[personal profile] new_kate
Title: Arcane Asylum
Fandom: Merlin BBC
Pairing: Arthur/Merlin and a bunch of less true pairings mentioned in the flashbacks.
Rating: NC-17
Warnings for this part: smut!
Summary: Modern AU. For the last twenty two years Uther Pendragon had been waging war on magic. Now his son Arthur has been framed for a magical crime and sent to the prison for magic users. Arthur is instantly targeted by the inmates, but mysterious top dog Merlin takes him under his wing. They form a bond, and Merlin decides to help Arthur clear his name.
Originally written for this prompt at [livejournal.com profile] kinkme_merlin
Many thanks to [livejournal.com profile] devikun and [livejournal.com profile] ghost_guessed for betaing!
Word count: 9K for this part.

First part
Chapter index

Asylum 14: Lady of the Lakes

Both Facilities went operational at the same time and with roughly the same number of inmates. They had a similar complement of guards and the same official security protocols. Unofficially the security was tighter at the men's prison, and that's where the cold iron cage ended up as well. The Commission expected that the female prisoners would be less troublesome and a lot easier to control.

They'd been right - the women had never planned a riot. Their plans, from the very start, were a lot more urgent and far-reaching.

Since the dawn of the Old Religion it always had a lot more priestesses than priests. The magic of men tended have a distinct flavour: it was wild and sharp, quick and fragile. Some considered it expendable - perfectly suited for battles and probing into the new areas of magic, no great loss if things go awry. Boys had been encouraged to become researchers and fighters, the ones who'd push the magic and themselves to the limits, reach for new heights. Sometimes those experiments led to breakthroughs, sometimes to catastrophes, but that was the way of progress.

The guardianship of the lore, the rituals that affected the whole of the land, the deep, vast, vital kind of magic - that was the women's domain. Here, in the Facility, the women of Old Religion had been united again after years of running, hiding, being locked up in mental wards and solitary units in prisons. They knew what their task was. It hadn't changed since the beginning of time.

The first months were the hardest. The guards were nervous and extremely vigilant. The warden was determined to instil order and strict discipline from the very start, break them all before they even considered fighting back.

They hadn't fought back. They kept their heads down, swallowed their pride, never took more risks than were absolutely necessary. It was still risky, and the retribution was awful every time there were caught. They bore it, and continued their work.

Every day all of the prisoners were taken to the workroom set up in the former Great Hall of the castle. They were kept there most of the day and made to hem tea towels by hand, just to keep them busy and tired. It took three months to slowly weave small glamours through the rooms, and then a few final spells to tighten and solidify the illusion. The tea towels would still be hemmed in the corner, in great quantities, by magic. But the Great Hall was now a temple of the Old Religion, and here the ancient rituals were performed again. The magic that flowed through their circle as they gathered there gave them new power, almost like in days of old, before the war had started.

From then on it was easy to spread the glamours through most of the castle and slowly bring it under their control. By the time two years had passed, life inside was bearable enough. The new arrivals were taken into the fold of the Old Religion, healed, taught, cared for. It wasn't freedom, not exactly. They were still watched, and they still had to constantly keep up the pretence, follow the routines set up by the warden, at least outwardly. They had now, between them, enough magic to escape. But the Facility had already became the greatest temple of the Old Religion in the country, and there was no other safe place where they could be together and work their magic the way they needed to.

Instead, the priestesses kicked the glamours up a notch and brought their friends and families into the castle, to live with them.

The guards still saw everything the way it used to be: wan, docile women in ugly orange uniforms, their bare cells converted from the former servants' and guest quarters of the castle. In fact the place was then more like dorms of a campus - not quite a home, a huge uncomfortable mess, full of sneaky shenanigans. But also full of life, everyone studying, learning from each other, bonding, working towards fulfilling their destiny.

Morgana told all that to Arthur exactly the same way she used to talk about her feminist heroes: excited and proud, as if all of it was her personal doing.

"Okay," he said. "That's awesome. Why are the guards washing the floor?"

Every time he saw a guard they'd be quietly absorbed in some menial task, clearly not noticing that anything was amiss in this place. It was all quite creepy, in Arthur's opinion.

"Yeah, that," said Morgana uncomfortably. "Well, apparently, when Sophia got here, she kept getting into trouble with the guards. Because she's a spoiled twat, basically, and couldn't even pretend to be following their rules. So she was in a solitary for a month, and when she got out she was even more unhinged. And then she enchanted the warden."

"For fuck's sake," Arthur hissed, cringing.

"Don't get me wrong, a lot of us think it's unethical. But so was what they did to us. And it did make everything a lot easier, so the priestesses decided to keep him that way and let Sophia do the guards, too. Look, no, it's just while they're here. They still go home every night, and they still get paid, and you know, they're really happy."

"Yeah, I know, I remember! I can't believe you're fine with it."

"By the time I got here it was done already," she said lightly.

Arthur knew that Morgana's idea of justice wasn't quite like his. When they were growing up, she'd often accused him of being a bully. And maybe be was a bit. He despised weakness, and used to think that those who didn't have the guts to fight back deserved everything they had coming. Morgana was fair to a fault, always took the side of the underdog and always prevailed. She'd been the queen bee in every group, and her followers instantly swayed her way. But underneath it all she had a mean streak that scared him sometimes. Whenever Arthur won a fight or intimidated someone into submission, he considered the matter resolved and forgot all about it. But when someone wronged Morgana or anyone whom she felt protective about, she'd make all those responsible pay for it till they could pay no longer, and she was ruthless in her righteousness.

She took him inside the castle, into a large, bright room that served as a common area. Merlin hovered close, surrounded by a group of young women who chatted to him excitedly. And he smiled and chatted back, effortlessly charming - he was already developing groupies.

"How did you get here?" Arthur asked Morgana instead of sulking at Merlin. "I know you've never been arrested. I'd have heard."

"I came here on my own," she said. "I'm not even here most of the time, I travel a lot for my work. You knew I had friends, even back home, who were sympathetic to my people. Some of them were even passing, like I was."

"Passing? Is that what you call it now?"

"It's what it was. I was pretending to be something I wasn't. Well, I went to them for help, and they put me in touch with Gwen. I stayed with her for a while, and we came up the idea how we could help more people like me."

"Oh, the safehouse network?" asked Merlin.

"She was already setting something up, but with my contacts and resources it all really took off," Morgana nodded.

"You're in charge of the safehouse network?" Arthur asked. "Wow, Morgana. If Father only knew what kind of monster he'd created - well, between having multiple strokes he'd be secretly very proud of you."

"It's not just me," she said, biting down a smug smile. "But, yes. We didn't know that this place wasn't a prison any more, and they didn't know about us. But when we got big enough they noticed and made contact, and since then we've merged our operations. This is our main base now."

"How come we had no idea about any of this?"

"It's called underground resistance, darling, it's supposed to be rather secret, you know."

"Merlin, did you know?" Arthur asked.

"Well, I'd heard of Gwen, I heard there were people who would risk helping a warlock sometimes, but that's it... If only I’d known!" he sighed wistfully. "All that time, back in Cheshire, I felt like it was us against the whole world. Sometimes just me against everything. I thought it was even worse here, and there was nothing at all for us on the outside..."

"By the time people here had enough freedom and magic to communicate with the Cheshire Facility, they couldn't reach them," Morgana said. "The spells just wouldn't go through."

"Ahh," said Merlin sheepishly. "That could be my fuck-up, actually. I did a bit of a barrier magic there..."

"Yes, we know already," announced Sophia, dramatically posing in a doorway. "Thanks to me, by the way! I never gave up like everyone else here, I tried to contact my father every day. Two days ago I finally heard him. He's coming here, to live with me - that is, if you don't object, Emrys."

"Um," said Merlin. "He's asking my permission?"

"We both are."

"Oh, so now he cares what I think. Does he think we're still friends and I'm not at all angry about Cornelius? I'm sure Aulfric sent us to that meeting hoping I'd get killed."

"Oh, no," Sophia said. "Of course not, you're Emrys! He was only hoping Cornelius would capture your power and use it better than you. Come on, you know you've not done great so far. This war would be long over if you were less squeamish."

Merlin stared at her incredulously, and she stepped closer and gave him a broad, alluring smile.

"Emrys, there are people who don't see you as our salvation and new hope. Actually, most of the old ones think you're a traitor, a coward and a hindrance. They think you're siding with the enemy, and they want nothing more than to be rid of you. Well, they can't do that, of course, but you still need allies. I've spoken to my father, and we both think you're the one we should be backing. We'll be honoured to serve you."

"Cheers for that," Merlin muttered with a disgusted grimace. "Wait. Am I, like... literally Emrys?"

"Course," Sophia nodded. "You've always been, it's part of the package. What, you haven't noticed yet?"

"What kind of stupid question is that, anyway?" Arthur asked while Merlin frowned and chewed his lip, as if he struggled to remember if he, indeed, noticed any signs of literal Emrysness. "How can you be figuratively Emrys?"

Merlin shrugged unhelpfully.

"It's like you're not happy about it," Sophia huffed. "Some of us have to work our arses off for that kind of a sweet deal, you know. Do you know how many sacrifices I have to offer - "

"Don't talk about killing people in front of me," Merlin said.

"Fine, fine," she kicked off her Blahniks, slipped into a free chair and snapped her fingers. A guard appeared at her side almost immediately and stood there quietly, with his head bowed.

"Footrub," she said. The man knelt by her feet and began massaging them. She crossed her arms over her designer jacket and looked down at him with a wolfish grin.

"I'm thinking of all those times you beat and tasered me," she said. "I think about it a lot. I don't know why I'm so good to you."

"I'm so sorry, Sophia," the man said in a sickeningly sincere voice. "May I buy you more shoes?"

"I'm going to throw up," Arthur announced and bolted outside.

Fresh air helped, and he stayed out, on the gallery. Morgana went to check on the priestesses; Merlin was instantly surrounded by a fresh crowd of women who wanted to get to know Emrys, but he somehow managed to extricate himself and joined Arthur in a quiet corner. They leaned over the railing and watched the courtyard bustle around them.

"This place is amazing," Merlin said.

"They keep slaves."

"I know, that's... disgusting, yes. But that's how our people can be free in here. It's better than what we did in Cheshire."

"I'm not so sure."

"I'll tell Sophia to knock off the abuse. But, look, they do great work here. They keep families together, teach kids to control their magic... Arthur, they look happy. And we're welcome here."

"They brought us in handcuffed. No, all right, I understand all that. They really can't be too careful. They don't have a barrier, and they have children here. If the secret comes out... Hell, I don't want to even think about it."

Merlin pressed against his side and rolled his head on Arthur's shoulder.

"Let's just enjoy this for a moment," he said.

Arthur distractedly kissed his hair, and the crowd watching them burst into whispers and giggles. Some of the girls were giving him an evil eye, but he'd never expected to be liked in either of the Facilities. Except these weren't looks of hatred. They were more like jealousy.

And only then it hit him: his boyfriend was Emrys, the chosen one. Merlin was like royalty to these people. A lot of them probably wanted to have his babies. He might be expected to take a suitable consort, or participate in ritual orgies. Either way, Arthur was pretty sure that Emrys wasn't supposed to be dating a Pendragon.

They were summoned to meet the priestesses, and were taken up the stairs, through long corridors, up to the area where the masters of the castle must have had their private chambers. The sun had almost set by now, but the low gold-red light still reached through the tall windows, illuminating the majestic beauty of the building. Arthur would love to live here, if things were different.

The room they were led into was immaculately clean and decorated with fresh flowers. The furniture could be original from when the castle was first build, judging by the style, and was in great condition. The whole of the castle, as much as they'd seen, was like that - lovingly kept, made into a home.

Morgana and Sophia were in the room, along with four older women.

"I am Laudine," said one of them, gesturing at the empty chairs. "Please, sit. These are my sisters."

Arthur wasn't sure if she meant they were related or if this was a poetic religious reference, so he simply bowed slightly and sat down. The women watched him with pursed lips, silent; Morgana was smiling reassuringly. Merlin pushed a chair next to his and sat down too, possessively hooking his ankle over Arthur's.

"As you already know, this is Morgana, our envoy to our friends on the outside, and Sophia, who helps us with security. In light of certain past events, sending her as your contact might seem an odd choice. But I'm sure you understand why we need to be cautious, and she's our best specialist in glamours and battle magic."

"No mission too risky," Sophia said with a little fist pump.

"First of all, let me welcome you to our home, Emrys," Laudine said with a bow. "It's an honour to meet you."

"Thanks," Merlin said. "I really like what you've done here. Compared to this - I've only just realised how horrid our place really is."

"We're in charge of the budget now," said one of Laudine's sisters. "All the money that was used to keep us subdued goes towards the amenities. And, of course, we work our magic."

"How do you..." Merlin stared, leaning forward. He clearly wanted to talk housekeeping and tactics, but then he glanced back at Arthur and shifted back in his chair. "We came here to find answers."

"Ask," Laudine said. Merlin nudged Arthur's foot, passing the conversation over to him.

Arthur carefully cleared his throat, trying not to wilt under their stares.

"I understand this isn't what you want to talk about," he said. "You've not been in contact with your men for years. And Merlin is Emrys, this is a big deal, I know. But I need some information. First of all, why am I here?"

"We called, and you came."

"Yes," he said, summoning all his patience. "Why did you call us here?"

"We did it at Morgana's behest," Laudine said, affectionately touching Morgana's shoulder. "We know our men met you with animosity. But we're not going to hold your parentage against you. Your father betrayed you, just as he would have betrayed her. To us, you're Morgana's brother. We agreed to offer you sanctuary amongst us."

"Can I leave? Or do I already know too much?"

"Where would you go?" Morgana asked. "Arthur, there's no place safer. Stay with me."

He took a breath and shook his head.

"I can't stop being my father's son," he said. "No more than any of you could stop being magic. All his mistakes are my responsibility, I have to fix them. I can't just sit here in Morgana's custody - this isn't where I belong. I need to get back."

"You can work with me," said Morgana. "We can help so many people together. Arthur, the spell that framed you..."

"Do you know who did it?" he asked, digging his fingers into the wood of the chair. "Is that person here right now?"

"No," said Laudine. "She's not. There is only one among us capable of that level of craft. Her name is Nimueh."

"I know who she is," he said. He's heard that name through all of his childhood, and he hated every syllable in it, so much that just hearing it made his vision darken. "She killed my mother."

"That was an accident," said Laudine. "Arthur, you need to know this. Nimueh never meant to hurt anyone. What she did back then was irresponsible, but she meant no harm."

"Accidental manslaughter, then," he gritted out.

"We paid for her mistake a thousandfold, don't you think?"

Nothing could be adequate payment for that, but he knew she had a point.

"Okay," he said. "How can I find her? How can I undo the spell? Will she bargain with me, what would she want in exchange?"

"You can't find her. She abandoned her responsibilities a long time ago. She's consumed with grief and rage, and revenge is her only desire now. She resides in her place of power, and even we, her former pupils, couldn't enter it without her permission. Nothing can harm her there, and even if she died, the spell would persist. All she wants now is for Uther Pendragon to suffer."

"And to be rid of me," said Merlin. "She's one of those who want me gone, right?"

Laudine approached him and touched his chin, making him look her in the eyes.

"She can't do that," she said softly. "Nobody can. You've nothing to fear. Yes, she's furious with you, you've interfered with her vengeance. You're a wild card in this war, and that unsettles some people. They wish Emrys had never been born. But we believe that you're exactly what the balance required. Your power rose from the blood and suffering of your people."

"I know, I know," Merlin muttered, shifting in his chair. "I'm supposed to..."

"You are what you're supposed to be. Dear boy, your kindness is part of your power. The magic gifted us with you, and you're exactly what we need to overcome our pain and walk out of this darkness."

"I've no idea how," Merlin whispered and scrunched his eyes shut. "I wish I'd... but, you said you'd help Arthur, didn't you? So there's something that can be done, right?"

"We can help him by offering him a safe place to live out the rest of his days," said Laudine. "Only Nimueh can undo the spell, and she won't. She scryed your arrival, and she's already sent us a message demanding that we turn both of you away and refuse you any assistance. But we're not going to do that. This we agree on: if we have to choose sides, we choose to stand with Emrys. You're our future."

The women stood up and bowed, and then left the room without another word.

"That's it, then," Arthur said after they'd sat in the empty room for a while, each lost in their own thoughts. "End of the road. All that's left for me to do is live out the rest of my days."

"I'm not going to give up on you," Merlin said, and touched his hand gently. Right now this kindness was unbearable, clawing at his insides, making him weak.

"I need to sleep on this," Arthur said, pulling back. "Just to let this all sink in. It's not so bad, it really isn't. I just need some time alone. I'll see you later, all right?"

And he fled, trying not to look back at Merlin's crestfallen face.

Morgana caught him in some random corridor while he wandered around blindly, trying to get enough air into his chest.

"Found you a room," she said. "Fit for a prince. It's a bit dusty, but I'm having it cleaned. Come on."

The room was unexpectedly huge, with beautiful stained glass windows. It was probably used as a storage space, and now only held two pieces of furniture too large to move out: an ornate carved wardrobe and a four-poster bed. Several guards were inside, sweeping up the cobwebs and laying out fresh bed linens.

"God, Morgana," Arthur moaned. She shooed the guards away as if they were pigeons.

"Fine, you can do it by hand then," she said. "You'll probably be staying with Merlin, anyway, they're putting him in a guest suit, but I thought you'd want your own space."

He grunted out a choked thank you and crawled onto the bed face down. She sat on the edge of the mattress, hovering over him uncertainly.

"You'll like it here," she said. "I know you've been through shit, and it's not the outcome you were hoping for, but..."

"Please leave," he muttered into the pillow. She rose quietly, without arguing, and softly closed the door behind her.

He lay there, motionless, till the room was completely dark. Whenever he tried to assess his situation or plan ahead, he just felt sorry for himself, so gut-wrenchingly sad he couldn't breathe. His eyes were burning, and he was afraid to blink. He had to gnaw on the pillow cover and thump his fist against the bedpost till the wave of misery passed and he felt a little more in control again.

It was easier when he'd feared for his life and expected to be assaulted at any moment. At least that had given him immediate focus. Now he had to accept that this would be the rest of his days, that this would be his world.

He fell asleep, and woke up when the sun was already high. He turned over and stared into the ceiling, past where the bed canopy would be.

He could like it here. He could live in this room; it already felt almost like a new home. He could find a place for himself here, do some kind of work...

And then it all crashed on him even harder, suffocating and terrible, and he had to stop thinking, and somehow he fell asleep again.

When he woke up he tried to think what it was like for Merlin, and Morgana, when they knew they could never go home again. They survived this without breaking, and so would he. But they had magic, and they were with their kin. They were connected to something greater in a way he could never understand.

For a few hours he simply watched coloured sunlight spill through the windows, painting walls and the floor in glowing shapes. In the afternoon Morgana came into the room again, bearing two apples and a ham sandwich.

"Feeling better?" she asked.



They were comfortably quiet for a while. Arthur ate one of the apples, more to slake his thirst. He still wasn't hungry.

"I'm going back to the men's Facility," he said finally, feeling his stomach drop just at the sound of that. "I know you're all right now. Hopefully we'll be able to talk, like Sophia does with her father. I can't stay here."

"Why? Do the enchanted guards bother you that much?"

"They really do," he said. "I can't stand it, it will have to change, Morgana, somehow it must be stopped. But also, there I'll be able to see my father. He probably thinks I'm dead by now. I can't ask him to visit me here, not without putting all these people at risk. Merlin will head back there soon, the men need him. He'll take me."

"Are you sure? After all that's..." and then she smiled cheekily, nodding. "Oh, well, if Merlin's going, then I understand."

"Yeah, I'll be fine. Now that everyone agrees that Merlin's Emrys, they won't try anything. It might get a bit unpleasant when he dumps me - but, no, he'll still keep me safe."

"When he dumps you? Why would he?" Morgana asked. "I think he really likes you."

"Come on, Morgana. I'm Arthur Pendragon. At best, if they all decide not to hold my parentage against me, I'm nobody. Some guy with no magic. He shouldn't be with me, hell, I'd myself advise him against it. He can do a lot better."

"Merlin's not like that," said Morgana. Arthur wanted to argue that she'd barely met the man, but she'd always been a better judge of character than him. And on this point they happened to agree.

"Merlin's not," he conceded. "But Emrys should be. He has enemies, he always will, and he needs someone who can support him and fight by his side. I'm useless."

"You're so dim, it's cute sometimes," she said. "Look, you need to get up and go and talk to your boyfriend. He's wandering all over the place like a lost little lamb, my friends are fighting over who gets to comfort him."

He found Merlin up on the battlements. From there the view of the lake and the village below was breathtaking. For a moment Arthur wanted to linger there and let the generous September sunlight pool under his skin, and just watch the world underneath, perfect and peaceful from this height. Here they could talk about the future without him falling to pieces. They could make some plans. They hadn't been apart for so long since they'd met, and he was missing Merlin already.

But Merlin wasn't alone. He was talking to a skinny dark-haired girl. Arthur watched them from the doorway - they were in the middle of the walkway, about twenty yards from where he stood, and he couldn't hear the conversation. But he could see the way she leaned towards Merlin, touched his arms, tilted her head and looked straight into his eyes, trying to convince him of something.

Merlin seemed to hold his ground. He kept giving her bright, reassuring smiles, but the way he shook his head was firm and final. Her shoulders slumped, and Arthur stepped back, into the shadow of the doorway, relieved and slightly ashamed. The scene was hard to misinterpret. If Arthur was to hazard a guess, she'd probably been asking if she could climb Merlin like a tree and ride him till his amazing ears fell off. Arthur certainly sympathised with the sentiment, but he didn't have to like it when random hussies hit on his boyfriend. But Merlin had let her down gently, and now he was going to walk away.

Only Merlin wasn't walking away. He squared his shoulders and determinedly extended a hand toward the girl. She wrapped a thin leather bracelet around his wrist and carefully tied it in place. And then Merlin ducked his head and kissed her on the lips.

Arthur watched them pull close together, trading lingering open-mouthed kisses. They both had their eyes closed, lost in each other. They were beautiful together. Both so lithe and fair-skinned, they looked like creatures of pure magic, something that mere humans shouldn't get to touch. Sunlight sparkled over their dark hair as they shifted again, deepening the kiss. Arthur turned and left quietly, and went back to his room.

He sat on the bed, tapping his foot, chasing the tails of his own thoughts as they flashed through his head in jumbled turmoil. Before he’d managed to calm down even a little, the door swung open without a knock and Merlin came in. He closed the door behind himself and leaned on it, silently, his hands folded behind his back. They stared at each other across the room; Arthur felt his heart jumping against his ribs, and waited.

Merlin still looked excited, even elated in a subdued way. His eyes were wild, but he held himself very still, and the half-smile on his lips was almost sad. He seemed to be steeling himself for something. This was like waiting for the axe to fall.

"Just say it," Arthur told him. "Fuck, Merlin, be a man and say it."

"What do you mean?" Merlin asked, so innocently Arthur could’ve hit him. "Did someone tell you something?"

"I saw you. With that girl, on the battlements."

"Oh, the kissing," said Merlin light-heartedly, and chuckled. "Yeah, that wasn't what you think."

"Really," Arthur said, clenching his fists till his bones ached. He'd been hoping they could do it with some measure of dignity. A clean break, still keep their friendship. But no, this was going to be ugly and gut-wrenching, and they'd hate each other when it was over. "Okay, tell me what it was."

Merlin didn't answer. He simply stood there and smiled that horrible, brittle smile, and Arthur could take it no longer.

"Shall I tell you what I think?" Arthur said. "Now we know we can't break the spell. All I'll ever be is a convict without any power, no use to anybody. I can't help your people. So you want to move on."

"What?" Merlin flinched so hard the back of his head hit the door. "Arthur, no!"

"What then? Aren't you trying to tell me you're leaving me?"

Merlin took a few shaky steps forward. His eyes turned brighter, and Arthur realised they were wet with tears.

"I don't want to leave you," he said. "Arthur, you're all I want. I think... you're all I'll ever want. All I do is for you."

"Wow. You full-on snogged that bint - for me?"

Merlin's throat made a strange sound, as if he wanted to laugh but was holding it back out of fear he'd start crying instead. He walked up to Arthur, knelt on the floor by his feet and pressed his face against Arthur's thigh.

"I never want to leave you," he muttered, wrapping his arms around Arthur's knees.

Arthur knew exactly what he was supposed to say and do. This game Merlin was playing, this blatant emotional manipulation - he'd seen it many times, he took psychology and sociology, he could analyse this behaviour to pieces. Instead he put shaking hands in Merlin's hair and stroked soothingly.

"Okay," he said in a voice that felt barely his. "Okay, I forgive you. I had it coming for kissing Gwen, I know."

"No, moron," Merlin half-laughed, half-sobbed into his leg. "You know I don't believe in revenge."

"Okay. I get it, all those girls, all the adoration goes straight to your head, and you've never had an opportunity before. This is a whole new side to your sexuality, you need to get it out of your system - Merlin, for fuck's sake, I'm rationalising it all for you. Give me an inch here, give me something."

Merlin lifted his beautiful, tear-streaked face and gave him one of his huge warm smiles, and Arthur felt the rest of his anger melt away, against his better judgement.

"I'd give you anything," Merlin told him. "I'm yours. All of me. I'll be yours forever."

Arthur hauled him in his lap and kissed him furiously, wiping away all the traces of someone else's touch. Merlin was still wearing the bracelet the girl had put on him. Arthur hooked a finger under it and tried to rip it off, but Merlin wrenched his wrist away, at the same time leaning in for another kiss.

"Take it off," Arthur growled against his lips.

"No," Merlin said and licked into his mouth. Arthur knew he should be drawing a line right there. He didn't have to take it. But he wanted Merlin so desperately, and deep down he knew he'd gladly take Merlin any way he could have him.

Arthur let him keep the bracelet on. Merlin stripped naked, fast, yanking his shirts off over his head still buttoned. He stretched on the bed, beautiful, perfect, that scrap of leather across his wrist the only mark against his glowing skin. He pulled Arthur into his arms; they kissed, rutting jerkily against each other, till Arthur ached with want all over, and couldn't pull back enough to undress to get more skin, more contact.

"I want you to fuck me," Merlin said. His mouth was swollen, an obscene shade of red. "I want your cock, I want you to fuck me till I can't breathe. I want to still feel it tomorrow, you inside me."

"Why are you still crying?" Arthur asked, thumbing tears off his cheek. Merlin laughed hoarsely, pressed his face into Arthur's neck and ruthlessly sucked a line of love bites into his skin.

"I'm just that horny," he said. "Please."

Arthur wriggled out of his jeans and shifted on the bed to mouth at Merlin's cock. It felt like an eternity since he'd last had that; he licked around the head, remembering every line there, filling his nose with familiar scent. He pressed his lips to the softest skin at the tip and lapped up the drops beading there, swallowed hungrily, wanting the taste to last.

"Arthur," Merlin whined, writhing under him, eagerly spreading his thighs. Arthur slid his fingers down and stroked over the tight little hole, feeling it quiver under his touch.

"No lube," he remembered suddenly.

"I'll magic..."

"I'll just have to lick you open," Arthur grabbed his hip and easily flipped him over. Merlin flailed a little, laughing, and then choked on a moan as Arthur spread his arse cheeks and dived in.

He wasn't wasting time on finesse. Merlin's balls were tight and heavy as Arthur rolled them in one hand; he wasn't going to last. Arthur gave him a few firm, broad licks and speared his tongue in, jabbing it deeper and deeper into warm flesh, and Merlin's body opened up to him, shamelessly easily. Merlin was grabbing at the covers, moaning and muttering some garbled nonsense. Arthur slipped a pad of his thumb into the slick ring, just to hold him open as he licked in, trying to get him sopping wet and loose, and Merlin yelled into the pillow, shaking all over.

"Want more," he panted. "Now, fuck, now."

He swatted his hand through the air and reached back, grabbing for Arthur's cock. His palm was covered in something clear and slick, body-warm as he stroked it over Arthur's shaft.

"Haha, magic lube," said Arthur breathlessly and pushed him back into the pillows.

"Made it out of water," mumbled Merlin, lifting his arse up, wriggling it toward Arthur's cock. "Made water out of air... Fuck, come on, would you just..."

Arthur stretched over his back, pinning him to the bed, and slowly dragged his cockhead over the wet mess between Merlin's arse cheeks. He let it catch on the rim and dip inside just a little. Merlin's skin was fever-hot, his eyes dark and almost senseless.

"Pendragon, I'll fucking kill you," Merlin sobbed, clawing at Arthur's arms. "Now, before I come like this."

Arthur bit down on his lip and slowly sunk all the way in. They panted against each other, keeping still, both trying not to come on the spot; Arthur was willing his dick not to twitch, that alone could set him off. Merlin was grinning like a loon, curling his fingers together with Arthur's, rubbing his toes over the top of Arthur's foot.

"Yes," he sighed. "Wanted this for so long."

Arthur kissed his temple, trailed soft kisses over his cheekbone, licked awkwardly at the corner of his lips. Their mouths wouldn't quite fit together like that, Merlin's back to Arthur's front, and their breath gusted hotly on their cheeks as they messily chased each other's tongues.

"Come on," Merlin said again, urging Arthur with a hand on his hip. Arthur pushed in, deeper into him, and then couldn't stop or even slow down anymore, slamming mindlessly into the soft slick heat. He buried his face in Merlin's hair, then kneed his legs further apart to open him wider, so he could get closer, deeper in.

"Tell me if," Arthur muttered, feeling clumsy, lust-hazed, terrified of accidentally hurting him. Merlin grunted under him, arching into every thrust, his mouth slack and quivering. He was gorgeous like that, shamelessly and selfishly lost in sensation, flushed and undone and Arthur's to do whatever he wanted with him. Shivers of pleasure were rolling up Arthur's body, making his toes curl.

"Are you close?" he asked, licking sweat off Merlin's skinny back. Merlin whined helplessly, squeezing his hand.

"I want to come inside you," Arthur panted into his ear and pounded into him harder. "You'll be all filthy with it, so wet. And then I want you to come in my mouth."

"Yes, fuck," Merlin moaned and clamped down on him, squeezing so tight Arthur could barely move. Arthur was coming before he could take another breath, spurting hotly into Merlin's body. Before he was done, Merlin slipped free, and the last string of come landed across the back of his thighs. Merlin twisted around, smearing come everywhere. Arthur dived down, sucked Merlin's cock in his mouth, deep as he could, till it was bumping at the back of his throat, and slid three fingers at once in Merlin's open, wet hole. Merlin yelled something that could have been his name, and came, bucking wildly, fucking himself on Arthur's fingers.

Arthur was still swallowing the last of it, rolling it on his tongue, when Merlin kissed him hard, pushed him down and climbed on top.

"Let's fuck all night," he said, adorably determined. "I can make you hard with magic, as many times as you can take. Just tell me when you get sore."

"I think you'll get sore first," Arthur said, palming Merlin's sharp hipbones, and stroked his fingertips over Merlin's cock just to watch it instantly harden again under his touch.

"We'll see about that."

"I think I can be happy like this," Arthur said when they were sprawled side by side catching their breaths a few hours later. He didn't even feel tired, just loose-limbed, light, content. "I'll find something to do, I can advise you, make up strategies. Or, you know, whatever. If I'm with you, I think we'll be all right."

"It's not you, though," Merlin said, staring into the ceiling. "It's not who you're supposed to be."

"I'll adjust. You have your grand destiny, things are going to change, it's exciting times. I'll support you through that. My mum did nothing but help my dad with his career, it's a full time job if you want to do it right. Well, with you it's going to be constant overtime, because you're so clueless."

"Maybe my grand destiny is to help you," said Merlin.

"Merlin, we tried and we know we can't. We should work with what we have. Seriously, it's going to be great."

"Let's not talk about it right now," Merlin said, rolling into Arthur's arms again. "Let's just... be together."

He woke up when Merlin shifted against him and slid off the bed. It was already getting light, and Arthur watched through his eyelashes as Merlin tiptoed around the room, gathering his clothes.

"Where are you going?" Arthur asked. Merlin winced guiltily, sat on the bed and quickly finished dressing.

"I need to do this one thing," he said mysteriously. He bent down over Arthur's pillow and gave him a slow, painfully tender kiss. Then he pulled back and just looked at him, smiling shakily, as if he was trying to memorise every single line of Arthur's face.

"I don't want you to be sad," he said. "I need you to know that I want to do this, and that I'm happy."

"Merlin," Arthur said. "You're freaking me out a little."

Merlin sighed and kissed him again.

"Sleep," he said and pressed his fingers to Arthur's forehead.

Even in his dreams Arthur knew that something was wrong, but he couldn't claw his way back to consciousness for several hours. Finally the spell wore thin enough and he forced his eyes open, feeling groggy and nauseous with fear.

He threw his clothes on and ran out of the room, still fastening the buttons. He didn't know how to find Morgana in this castle, or even where Merlin's room was. He rushed back to the room where the priestesses saw them the other day, and found Laudine and Morgana there, going over some paperwork.

"Where is he, is he still here?" he asked without preamble. "He's going to do something stupid. We have to stop him."

"Arthur, stop flipping out," Morgana said, callously unconcerned. "He'll be back in a few days tops, you'll see."

"Where is he?"

"Emrys went to meet Nimueh and bargain with her for your sake," Laudine told him with a disapproving glance, as if she suspected he put Merlin up to it. "We told him he won't be able to find her. Her place of power is shielded by magic greater than his, by the Dark Lake itself. He won't even see the island. He'll be wading through the lake till he realises his folly, and then he'll return."

"You don't know him," Arthur said. "He's so boneheaded, he just might make it. And then he'll bargain - oh god, I know what he's going to offer her."

His legs went jelly-weak; he collapsed into the nearest chair, resisting the urge to scream in frustration.

"We have to stop him," he said again. "We need to intercept him before he gets there. Where is it?"

"Her island is in the middle of the Dark Lake," said Laudine. "Emrys is probably there already. He has travelling magic."

"It's in Cumbria," Morgana supplied. "Seriously, Arthur, relax. It's completely impossible. And even if he finds her, it's not like she can harm him. She can't, right?"

Laudine smiled at her indulgently, like a teacher at her favourite pupil.

"No, child," she said. "Now that Emrys knows the extent of his powers nobody can do anything to him, unless he allows them to."

Arthur thought back to Merlin's parting words and resolutely got up from his chair.

"Right," he said. "I'm off to Cumbria. Which lake is the dark one?"

Merlin had left him all the money he'd made at Gwen's shelter, and his silly cashmere scarf. It was folded neatly at the foot of the bed where they'd spent the night. It was, unmistakably, a farewell gift.

Arthur shoved it into his coat pocket along with the money, and let himself fantasise about strangling Merlin with it. After he'd saved him from the evil high priestess, of course.

The women tried to stop him. He understood that they were mostly worried that he'd be arrested on the way, and spill all their secrets under interrogation. He argued, swore some ridiculous oaths, and then had a brilliant idea and went to find Sophia.

"Glamour," he said and snapped his fingers at her with petty satisfaction. "You wanted to serve Emrys, this is for him. Glamour me so the police won't see me, like your father did in Hyde Park."

"It will only keep for about two hours," she said, not even throwing a tantrum.

"Two hours will do it," he said, brandishing the train schedules Morgana reluctantly gave him. "You'll drive me to the station in your swish van. I just need to make it through the change in Crewe. Security isn't as tight in the lakes, and I need to be visible to get a taxi there, anyway. Okay, now go and clear me to leave, I think I'll yell at them if I have to talk to them again."

He was hanging around at the gates, waiting for the priestesses to let him out, when a skinny dark-haired girl grabbed his sleeve and pulled him into the shadows behind the guard tower.

"You," he said. "Did you enjoy your celebrity snog? I know, Emrys, quite a notch on your pants."

"Just listen," she said. "They think he won't make it to the island; well, he will. He convinced me - god, I don't even know how!"

"I know how, I saw you two," said Arthur sullenly. "What did you do?"

"I gave him a guiding spell," she said. "I was born on the Dark Lake, its power is in my blood. With my magic aiding his, Merlin can do it."

"Merlin, huh," Arthur said. "Not Emrys. You really like him, don't you?"

"Yes. I care about him," she said challengingly. "He asked me not to tell you any of this. He didn't want you to worry, or risk yourself trying to stop him. But I don't really care what happens to you. If you think you can help him I'll give you the power to find him even across the Dark Lake."

"Do it," he said instantly. She fished a thin strip of leather out of a pouch on her belt and paused, thinking.

"It needs to bind to your magic, but you don't have any," she said. "Do you have something of his?"

He pulled the scarf out of his pocket and handed it to her. She twisted it together with the leather string and tightly wrapped it around his wrist.

"Don't take it off till you find him," she said. "Now kiss me."

"Look," he said. "No offence. First of all, you know I'm taken. And Merlin isn't just my boyfriend, he's also my friend, so whatever it is between the two of you..."

"It's for the spell, you prick," she hissed and slung her arms around his neck.

Her lips were cool and tasted of water, slow currents, darkness. For a moment he felt like he'd drown in it, but she kept him afloat. He clung to her, drinking air from her mouth, letting his body flow against hers, falling deeper and deeper into the undertow.

"Um," he said once they surfaced together and were on solid ground again. "That was. Right. Thanks. What's your name?"

"Freya," she said. "Just keep him safe, it's all I want."

His destination was two hundred miles due North as the crow flies. It was only a little bit further than the distance they'd covered two days ago, holding hands, carried by Merlin's travelling magic. Arthur sat in the first class car, because he thought he'd stand out more in standard, and stared down at Merlin's scarf wrapped around his wrist.

He knew he was hours too late. But he wasn't going to panic and think the worst, not till he saw Merlin's body with his own eyes.

He had to change trains; he stood on the platform, waiting, and not a single eye lingered on him. Men and women looked right through him, and nobody, from teenage girls to well-groomed middle aged businessmen, showed a spark of interest or appreciation, or even acknowledged his existence. He was invisible, immaterial to everyone, he was a ghost.

Then he was on the other train, watching as the trees blurred past and rows of red brick houses were left behind, replaced by picturesque grey slate buildings. As they passed towns, he watched people bustle about, moving between shops and coffee houses, and once again felt that none of it was real, just a picture on the glass of the window. It was all insubstantial, just as he was; the only real thing in his mind was the faraway dark lake and the invisible island on it, and stupid brave Merlin bargaining his life away.

He got a taxi from the railway station and made the driver slowly circle the right lake by the serpentine road. There were several islands, just small clumps of land rising from the water, crowded by lush trees. The trees were too big for the islands, overhanging them in all directions, their branches spread over the lake's surface.

He felt the binding on his wrist tighten and called out for the driver to stop.

"There's nothing here," the man said. "Two miles to the next pub."

"It's okay, my boyfriend is waiting for me here, we're," he almost laughed at the ridiculousness of his lines. "We're going to have a secluded picnic."

He got out and cut straight to the water, sliding off the steep hillside, staining his clothes with grass and mud. The driver was still watching him from the window, not setting off; he probably suspected Arthur was planning to top himself. Arthur waved at him reassuringly and scaled down, grabbing at stones and tree roots, and soon could no longer see the road and the car.

At the water’s edge he took off his shoes and his coat and stuck them in low tree branches. The lake wasn't that wide; he could easily swim across. He waded in, slipping on the mud and sharp stones. The water was less chilly than he’d expected, but still made his breath catch in his lungs. He aimed at the centre of the lake and swam, as fast as he could, hoping to keep himself warm.

The lake was almost still. He felt no undercurrents, only tiny wind ripples splashing at his face as he moved further into the open water. His jeans were dragging him back, but he couldn't lose them because he was still going commando and didn't want to shake his cold-shrunken cock at the evil priestess. He swam, putting all his strength into every stroke, till the ache in his arms felt like comforting warmth.

It was impossibly quiet. The lake sat between the mountains, and every sound should be echoing in this bowl, every passing car should be heard for miles. But all he could hear was water splashing against his skin, and his own heavy breathing. When he slowed down to check his direction, he couldn't see the road. He knew where it was supposed to be, it crossed the side of the mountain in several places, but it just wasn't there anymore. The water around him was dark, black when he looked down, painting his arms under the surface in ghostly blue-green hues.

He was now in the centre of the lake, far from the other islands, in the middle of a long stretch of empty water. He did a slow wide circle, trying to notice some pattern in the shape of the small waves, in the light and shadows dancing on the lake's surface. Anything that could tell him where the hidden island might be.

His teeth had already started rattling in his mouth, but he still had plenty of time before he'd get too cold to keep himself afloat. Merlin's scarf on his wrist was now a heavy soggy clump, the ends of it trailed in the water, about to unravel. Arthur brought it to his mouth and tightened the sodden knots with his teeth. The lake water left a warm, bitter taste on his tongue, nothing like Freya's lips. But as he swallowed it, suddenly thirsty, he heard something. It was the same ethereal whisper, like the sound of waves breaking on a shore, that had flitted through his head as she kissed him.

He twisted around, and a wet tree branch slapped him across the face. He was near the island, treading water just yards from solid ground. He lunged for it, afraid that it might disappear again, and stepped under the trees.

His legs were numb and lead-heavy, but he didn't have to walk far. The island was tiny, thirty yards across, if that. Its edge was circled by a line of small young trees, and in the middle of it stood an old, tall oak. The green canopy of its branches spread over most of the island, shutting out rain and sunlight. The ground under them was dry and bare. There was no grass, only the gnarled roots of the great tree worming in and out of the ground. Under the tree stood a woman in a tattered red dress. She was stroking the bark with her white hands, whispering spells into it.

"Hello, Arthur," she said as he approached. Her eyes, when she smiled at him, were a shocking shade of blue. "My, how you've grown."

Next part

Date: 2010-09-24 04:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] brunettepet.livejournal.com
The machinations in the women's prison must feel like poetic justice for these hounded women and I do like that they've been able to wrest their control back, but I'm with Arthur about the slavery. It's wrong. Full stop. Sophia is a sociopath. I've only read half of the chapter and have to bail for the weekend. I'm looking forward to finishing it. This story is gripping.

Date: 2010-09-25 03:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] new-kate.livejournal.com
Thank you! Oh yeah, Sophia is totally a sociopath - I've never decided if she's human or sidhe in this fic, since it didn't really matter, but yeah she's not very human psyche-wise. I like to think the sorceresses would have come up with a better solution to their situation pretty soon even without - that thing that happens in next chapters :D I hope you enjoy the rest!

Date: 2010-09-25 03:16 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] twilighthdfan.livejournal.com
Awesome chapter. Loved how Merlin went because he loves Arthur enough to give him everything he wants. And how Arthur loves Merlin enough to go after him and stop his stupid plan.

LOL. They're exactly the same.

And, ooh, Arthur and Nimueh meeting. Yay!

*off to read the next chapter*

Date: 2010-09-25 03:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] new-kate.livejournal.com
Thank you! Oh yeah the boys are two sides of the same coin and all that. I am so sappy about my ship!

Date: 2010-09-27 01:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] brunettepet.livejournal.com
There was such desperation in the lovemaking, I could tell Merlin had some dangerous plan up his sleeve. I was not disappointed. Arthur getting the women to help him was well drawn, especially discovering what Freya and Merlin were really up to with that kissing. The description of the spell was excellent.

In all the tension and drama, this made me laugh: His jeans were dragging him back, but he couldn't lose them because he was still going commando and didn't want to shake his cold-shrunken cock at the evil priestess. No, I don't think Nimueh would appreciate the view!

Date: 2010-09-29 09:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] new-kate.livejournal.com
Aw aw thank you! I was so nervous about piling up unexplained Merlin behaviour and I'm very glad to know that it worked.

Your feedback is like the best kind of chocolate cake for the ficwriter's soul, I'm sure you've heard that many times before but I have to say it again. Thank you so much.

Date: 2010-09-27 08:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] radio-silent.livejournal.com
"Wow, it's like we're in the Wizard of Oz," Merlin told Arthur, shamelessly enjoying the attention. "We've made it to the castle, and now - a spa day!"
...I actually thought this too. XD

I'm so excited to read the end of this, though I might not finish it at once. So I thought I'd leave at least one comment right now and let you know. : )

Date: 2010-09-29 09:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] new-kate.livejournal.com
Thank you! Oh, I actually saw Wizard of Oz for the first time ever while I was writing this and I just had to somehow work in a line "We're not in Cumbria anymore". So happy you're enjoying this!

Date: 2010-10-09 05:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] absynthedrinker.livejournal.com
Her lips were cool and tasted of water, slow currents, darkness. For a moment he felt like he'd drown in it, but she kept him afloat. He clung to her, drinking air from her mouth, letting his body flow against hers, falling deeper and deeper into the undertow. Wow!

That is about as good as it gets.


Date: 2010-10-12 08:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] new-kate.livejournal.com
YAY!! :D Thank you so much!



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