sweaty temple to rest on his jawline. Merlin shudders but doesn't struggle.

"Come on," Arthur soothes, "yes, that's good. Give over to me, Merlin, let me take you." He strokes his thumb along the strip of leather circling Merlin's neck and up to the soft place beneath Merlin's chin, and his hand seems so big covering Merlin's pounding pulse point, the hollows of his collarbone. "You feel so good, look so good when you arch like you do, when it pushes your arse out, and I know you want it. I know I'm making you feel so good, and I'm gonna have you doing that all night for me, feeling that good. You're doing so well, so gorgeous, I never want to stop, want to bruise you up all over. And you don't have to do a thing but let me, take it from me, give over and we'll..." and he's gentling Merlin, shushing him, and it's working. Merlin lets his weight sink back and it feels—restful, no stress, no choices to make, just cleaned out and full of trust.

"Good, good," says Arthur. "That's it. I have you, love."

Pleasure spikes through Merlin, curls itself in with the blinding hurt. He wants to listen to Arthur speak like that forever, he wants to be good enough for him to make that happen, he doesn't want anybody else, ever again, and nothing but this, anchored in a sea of sensation.

"I'm going to take you so far," Arthur murmurs, tipping down to mouth Merlin's cheekbone. "Let me."

Always, yes, no question: Merlin nods.

"You've got to do as I ask," Arthur says. "I promise it'll be worth it."

Of course it will be. Merlin will try his best to makes it as good for Arthur as he's sure Arthur will make it for him.

Arthur turns Merlin around and lets him go slowly, giving Merlin time to find his feet, and Merlin's maybe relying on the binding to help him keep his balance, but at least he's not tearing up his joints anymore. The whip is on the floor. It pleases Merlin to wonder, dimly, if Arthur dropped it in his desire to put his hands on Merlin. Was he desperate, careless with it? There's no way for Merlin to tell, but maybe—maybe he'd broken through Arthur's perfect control for just a moment. That would be lovely, if he had.

Arthur picks up the whip and coils it around his hand, the leather going easily, finely crafted, and brings it up to Merlin's mouth. It's an offer this time rather than a demand, and shaking, reverent, Merlin gives it a kind of kiss he's never known how to give until now. He thinks he could mouth at it for hours, memorise the flavour with his tongue and never want to taste anything else again.

"Quietness isn't your strength," Arthur says, and Merlin flinches. "It doesn't matter. I'm going to help you. I'm going to gag you, and this time, I want you to focus on that whenever your body needs to make a noise." Taking the whip with him, Arthur goes back to his wall of tools. He hangs the whip in its place, precisely, then walks further down to a different selection, and every step is another kind of agony for Merlin. But Arthur's coming back, he always will, and everything he'll bring with him will be a joy: these are the things Merlin knows now, with the kind of surety he's rarely felt in life, surety like the sun rising. He waits and watches, while Arthur makes his choice, touching and picking up and rejecting until he finds what he's looking for.

The gag he returns with is smaller than any ballgag Merlin has seen before, just big enough to keep his lips from meeting. Arthur thumbs Merlin's mouth, coaxes it open and slides the black ball inside, takes his time settling it behind Merlin's teeth, then turns Merlin's head so he can buckle the straps holding it in place, and Merlin is gagged. He's never been gagged. He didn't know it would make him feel safer, that it would pierce him with arousal so strong he shivers and his cock jumps.

Arthur hums a small noise and blinks, noticing finally that Merlin is still hard, his cock leaking sticky clear precome enough that the head gleams. And Merlin loves that best, Arthur's surprise and quick dart of his Adam's apple as he swallows. Merlin tongues the back of the ball in his mouth over and over, languorously, and it's the most erotic thing he's ever experienced—he's bound and gagged and hurting and being stared at and he knows, given just a bit more, he could come, all over himself. That thought alone—and Arthur sees that now, how could he not? Merlin is—now, he's going to, fuck, yeah—

Reaction, immediate. Arthur grabs the base of Merlin's cock and makes a tight ring of his fingers just in time to stop the first wave of orgasm. Merlin writhes, slams his head back into the wall, but that only makes it harder and sweeter, and Merlin is swimming through a fog of blissful denial that lasts until the muscles in his abdomen and thighs ache from seizing up, straining. He sags as it subsides, leaves him gasping and oversensitized and weak, with dampness in his eyelashes. But he managed not to groan or scream, and that's nearly enough to make up for the fact that he almost came before Arthur wanted him to. He's really not very good at this, is he? He can be. He will be, with Arthur to lead him, to catch and stop his failures before they overcome him. Like now, Arthur going and coming back with a cockring and getting it tight around the base of Merlin's cock, cutting off the chance of another mistake.

"Look at you," says Arthur, grasping Merlin's hips, his waist, his ribcage. "Look how much you want it. Jesus, this turns you on like nothing else, doesn't it?" Arthur sounds out of breath, and Merlin wants to share a hot gaze with him but instead he rubs his nose along Arthur's face and lets his puffy, open lips drag on Arthur's skin. The grip on his ribs tightens, and then Arthur flips him around again, takes a moment to groan with his forehead against the nape of Merlin's neck, promising, "The things I'm going to do to you, darling…"

Merlin only realises that Arthur had come back this time with more than the cockring when a paddle smacks into his arse and forces his cock into the cool wall. He arches into the new pain, better, shit, it just keeps getting better.

"Yeah, you're liking this," says Arthur, smacking him again, but he's not quite right about that one. Merlin is, right down to his core, loving this.

The paddle Arthur's chosen is wide and, Merlin knows instinctively, wooden. Arthur lands a blow against his right cheek, his left, and right in the middle where they meet, and Merlin shoves his arse back for more. More, harder, faster, Arthur. Focus, fuck, he has to focus on the gag, focus like Arthur told him to, because he's got moans building on top of each other in his throat, making themselves a ladder to escape. He bites down and shoves with his tongue, panting and twisting, arching hard as Arthur paddles him from every possible angle. Drool slips from the corners of his mouth and drips off his bottom lip, and that's one more new feeling that wrenches Merlin higher, lower, wherever it is, this place wonderful and foreign to him, even as it feels like a perfectly tailored suit, a new home filled with all his own things and already smelling like him—even as it feels like his own skin.

Arthur shoves Merlin's chest against the wall, holds him pinned with one hand between his shoulder blades, slaps the paddle down even harder and says, "Oh, yes, that's incredible, isn't it? Look at you. Hell, I love you like this, you're so fucking beautiful." His hand is unsteady on Merlin's sore back, and he's—he's struggling, and Merlin knows what to do to help him, too, to get them both closer—he twists, fights to turn and, there, just enough to—catches Arthur's eyes.

It's a deliberate, dangerous disobedience, and Arthur knows it, if the rage that twists his face is any indication. He hurls the paddle down and uses his open hand instead, spanks Merlin once, twice, then pinches the delicate skin of his balls, palms his cheeks harshly and thumbs at Merlin's hole. He digs the dry tip into Merlin and swears when Merlin wildly shoves back onto it. "You really are, you really want—that's so—"

There was a challenge in this once, but that's long gone. Merlin wants everything, has nothing left to prove, just a black pit of mindless, empty need unlocked inside him.

"I'm going to use you so hard," Arthur grunts. "I'm going to fuck you so good you'll never be able to come with anyone else."

Merlin thinks: I'm already there.

Arthur grinds his clothed erection against Merlin's arse, breathing hard, as he reaches up and yanks open the handcuffs.

Then he steps back, right then, and Merlin falls to his knees without any support, the thin-skinned bones of them slamming into the floor and his arms dropping uselessly. Everything hurts, his back, his jaw, his arse, his hands and arms and legs, he's a mess of different pains and he wants more.

"Crawl to the wall," Arthur commands.

He walks alongside Merlin as Merlin moves painstakingly on hands and knees across the room, his cock swaying, heavy between his legs, his ball sac tight and high. Hand, knee, he thinks. Hand, knee, hand, knee, handknee handknee. Even the simple coolness of the unforgiving tile floor is sending sparks of pleasure up from his fingertips and toes. Merlin reaches the wall and stops and waits, head down to feel the stinging stretch of his whip-welts.

Noises. A bit of jingle and shuffle and then Arthur yanks on Merlin's arm so hard he comes up onto his knees and has to bend backwards into the grip. Arthur grabs his other arm too, folds both across Merlin's back, hands to elbows, and wraps them in a thin, nylon rope, all with perfunctory speed, like Merlin's a well-used possession and manhandling Merlin's body is not only his pleasure but his right. Digging his blunt nails into his own flesh, Merlin can't prevent another moan—he makes a pathetic, aborted sound in his throat, half-gulp, half-whimper.

"Not quite. Try harder," Arthur says, and uses the rope to drag Merlin up, forcing him to stumble to a plain padded bench, which he throws Merlin face-down over. The thick edges bang against Merlin's upper thigh and ribcage. Arthur slams a different, wider paddle down on his arse without a moment in between, no hesitation that Merlin could use to catch the breath that's knocked right out of him. And it seems, just when Merlin imagines Arthur can't possibly hit any harder, that he does, he does, and it's past the point of hurting or burning, gone into a sensation that can't be described by any word that's been invented yet. Merlin's vision can't go white anymore, or fuck knows if he could tell either way, because he can't see, can't hear, can't smell, can't taste—all he has left is touch.

Except for Arthur. Merlin can hear him, and the sound of the paddle clattering to the floor, the tube of lube being popped open, the twin pat, pat of Arthur dropping his gloves, and his voice saying, "Gonna get you slicked up like a girl, all ready for me, yeah—" so when Arthur uses one hand to spread Merlin's arse cheeks, and strokes over Merlin's crack with three fingers, just smoothing the lube around thickly, Merlin isn't unprepared enough that he can't hold back the long whine of pleasure he has inside him.

Arthur teases him, rubbing around the edges of his hole with endless patience, making little hmming sounds of enjoyment as Merlin twists every which way in an attempt to get just a little bit more pressure, push, please, fuck, hell, please push, push in—and Arthur finally gives in a tiny amount, opens Merlin up only to the first knuckle. He hooks his finger and pulls as he slides it back out, and again and again with perfect timing, like it's some kind of meditative act for him. Arthur's breath is a steady, soothing rhythm, and it lulls Merlin along with the in and out of his finger, it's all—in, exhale, out, inhale, until Merlin is breathing at the same pace and his toes are twitching as they do right before he falls to sleep at night.

Millimeter by millimeter, Arthur's going deeper, working Merlin open with such exquisite care that it's almost as bad as no preparation at all. When Arthur gets the length of his index finger fully inside, Merlin lets out a hard huff of air. He thought that would satisfy him, but it makes it worse. But Arthur comes in again with two fingers this time, slicked with even more lube, and he's done teasing—please let him be done teasing; he pushes and twists and crooks, fingerfucks Merlin brutally until Merlin squirms frantically back into it, and then Arthur just holds them still and deep while he spanks Merlin's left arse cheek with his hand, and Merlin's whole body jerks with the shock of skin on skin.

He loves leather, has always loved it, but he could never love it as much as he loves Arthur's bare hand on him, and the way the blow makes Arthur's fingers inside shove and slip onto the spot that makes Merlin fly. Merlin gives a weak shout and bucks, shot straight through. His cock is a throbbing misery, managing despite the cockring to leak small drops at the tip that drip and make a mess down the side of the bench; Merlin bites down on the ballgag, fights back tears from it.

"Oh, fuck, your mouth," Arthur says, sliding one hand up the sweaty, welt-covered length of Merlin's back and thrusting a third finger into his grasping hole as he leans over to bite at Merlin's shoulder blade. "Can I—I want—such a pretty mouth. Your lips, hell. Got to see them stretched around my cock."

Merlin's eyes roll back in his head at the idea of that. How would Arthur taste? Like salt and submission and every other perfect thing. Merlin wants to suck him, oh God, right now, his throat feels empty now.

Arthur knows. "Hold on, darling. Just one." He draws his fingers out and leaves a yawning, horrible emptiness in Merlin's body. "One moment. I want to do this...Got to keep you open for me, yeah?" And Merlin hears it before he feels it, the buzzing sound of the vibrator.

And then it's being pressed into his hole, huge and invasive: a vibrating butt plug. Oh, oh shit, it's ten times more amazing than Merlin could have imagined, it might shake his bones apart.

Merlin writhes, whines, and writhes some more; Arthur has to brace his hip against Merlin to keep him from wrenching himself off the bench. When the plug is seated, he pets the wide circle of spasming skin around it and chokes out, "Fuck, fuck, oh fuck," which is exactly how Merlin feels, except with less coherency.

Arthur nearly trips around the bench, scrabbles at the buckle keeping Merlin's gag on. It snags and pulls on Merlin's hair as Arthur jerks it open and throws it, literally throws it across the room; Merlin can hear it bouncing, and he misses having his mouth full fiercely.

"You can make noise now, God, yes," Arthur tells him, cupping his jaw and lifting it to his groin, "but no words. Don't speak."

Merlin groans, chin and cheeks smeared with saliva, nods. Sound is relief. If he can hear himself, he's still here.

Arthur scrapes his zippered crotch, strained out by his hard cock, against Merlin's face; it scratches a smarting line up Merlin's cheekbone. "Undo it," Arthur tells him.

Not so easy, after all, though Merlin's fantasized about undoing a man's fly with his teeth since he was in Year 5. Maybe he could do it—he wants to, for Arthur—if he didn't have a massive vibrating plug holding his arse open, making his concentration slip every three seconds. His lips are slick and almost numb, and his teeth keep catching the little metal tab only for it to skitter away again. Even if he could manage to lower the zip more than a few teeth at a time, the button would be impossible, especially at this awkward angle. Impatience wins before Merlin can finish either task, and Arthur undoes his trousers himself, shoves them down his hips along with his pants and quickly strips his shirt off, then gets his cock in hand, rubs the swollen, red head over Merlin's tingling mouth.

"Can't follow a simple order," Arthur whispers, nudging Merlin's jaw down with the hand on his damp chin. "Gonna make you pay for that."

Merlin goes willingly, uncaring about the drool pooling on his tongue, he has to either have Arthur's cock in him or sob like a child, overstimulated, desperate. When Arthur finally drives forwards, it's inexorable and straight back into Merlin's throat, fast and brutal, and Merlin chokes. Tears pluck at his eyes. He struggles, struggles, but Arthur keeps him there, his nose buried in the hair at the base of Arthur's cock, until Merlin relaxes and swallows Arthur's precome so far down he doesn't even taste it before it's gone. Breath is an easy sacrifice after everything else, and Merlin was already feeling faint anyway. Arthur doesn't coddle him, he isn't gentle—he's got a hand in Merlin's hair and the other on Merlin's jaw, thumb to the corner of Merlin's mouth, and he just fucks in, barely even careful of Merlin's teeth. And he tastes like all the things Merlin never knew he wanted, and all the things he's longed for but never had the courage to take. Around Arthur's cock, Merlin chokes and gasps and pushes his jaw until it could drop off from the strain, gripping the only thing he can, his own arms behind his back, making the ropes chafe and slip with sweat and sending the stinging burn like shivers up his back. He braces his body as best he can so Arthur can take this. If it's what Arthur wants, it's what Merlin wants, only Merlin wants it worse.

The buttplug vibrates in him; Arthur fucks his mouth; Merlin's eyes start to roll back in his head as another almost-orgasm rips through him and the pain of its denial makes him actually black out for a few moments.

When he comes to, Arthur is coming on him, on his face and mouth, dead silent throughout. One stripe of come slides down the divot above Merlin's upper lip, mixes with a stray, gag-drawn tear, and drips into his mouth, and Merlin lets out a pained, unsatisfied moan as he tries to tuck the flavour away so he can have it wherever he goes, whenever he needs to remember. How long would it take, how many times, before he could close his eyes and automatically recall the taste?

Arthur leans over him, taking slow, deep breaths and stroking the hair back from Merlin's sweaty temples, and Merlin shouldn't, it hurts something in him to disobey again, but he has to because he can't go on much longer without breaking. "Fuck me," he rasps, mouthing at Arthur, "please, please, Sire, I need you to fuck me, please fuck me, I'll do anything," and the softening cock jumps against his teeth.

"Oh, shit," Arthur says, tremulously. Then, "Shut up." And he thrusts his hips forwards, rubs his cock through the sticky come on Merlin's cheekbone. "I told you not to speak. Do I need to gag you again, or are you going to be a good boy? I should leave you like this all night, tied up and straining. Maybe that would help you finally let go for me."

Whimpering, Merlin shakes his head, no no, he will be good, a good boy for Arthur, and if the movement allows him to nuzzle a kiss at Arthur, all for the better. Best yet, that Arthur lets him, keeps up his gentle petting and lets Merlin make it up to him with soft, trembling kisses. And somehow, the buttplug helps, something constant to concentrate on and Merlin's starting to feel like he'll never be able to do without it, all snug up inside him. It brings Merlin down from the edge, enough that he can blink a few times and focus his eyes on the tight, perfect muscles of Arthur's belly, though that might be dangerous, very dangerous because all he can imagine is how they'll clench and ripple if Arthur thinks Merlin's earned it to be fucked by him.

For now, his reward will be the way Arthur's spit-slick cock is hardening again. Arthur grips it with one hand and drags the tip through his come, down, feeds it onto Merlin's tongue. "Mm, that's nice," Arthur murmurs. "Gonna bring you over if it kills me, darling. I promise."

"Yeah…" Merlin groans and sucks down, and Arthur bucks and—hell, shit, why can't he just, why is he so bad

Arthur has to manhandle Merlin over to the plain wooden table, undoing the nylon rope around Merlin's arms as Merlin stumbles and trips. "I told you." Merlin has only his collar and Arthur's come on his face when Arthur shoves him down on his raw, stripped back and forces his knees up to his ears, curls Merlin up with his arse in the air. "What are your instructions?"

"You can make noise," Merlin repeats, gasping, fuck, it hurts, and his own voice sounds sing-song, hypnotized, "God, yes," so much. All he has left is the instructions. Instructions he keeps breaking. "But no words. Don't speak."

"Did you follow those?" Arthur asks harshly. "You didn't, did you? Why should I give you what you want? You haven't been a very good boy, have you?"

His fingers on Merlin's arse, shoving in next to the buttplug, pulling it out with a wet pop that would be embarrassing if Merlin had it in him to care. His mind spins: pain, pleasure, desire, adoration, anticipation, desperation, painpleasurepain.

"Gonna leave you empty now," Arthur bites out against Merlin's belly. "Feel that? How unbearably empty you are?"

Merlin keens, uses the strange freedom of his limbs to scrabble at his own body, and feels the emptiness like a black hole that will tear him apart and wind him into a tiny ball of nothingness. It doesn't make it better, the way Arthur nips his way up Merlin's torso from his belly button to his sternum and over. Merlin is still a canvas of anguish. He tosses his head, whines; Arthur sinks his teeth into Merlin's nipple and even that sharp jolt of hurt doesn't help the beginnings of a sob fall back.

"Please," Merlin begs, choking.

"Shhh, I told you," Arthur whispers into his neck, bearing down with his weight to get Merlin's legs back further, wider, his arse open and clenching down on nothing, horrible nothing. "Give over to me. I'll take care of you."

Arthur says it like another man might say his wedding vows, and Merlin sags out of his yearning tension because fuck, he believes him. He trusts him, Arthur. Arthur will take care of him.

"That. There," says Arthur, and his cock, hard again, finally, finally, finally, drives into Merlin's body, a brutal contrast to the softly spoken words. He seats himself nice and deep and then stops, holds through it while Merlin goes crazy-wild under him, toes clenching, fisting his own hair and feeling tears leak from his eyes because he still can't come. Nothing before, no whip, no paddle, no too-far stretch, could hurt the way this does, and that's—that's what does it, this die-from-desperation torture. Merlin gives up.

Gives in. Sags and goes limp and stares up at Arthur, waits. Because it's not his choice to make, is it? He's not in control, not even of this, no matter how much or what he wants. This is what it means to submit.

Arthur watches back, and it's them, trapped in such stillness together where everyone else would be moving. It's them, owning each other.

Closing his eyes, dipping to press a first kiss onto Merlin's swollen mouth, Arthur snakes a hand between them and works the cockring off of Merlin's cock, and then they fuck.

They fuck and it's a nuclear explosion. Stars collide. Merlin becomes a taut, bowed line of supplication, and Arthur is a god over him, his sweat dripping onto Merlin's body. One thrust, two thrusts, and then—

that's when Merlin hits it. That concrete wall, that Mac truck crossing the road, that vacuum-quiet, that pool of icy, dark water and his lungs full, him sinking, him—


When he gets back, Arthur has collapsed heavy onto Merlin's body, panting, and Merlin's arse is full of hot come and Arthur's cock, still, stinging-sticky inside him.

Merlin stares at the ceiling, swimming distantly through thought and the last lingering shocky sensation.

There are—it's—his whole world has turned over. All the pillars of his life have shifted an inch, maybe more. All his words don't mean quite the same thing they meant before—when? An hour ago? A day? He feels like he's been in this dungeon long enough to emerge and find the world a completely changed place. Changed like he has.

It's official. He's weird, he's one of those people, that way-less-than-twenty-five percent of the population that doesn't just watch, one of the people that gets off for real on the pain and the give and the submission, on the power-exchange. He's not normal, but he's good with that: he's better, he's fan-fucking-tastic, all bent up and druggily wondering, for the first time, how the fuck he's going to hide the marks tomorrow; how will he even walk out of here?

His skin fits. He's shaking like a newborn inside it, but it's his now. At last.

His arms look like a stranger's as he lifts them, sort of awkwardly gets them past his own legs, and puts them around Arthur's heaving back, trails his fingers up and down Arthur's spine. It's nice just to touch. That's one thing he hasn't been allowed yet.

"Merlin," Arthur presses wet, quavering kisses up the column of Merlin's throat. "Merlin, Merlin, Merlin."

Humming in tranced-out, happy agreement, Merlin tips his head back. His body's screaming but it's all adrift and vague and he likes it. He likes it all, loves it, Arthur, the smear of Merlin's own come between their chests and bellies, the discomfort and the renewed strength, everything about what happened to him tonight.

"I never," murmurs Arthur, weakly nipping at Merlin's chin. "I don't usually…"

"You said that," Merlin remembers. Can he speak? Are they still—Merlin hasn't left it yet, not completely, and he doesn't think Arthur has either, but it feels like the rules are looser now. "Earlier. You don't usually."

"I've never," Arthur says. "Not like, like that."

"I've never, ever," says Merlin. "I—I needed. Need. I."

Arthur places a kiss behind Merlin's earlobe. "Shh, I know. I want to clean you up. Look at you, your back—wash you down, your hair," and he kisses Merlin's hair, there, and there, and there, "and your feet, and your, Jesus, your wrists," and he curls a hand around Merlin's arm, folds it down so he can kiss the hammering pulse point beneath Merlin's palm. "You did so well, so beautifully. How do you feel? Are you okay?"

Merlin takes a hitching breath, undone all over again by Arthur's concern. "I feel—amazing."

Arthur makes deep-chested, rumbling sound of pleasure and, thrusting his hips—as if his cock could be seated any deeper in Merlin—says, "Yeah, you do." But then he follows that up by shifting back and easing, slowly, out, and Merlin gives out a humiliatingly high-pitched whine and grabs at Arthur's back because no, he wants Arthur to stay.

"It's all right," says Arthur, stroking the tense line of Merlin's throat. "I'm coming back, love. Just want to get a rag, clean you up like I said, you've got come, my come, all over you. You're just a mess, and that's lovely. That's so hot, it's gonna make me crazy if I don't do something about it."

That sounds nice, nice enough that even though Merlin is loving the filthy, clinging feeling of sweat and come on his face, his chest, leaking now out of his arse, he releases Arthur. He's cold while Arthur is off, running water from the tap at the sink but at least without Arthur's weight he can straighten his body. Pain stabs in his hips, too long in one position. Merlin stretches out, arms above his head and dangling off the edge of the table, and that's comfortable, reminds him of the cuffs and the chain and the whipping, all shivery-good memories.

The towel Arthur comes back with is good and soaked. Arthur, holding it over Merlin's head, squeezes it. Water pours over Merlin's face, over his closed eyelids and cheeks and chin, slides into his hair like warm, seductive fingers, like Morgana petting Will. Merlin moans, opens his mouth, and lets the flow carry the salty, pungent taste of come back onto his tongue.

"Fuck," hisses Arthur. "How are you even possible? How are you real?"

Merlin opens his eyes and looks at Arthur, really looks him over for the first time since he finished stripping. He's pulled his trousers back up but not done them up yet, and his shirt's still off, and his hair's all a wretched mess, but it's his face, his wrecked expression and red, red mouth, that makes Merlin want to make inane reassurances—I'm real, You're not dreaming, You're not a dream—and even more inane promises: You can keep me.

But he doesn't need the words, really. He can say all that with his body, with his eyes, and he does.

Arthur cleans him in silence. Methodically and tenderly, he draws the towel over Merlin's face, shoulders, neck. Mops at his chest and belly and groin, rubs the rough cloth for a few happy moments against Merlin's spent cock, and then he crawls up on the table again, lifts Merlin's legs into his lap and scrubs at Merlin's feet, intent throughout. And Merlin watches, transfixed, content to stay limp and be moved about as Arthur sees fit. The water is warm and it dulls his pain, bit by bit, or maybe it's just Arthur's care that's restoring him, putting Merlin back together like so many shards of shattered glass.

The last of it could almost be the start of it all over again if Merlin weren't exhausted and nearly half-asleep already: Arthur folds one of Merlin's legs up again and drags a clean corner of the towel between the cheeks of Merlin's arse, presses it against and just slightly into Merlin's stretched, come-sloppy hole. Merlin groans and moves into it, jerking through little bursts of arousal all the while Arthur cleans him out, and by the end they're both gasping in their air.

"You've gotta stop," Merlin tells him, twisting away. "Shit, I'll never get out of here if you don't."

Arthur drops the towel off the side of the table and crawls back up Merlin's body, blankets him with his hot, perfect weight again, and nuzzles at him. "Stay then, we have beds upstairs."

Tempting. Especially if Arthur stayed with him, and they could sleep entwined, and wake up, and do it all over again, every day from here on out. No. But? No. Job. Will. This is—this isn't his life, and Arthur isn't his lover, not once he gets his clothes back on. Merlin has a life, and this is just one place in it (the best place).

Kissing the top of Arthur's head in apology, Merlin starts to disentangle himself. "I can't, I can't," he says, sitting up. His first attempt at standing fails, and his second too, fuck, his legs are as wobbly and foreign as stilts, but he succeeds on his third and takes a first step on his new bones, in his new skin, towards the discarded pieces of clothing that link him to reality.

"Was it—will you come back?" asks Arthur, following him across the Dark Room; he's hovering near, keeps half-reaching out, ready to catch Merlin should he fall. Eager to.

Merlin smiles at him and realises, actually, that's the first full smile he's given Arthur. They're all kinds of backwards, aren't they? "I dunno," he says. It's a lie, but he wants to tease, to see if that can work between them as well. "Are you taking my card for this, or was this—was this, I mean. I..." he trails off.

"Don't be stupid, Merlin," Arthur says, and picks up his undershirt for him. "I started this one. It's on me."

"That's. Yeah, that's good." Merlin hopes that means what he wants it to mean. He suspects, yeah, it does. "Not like it was that much a hardship, anyway, yeah?"

The look Arthur gives him is serious, has a fluttering shakiness at the corners of his eyes and lips, and Merlin wonders, then, if he'll be the one steadying Arthur on his feet instead of the other way 'round. "No," says Arthur, and Merlin doesn't know where to go with that.

The pile of clothes looks like something left behind by an ancient culture. One by one, Arthur hands them to Merlin and Merlin puts them back on carefully, eases them over the parts that hurt the most. Before he feels fully ready for it, he has no more reason to linger. He thought it earlier, and it echoes through him now, even as he reaches the door: Keep me.

"So you will come back?" Arthur asks once more.

And the question is not anything Merlin could have thought possible, coming like it has, almost plaintive. "I—"

"Say you'll come back," Arthur interrupts. He moves quickly to herd and trap Merlin against the door frame, clearly not planning to move until he hears the answer he wants, the one they both want.

"I will." And it's true. Merlin will. He doesn't have a choice. The rules of his life may be different now, but they're rules he still has to—wants to—follow.

"When you do," Arthur whispers against Merlin's mouth. "When you do, come back to me."

Merlin wears the collar all the way home.


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